Flexit lets you pay for gym time on demand

A new company called Flexit lets you pay for gym time by the minute, allowing you to walk into a nearby gym when you’re traveling, for example, and slam out thirty minutes of sweet glute action before dinner. The service is like Uber for gyms in that you only pay for the time you are inside the gym and you don’t need to pay monthly fees or a flat rate per visit.

Created by Michael Rojas, the co-CEO of Iron Grip Barbell Company, the service already has 400 gyms in the United States and plans to expand over the next year. They’ve raised $750,000 in notes.

The company launched today.

“FlexIt’s corporate team has superior industry reach, best-in-class technology and a concept unlike that of its competition,” said CEO Austin Cohen. “FlexIt’s corporate team has deep industry experience in fitness sales and marketing, fitness club ownership, and early-stage venture and venture capital aspects of the business. It’s relationships with C-level leaders at the largest gym chains in the country provide FlexIt with industry insights and access to best position it for success. These relationships have resulted in FlexIt having on-boarded a meaningful club base at a faster rate than any of the competition.”

The fact that Rojas has been selling barbells to gyms for 26 years definitely helped them scale up and the company has gyms in New York, DC, New Jersey, and Illinois as well as three other markets. They are launching an eighth market in two weeks.

Rojas has found that most modern gyms are amenable to the idea and they’re offering everything from classes to personal training via the app. Because it is paid by the minute they also get interesting new data that traditional gym membership plans don’t offer.

“Consumers seek more choice and control over how, when and where they consume, FlexIt is the logical solution to this pain point in the fitness space,” he said.

Apple is bringing iTunes content to Samsung’s Smart TVs

Ahead of Apple’s plans to introduce its own streaming service this year, the company has partnered with Samsung to allow iTunes content to be accessible on Samsung Smart TVs. Samsung announced this morning that it will offer access to iTunes Movies and TV shows through a new “iTunes Movies and TV” app on its Smart TVs across 100 countries, and it will offer AirPlay 2 support on its Smart TVs in 190 countries worldwide.

Samsung is the first TV maker to have direct access to iTunes content though this new “iTunes Movies and TV” app, but this is not the first time that iTunes content has been accessible outside of Apple’s own ecosystem.

iTunes content is already accessible today through the third-party Movies Anywhere application, alongside purchases from Prime Video, Google Play, Microsoft Movies & TV, Vudu, and others. That app currently works on a number of streaming media devices, like Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV and others, but not yet on Samsung Smart TVs. In addition, Apple Music can today be streamed on Android devices and iTunes is available on Windows PCs. 

According to Samsung, Apple’s new “iTunes Movies and TV Shows” app will allow Samsung Smart TV owners to browse their existing iTunes library and the iTunes store, where they can purchase and rent hundreds of thousands of movies and TV episodes, including a large selection of 4K HDR titles. The movies and TV shows will also work with Samsung Smart TV features, like the Universal Guide, the new Bixby, and Search.

Meanwhile, Samsung is making AirPlay 2 support available on a range of Smart TVs, including QLED 4K and 8K TVs, The Frame and Serif lifestyle TVs, as well as other Samsung UHD and HD models. This will allow TV owners to play videos, photos, music, podcasts, and more on their TV.

“We look forward to bringing the iTunes and AirPlay 2 experience to even more customers around the world through Samsung Smart TVs, so iPhone, iPad and Mac users have yet another way to enjoy all their favorite content on the biggest screen in their home,” said Eddy Cue, senior vice president of Internet Software and Services at Apple, in a statement about the launch.

Given Apple’s plans to launch its own streaming service in 2019 – presumably through its existing iTunes app – it makes sense that Apple would make that app available on more devices in the living room, where it doesn’t have as much of a presence thanks to Apple TV’s small footprint.

The new app and AirPlay 2 will be offered on 2019 Samsung Smart TV models this spring. Samsung says. 2018 Samsung Smart TVs will receive a firmware update to enable access.

 

 

Security researchers find over a dozen iPhone apps linked to Golduck malware

Security researchers say they’ve found more than a dozen iPhone apps covertly communicating with a server associated with Golduck, a historically Android-focused malware that infects popular classic game apps.

The malware has been known about for over a year, after it was first discovered by Appthority infecting classic and retro games on Google Play, by embedding backdoor code that allowed malicious payloads to be silently pushed to the device. At the time, more than 10 million users were affected by the malware, allowing hackers to run malicious commands at the highest privileges, like sending premium SMS messages from a victim’s phone to make money.

Now, the researchers say iPhone apps linked to the malware could also present a risk.

Wandera, an enterprise security firm, said it found 14 apps — all retro-style games — that were communicating with the same command and control server used by the Golduck malware.

“The [Golduck] domain was on a watchlist we established due to its use in distributing a specific strain of Android malware in the past,” said Michael Covington, Wandera’s vice-president of product. “When we started seeing communication between iOS devices and the known malware domain, we investigated further.”

The apps include: Commando Metal: Classic ContraSuper Pentron Adventure: Super HardClassic Tank vs Super BomberSuper Adventure of MaritronRoy Adventure Troll GameTrap Dungeons: Super AdventureBounce Classic LegendBlock GameClassic Bomber: Super LegendBrain It On: Stickman PhysicsBomber Game: Classic BombermanClassic Brick – Retro BlockThe Climber Brick, and Chicken Shoot Galaxy Invaders.

According to the researchers, what they saw so far seems relatively benign — the command and control server simply pushes a list of icons in a pocket of ad space in the upper-right corner of the app. When the user opens the game, the server tells the app which icons and links it should serve to the user. They did, however, see the apps sending IP address data — and, in some cases, location data — back to the Golduck command and control server. TechCrunch verified their claims, running the apps on a clean iPhone through a proxy, allowing us to see where the data goes. Based on what we saw, the app tells the malicious Golduck server what app, version, device type, and the IP address of the device — including how many ads were displayed on the phone.

As of now, the researchers say that the apps are packed with ads — likely as a way to make a quick buck. But they expressed concern that the communication between the app and the known-to-be-malicious server could open up the app — and the device — to malicious commands down the line.

“The apps themselves are technically not compromised; while they do not contain any malicious code, the backdoor they open presents a risk for exposure that our customers do not want to take.

“A hacker could easily use the secondary advertisement space to display a link that redirects the user and dupes them into installing a provisioning profile or a new certificate that ultimately allows for a more malicious app to be installed,” said the researchers.

One of the iPhone apps, “Classic Bomber,” which was spotted communicating with a malicious command and control server. It’s since been pulled from the U.S. store. (Screenshot: TechCrunch)

That could be said for any game or app, regardless of device maker or software. But the connection to a known malicious server isn’t a good look. Covington said that the company has “observed malicious content being shared from the server,” but that it wasn’t related to the games.

The implication is that if the server is sending malicious payloads to Android users, iPhone users could be next.

TechCrunch sent the list of apps to data insights firm Sensor Tower, which estimated that the 14 apps had been installed close to one million times since they were released — excluding repeated downloads or installs across different devices.

When we tried contacting the app makers, many of the App Store links pointed to dead links or to pages with boilerplate privacy policies but no contact information. The registrant on the Golduck domain appears to be fake, along with other domains associated with Golduck, which often have different names and email addresses.

Apple did not comment when reached prior to publication. The apps are appear to still be downloadable from the App Store, but all now say they are “not currently available in the U.S. store.”

Apple’s app stores may have a better rap than Google’s, which every once in a while lets malicious apps slip through the net. In reality, neither store is perfect. Earlier this year, security researchers found a top-tier app in the Mac App Store that was collecting users’ browsing history without permission, and dozens of iPhone apps that were sending user location data to advertisers without explicitly asking first.

For the average user, malicious apps remain the largest and most common threat to mobile users — even with locked down device software and the extensive vetting of apps.

If there’s one lesson, now and always: don’t download what you don’t need, or can’t trust.

Taylor Swift’s mobile app, The Swift Life, is the latest celebrity app to shutter

Taylor Swift’s “Reputation” era, one characterized by military jackets, black sequins and snarls, is coming to a close and, apparently, that means her one-year-old mobile app is too.

The Swift Life, a gamified app developed in partnership with freemium mobile games maker Glu Mobile, announced this week that it would shut down effective February 1. Users of the app have until that date to spend any of their virtual currency, which they had to accumulate in order to purchase Taymojis and access exclusive content.

Glu is a formerly venture-backed business behind a number of celebrity-branded apps that help the A-listers find additional profit off their fan base. It’s responsible for “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood,” “Britney Spears: American Dream,” “Katy Perry Pop” and “Nicki Minaj: The Empire.” Kim Kardashian’s app was reportedly the biggest success for Glu and at one point was expected to rake in more than $200 million in lifetime revenue. Other attempts by Glu to mimic Kim’s success failed, however.

Glu has already fallen on hard times, with reports indicating that a company restructure in 2017 led to the loss of at least 100 employees. Now it’s mourning the loss of two of its largest celebrity app plays, signaling what could be a dire future for the company. We reached out to Glu for comment.

There are no available Swift Life revenue figures, but its short lifespan coupled with fan complaints suggest it wasn’t the moneymaker Glu and Swift’s camp hoped for. The app was designed to provide Swift yet another avenue to intimately converse with fans, something she’s become known for in her more than 10-year career. Swift often chats directly with fans on Tumblr, views some of her 114 million Instagram followers stories and, offline, she invites select groups of fans into her home for album listening parties. An app where she could interact with and provide her biggest of fans unique material made sense.

Until all hell broke loose.

After reportedly soaring in its App Store debut, The Swift Life swiftly turned into a battleground for her politically opposing fans: “Less than 48 hours after launching, Taylor Swift’s new app has become plagued with Trump-loving trolls and homophobic comments,” Taylor Lorenz wrote for The Daily Beast in December 2017, just days after the app’s release.

What followed was an eruption of tweets and Reddit posts denouncing the app and its inability to prevent hate from spreading like wildfire across what was meant to be a wholesome, affectionate space for Swifites — on brand with Swift’s mostly squeaky clean image. It’s a wonder the app wasn’t shut down immediately.

Instead, the singer continued to earn money off the app, while some users complained an unannounced moderator was coming in and deleting certain posts. Simple fixes could have improved the user experience, and more access to Swift, something users were promised, would have bandaged the wound.

This week’s announcement cited the end of the Reputation era as the reason for the app’s shut down, but the reality is it failed to meet user expectations and prevent combative behavior.

The demise of Swift’s app, as well as Kim, Kourtney, Khloe and Kylie’s apps which will also cease to exist in 2019, can only mean one thing: “We are mourning the end of the golden age of the celebrity app,” writes Vox’s Kaitlyn Tiffany.

In the age of Instagram, consumers, even Swift’s biggest fans — and she does have some very big fans — don’t need yet another app to suck up their time and money. When it comes to the Kardashian family, who have made themselves more accessible to their fans via social media and their reality television show than has ever been possible in the past, an app touting “exclusive content” seems especially lacking in credibility.

Sure, several other celebrity-promoted apps remain, but if Swift and Kim Kardashian, who have more than 230 million Instagram followers between them, can’t generate sticky users then who can?

Sorry Tom Hanks, Demi Lovato, Shakira, Chelsea Handler and other celebs looking to capitalize on their tech-enabled fans. The future of your apps isn’t bright.

Engineers can now reverse-engineer 3D models

A system that uses a technique called constructive solid geometry (CSG) is allowing MIT researchers to deconstruct objects and turn them into 3D models, thereby allowing them to reverse-engineer complex things.

The system appeared in a paper entitled “InverseCSG: Automatic Conversion of 3D Models to CSG Trees” by Tao Du, Jeevana Priya Inala, Yewen Pu, Andrew Spielberg, Adriana Schulz, Daniela Rus, Armando Solar-Lezama, and Wojciech Matusik.

“At a high level, the problem is reverse engineering a triangle mesh into a simple tree. Ideally, if you want to customize an object, it would be best to have access to the original shapes — what their dimensions are and how they’re combined. But once you combine everything into a triangle mesh, you have nothing but a list of triangles to work with, and that information is lost,” said Tao Du to 3DPrintingIndustry. “Once we recover the metadata, it’s easier for other people to modify designs.”

The process cuts objects into simple solids that can then be added together to create complex objects. Because 3D scanning is imperfect, the creation of mesh models of various objects rarely leads to a perfect copy of the original. Using this technique, individual parts are cut away, analyzed and reassembled, allowing for a more precise scan.

“Further, we demonstrated the robustness of our algorithm by solving examples not describable by our grammar. Finally, since our method returns parameterized CSG programs, it provides a powerful means for end-users to edit and understand the structure of 3D meshes,” said Du.

The system detects primitive shapes and then modifies them. This allows it to recreate almost any object with far better accuracy than in previous versions of the software. It’s a surprisingly cool way to begin hacking hardware in order to understand it’s shape, volume and stability.

TikTok’s quietly launched ‘Lite’ app has reached over 12 million downloads since August

Short-form video app TikTok has been growing in popularity across international markets, including in the U.S. where a merger with Musical.ly has seen the app topping the App Store charts. Facebook and Snapchat have been hastily trying to copy TikTok’s features as a result. A part of TikTok’s ambitious global expansion plan has been its more recent targeting of emerging markets — like India and Indonesia — where the company’s quietly launched “TikTok Lite” app has been gaining ground in the latter half of 2018.

TikTok hasn’t yet made much fuss over its Lite version, which actually consists of two separate apps.

The first was launched on August 6, 2018 in Thailand, but is now available across other primarily Asian markets, including Indonesia, where it’s most popular, as well as Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

This version of TikTok Lite has grown to 5 million installs since its August debut. (It’s actually written with a lowercase “l” in “Lite” in the Play store, which is how you can tell the difference between this and the other app.)

This version was also briefly live in India, Brazil and Russia, but now these countries are served by a separate Lite app (written as “Lite” with an uppercase “L”), which launched on November 1, 2018.

This second version of TikTok Lite has now become the larger of the two, thanks to India. It has around 7.1 million total downloads, according to Sensor Tower data.

It has also now been installed across 15 additional non-Asian countries, including Egypt, Brazil, Algeria, Tunisia, Russia, Ecuador, South Africa, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Kenya, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nigeria, Angola and Ghana.

Combined, the two TikTok Lite apps have gained more than 12 million downloads in around six months’ time, TechCrunch confirmed with Sensor Tower.

However, TikTok Lite is not being heavily promoted at this time — especially when compared with the outsize marketing that TikTok’s flagship app has been seeing as of late.

This advertising is courtesy of TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, which has had an infusion of billions in outside capital recently. The company is valued at $78 billion, as of October.

And it’s spending, apparently:

E.g.:

Sensor Tower found that more than half of TikTok Lite’s downloads came over the past month, following TikTok Lite’s return to India. Combined, the two Lite apps’ downloads reached around 6.7 million in December, which was a 158 percent increase over November’s 2.6 million installs, it said.

Despite TikTok Lite’s growth, 12 million+ downloads is only a drop in the bucket when it comes to TikTok’s larger user base. This represents only 4.5 percent of TikTok’s downloads on Google Play since August 2018, and only about 3.6 percent of all TikTok downloads since then across both the iOS and Google Play app stores combined.

To date, TikTok’s main app has been downloaded more than 887 million times on Google Play. That doesn’t count the downloads from the Chinese version called Douyin, which is found on third-party Android app stores. That means TikTok’s true install base is even bigger.

ByteDance itself had publicly said last July the TikTok user base had grown to 500 million+ monthly active users — a way of counting who’s regularly using the app instead of just installing it on their phone.

Given that Facebook Lite grew to 200 million users in less than two years‘ time, it seems like a “Lite” version of TikTok, now one of the world’s biggest apps, could be doing a bit better than 12 million installs over a six-month period.

The problem seems to stem from a variety of factors, including how TikTok Lite is marketed in the Play Store. The app uses screenshots and a description that make it seem like it’s just another version of TikTok. But according to user reviews, people were disappointed to find it’s a consumption-only app. Many have left reviews complaining about how they can’t make videos. They call it “fake” and “bad” as a result.

TikTok would do better to clarify how its Lite version is different, to eliminate this confusion.

It’s common for major tech companies to offer a “lighter” version of their app for emerging markets where low bandwidth is a concern. These apps tend to be smaller in size, more performant and sometimes either have reduced capabilities or special features aimed at low-bandwidth users.

Google, for example, has a suite of light apps — the “Go” edition apps — like Gmail Go, YouTube Go, Files Go, Google Go, Google Maps Go and Google Assistant Go. Uber now offers Uber Lite. Facebook operates apps like Facebook Lite, Messenger Lite and Instagram Lite — the latter which launched just ahead of TikTok Lite, in fact.

Like most “Lite” apps, TikTok Lite clocks in at a smaller size — it’s only 10MB to 11MB (depending on the version) versus the much larger 71MB of TikTok’s main app.

A rep for TikTok confirmed the company is now offering a Lite version in some markets so users can choose a smaller app if they have concerns around data or the storage space on their phone. No other information about the Lite versions or strategy was provided.

So far, ByteDance’s efforts around TikTok Lite seem more experimental, given it hasn’t put up a proper description on Google Play, runs two separate Lite versions and had offered the app in some markets briefly, pulled out, then returned with another version. It will be interesting to see what TikTok Lite becomes when it gets the sort of attention that the main TikTok app is receiving today.

Huawei reportedly punishes staff for New Year’s Eve tweet sent from an iPhone

As predicted, Twitter’s subtle new feature showing which clients tweets are sent from is already embarrassing brands.

Following on from a Korean boyband sponsored by LG and Apple’s own Music staff, Huawei is the latest to be embarrassed after it sent a New Year’s Eve message using an iPhone.

A since-deleted message included the embarrassing tell-tale detail: “Twitter for iPhone” indicating that the Huawei account had tweeted from an iPhone. The tweet was replaced by another sent from Twitter Media Studio client, which is developed for brands and advertisers and isn’t a fierce rival’s smartphone, but the damage was done.

The internet being the internet, the gaffe was noticed and preserved by many keen people who were to point out the contradiction. The mistake also gained lots of attention on Chinese social network Weibo.

Embarrassed by the episode, the Chinese smartphone firm has slapped those responsible with a fine.

That’s according to Reuters, which got its hands on an internal memo which reveals that two employees responsible have had their salaries reduced by 5,000 yuan, that’s around $730. In addition, one of the pair — reportedly Huawei’s digital marketing director — will have their income “frozen” for a year. While we don’t know their full salary packages and a $730 drop may be less than the cost of an iPhone, it is still bound to sting.

Worst of all, perhaps, it seems that they were not directly at fault for the mistake, which Huawei senior VP Chen Lifang said had “caused damage to the Huawei brand.”

The incident, Reuters reports, was due an error by an agency hired by Huawei:

The mistake occurred when outsourced social media handler Sapient experienced “VPN problems” with a desktop computer so used an iPhone with a roaming SIM card in order to send the message on time at midnight, Huawei said in the memo.

The irony here is that Apple’s near-blanket ban on VPN apps means it would probably have been easier to get access to Twitter using an Android phone. Instead, the agency apparently went to the trouble of acquiring a Hong Kong-based SIM card in order to hop over the Great Firewall and send this ultimately ill-fated missive.

It’s fun to joke about consumer companies relying on their archrivals, but the incident comes at a particularly challenging time for Huawei.

The company’s CFO is currently on bail in Canada where she awaits extradition to the U.S. on charges of fraud that could see her jailed for up to 30 years. But its core business is also under pressure.

Huawei may be best-known for its smartphone business, which ranked second in Q3 2018 with 14.6 market share according to IDC, but its telecom equipment unit has always been its biggest seller and now its future is uncertain. Intelligence leaders from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S — the so-called ‘Five Eyes’ — are reported to have agreed to a ban on all equipment from Huawei and fellow Chinese firm ZTE, and that’s something that allies such as Japan appear to be joining in on.

Apple’s App Store pulled in $1.22B over the holidays plus a record $322M on New Year’s

Apple today is sharing some good news in the wake of yesterday’s reveal of a significant, market-moving cut to its revenue forecast, attributed to declining iPhone sales in China’s slowing economy. The company says its App Store, at least, was having a good holiday. This year, customers spent $1.22 billion during the 2018 holiday season and broke a new single-day record on New Year’s Day.

The $1.22 billion in App Store spending occurred between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, Apple said. This is typically the peak season for App Store consumer spend, as customers load up new iPhones and iPads with apps, and use their App Store Gift Cards to buy paid apps and games.

Apple also said customers spent over $322 million on New Year’s Day 2019, which set a new record for single-day spend.

Over the holidays, games and self-care apps were the most popular categories, with Fortnite and PUBG among the most downloaded games, along with Brawl Stars, Asphalt 9 and Monster Strike, Apple said.

Meanwhile, as the New Year kicks off, customers are now turning to health and fitness apps, educational apps, and productivity apps – likely to some extent inspired by their New Year’s Resolutions. The apps leading these categories include 1Password, Sweat, and Luminosity.

Last year, Apple had also announced a record-breaking holiday season, with $890 million spent during the week of Christmas Eve and $300 milion on New Year’s Day 2018.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, in his letter yesterday, signaled that the App Store remains one of the bright spots in the company’s “Services” category, even as he delivered the crushing news of a slowdown in iPhone sales.

The company said it is now expecting $84 billion in the quarter that ended Saturday, down from its earlier estimate of $89 billion to $93 billion. However, “Services” generated over $10.8 billion in revenue during the quarter, with each geography hitting a new quarterly record. The company noted, too, it’s still on track to achieve its goal of doubling the size of this business from 2016 to 2020.

Today, Apple said the “Services” business set all-time records beyond the App Store in Apple Music, Cloud Services, App Pay, and the App Store’s search ad business.

A record-breaking end of the year for the App Store shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that the overall app economy is continuing to grow, with mobile games still driving revenues and the subscription app business also making gains. App Annie recently predicted app stores will surpass $122 billion globally in 2019, including the App Store, Google Play, and third-party Android app stores in China, combined.

Prior to Apple’s report, app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower had last week noted that the U.S. App Store broke spending records on Christmas, with a record of $54 million on that day alone – up 31 percent over the year before. It had also passed the $52 million spent on Black Friday 2018, the firm said.

Apple typically releases an App Store holiday report at this time of the year, so its release today isn’t necessarily an attempt to create good press a time when its stock is crashing. But given Apple’s usual attempts at spin, it may be seen that way.

The NFL launches its first standalone voice app with “A Rookie’s Guide to the NFL” for Alexa

The NFL is giving voice assistants a go. Earlier this year, the organization had tested the waters with the launch of a flash briefing called “NFL in :60,” but today the company is debuting its first standalone voice-enabled app. The new Alexa skill, “A Rookie’s Guide to the NFL,” is designed to serve as companion that guides fans through the 2019 NFL playoffs and postseason, the organization says.

The skill itself was built in-house over the past several months by the NFL’s Digital Lab, an area within the league’s media group that develops tech products and features to advance the fan experience. Voice technology is currently an ongoing area of focus for this group.

And today’s launch of the “A Rookie’s Guide to the NFL” voice skill for Alexa is only the first phase of the NFL’s larger voice strategy, the league notes.

Fans who enable the skill will have access to over 1,000 football and NFL-related terms, across areas like the rules, positions, formations, equipment, players and key personnel. This aspect of the skill is aimed more at getting newcomers up to speed with football jargon, like “pistol,” “screen pass,” “nickel,” and other terms.

Fans can also ask for general information about the players, like “Who is Tom Brady?” or “Where did Lamar Jackson go to college?” or “How tall is Russell Wilson?,” for example. And they can ask for game schedules, matchups, game times, TV network, scores, as well as about the stadiums, which teams are in a given conference or division, who the head coaches are, and much more.

The skill is able to recall Super Bowl history, too, offering the score, location, and date of any of the past 52 Super Bowls, as well as the Super Bowl MVP and the halftime act from every game.

When responding to questions, the skill can return answers in a variety of forms including both as short and longer (“Go Long”) definitions, or as videos and images on Alexa devices with screens.

The skill additionally includes a five-minute podcast called “Game Plan” that preps fans for each round of the playoffs and the Super Bowl. The audio program is hosted by former New York Giants Defensive End Osi Umenyiora and other NFL talent. The game previews will offer player and coach audio, key stats, and audio from a great historical play, among other things.

The podcast will add new episodes every Monday during the postseason through the Super Bowl, the NFL says.

The previously launched NFL flash briefing is now integrated as a part of this skill, and is updated multiple times per day with news from the NFL Network’s news desk. To access it from the skill, fans can just say, “give me the news.”

This isn’t the first time that Alexa has been able to offer NFL news and information to fans, however.

Last fall, an Alexa update allowed the smart assistant to answer questions about the major NFL teams. Alexa can also answer sports trivia, give predictions on games, provide updates on team transactions and injuries, recap NFL games, and more.

The Alexa skill store is also filled with a number of unofficial third-party skills, like trivia apps, quizzes, flash cards, Q&A apps, news readers, countdowns, and more.

It seems the NFL now wants to more directly own that customer experience, rather than leaving it up to Alexa or other developers to handle.

The NFL says the new skill is launching today, January 3, but it’s not yet showing in U.S. Alexa Skill Store. The organization tells us the skill has rolled out to the U.K. and other countries, and it still anticipates a U.S. launch today.

Image credit: NFL via NFL.com/voice

 

The number of Alexa skills in the U.S. more than doubled in 2018

Amazon Alexa had a good year as a developer platform – at least in terms of the number of voice apps being built for Alexa, if not yet the monetization of those apps. According to new data published today by Voicebot, the number of Amazon Alexa skills in the U.S. more than doubled over 2018, while the number of skills grew by 233 percent and 152 percent in Alexa’s two other top markets, the U.K. and Germany, respectively.

Amazon began the year with 25,784 Alexa skills in the U.S., which grew to 56,750 skills by the end of 2018, said Voicebot. That represents 120 percent growth, which is down from the 266 percent growth seen the year prior – but still shows continued developer interest in the Alexa platform.

At this rate of growth, that means developers were publishing an average of around 85 skills per day in 2018.

Voicebot has its own method for tracking skill counts, so these are not Amazon’s own numbers, we should note. However, Amazon itself did say at year-end 2018 that its broader Alexa ecosystem had grown to “over 70,000” total skills across markets.

In the U.K., the number of Alexa skills rose 233 percent this year to reach 29,910 by year end. In Germany, the skill count grew by 152 percent to reach 7,869 skills. Canada had 22,873 skills as of the beginning of January 2019; Australia has 22,398; Japan has 2,364; and France has 981. (Voicebot says it hasn’t yet set up a system for counting the skills in India, Spain, Mexico or Italy at this time.)

Also of interest is that much of the skill growth occurred near year-end, ahead of the busy holiday season when Alexa devices became top sellers. In the U.S., U.K. and Germany, developers published 181, 84, and 37 skills per day, respectively, during the last two months of the year.

The firm also pointed out there is some debate over whether or not the growth in third-party skills even matters, since so many of them are virtually invisible – never discovered by end users or installed in large numbers. That’s a fair criticism, in a way, but it’s also still early days for voice-based computing. Developers who are today publishing lower-rated skills may be learning from their mistakes and figuring out what works; and they’re doing so, in large numbers, on the Alexa platform.

As to what sort of skills are actually striking a chord with consumers, Amazon itself recently shared that information.

It released a year-end list of Alexa’s “top” skills, which were selected based on a number of factors including customer reviews, engagement, innovation and more, Amazon told us.

Many of the top skills were games. And many had benefited from their association with big-name brands, or had been promoted heavily by Amazon, or both.

Among the top games were music skill Beat the Intro; Heads Up!, already a top paid iOS app from Ellen DeGeneres; National Geographic’s Geo Quiz skill; Question of the Day; Skyrim Very Special Edition; The Magic Door; Trivia Hero; World Mathematics League; Would You Rather for Family; and Volley’s roleplaying game, Yes Sire.

The non-game skills were focused on daily habits, wellness, and – not surprisingly, given Alexa’s central place in consumers’ homes – family fun.

These included kid-friendly skills like Animal Workout, Chompers, Kids Court, Lemonade Stand, and Sesame Street; plus habit and wellness skills like Chop Chop, Fitbit, Headspace, Sleep and Relaxation Sounds, Find My Phone, AnyPod, Big Sky, Make Me Smart, and TuneIn Live.

It’s interesting to note that many of these also are known app names from the mobile app ecosystem, rather than breakout hits that are unique to Alexa or smart speakers. That begs the question as to how much the voice app ecosystem will end up being just a voice-enabled clone of the App Store, versus becoming a home to a new kind of app that truly leverages voice-first design and smart speakers’ capabilities.

It may be a few years before we have that answer, but in the meantime, it seems we have a lot of voice app developers trying to figure that out by building for Alexa.