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This tactile display lets visually impaired users feel on-screen 3D shapes

November 2, 2019 No Comments

Using a computer and modern software can be a chore to begin with for the visually impaired, but fundamentally visual tasks like 3D design are even harder. This Stanford team is working on a way to display 3D information, like in a CAD or modeling program, using a “2.5D” display made up of pins that can be raised or lowered as sort of tactile pixels. Taxels!

The research project, a collaboration between graduate student Alexa Siu, Joshua Miele and lab head Sean Follmer, is intended to explore avenues by which blind and visually impaired people can accomplish visual tasks without the aid of a sighted helper. It was presented this week at SIGACCESS.

tactile display2The device is essentially a 12×24 array of thin columns with rounded tops that can be individually told to rise anywhere from a fraction of an inch to several inches above the plane, taking the shape of 3D objects quickly enough to amount to real time.

“It opens up the possibility of blind people being, not just consumers of the benefits of fabrication technology, but agents in it, creating our own tools from 3D modeling environments that we would want or need – and having some hope of doing it in a timely manner,” explained Miele, who is himself blind, in a Stanford news release.

Siu calls the device “2.5D,” since of course it can’t show the entire object floating in midair. But it’s an easy way for someone who can’t see the screen to understand the shape it’s displaying. The resolution is limited, sure, but that’s a shortcoming shared by all tactile displays — which it should be noted are extremely rare to begin with and often very expensive.

The field is moving forward, but too slowly for some, like this crew and the parents behind the BecDot, an inexpensive Braille display for kids. And other tactile displays are being pursued as possibilities for interactions in virtual environments.

Getting an intuitive understanding of a 3D object, whether one is designing or just viewing it, usually means rotating and shifting it — something that’s difficult to express in non-visual ways. But a real-time tactile display like this one can change the shape it’s showing quickly and smoothly, allowing more complex shapes, like moving cross-sections, to be expressed as well.

tac

Son Kim, an assistive tech specialist at the Vista Center and collaborator on the project, demonstrates the device.

The device is far from becoming a commercial project, though as you can see in the images (and the video below), it’s very much a working prototype, and a fairly polished one at that. The team plans on reducing the size of the pins, which would of course increase the resolution of the display. Interestingly another grad student in the same lab is working on that very thing, albeit at rather an earlier stage.

The Shape Lab at Stanford is working on a number of projects along these lines — you can keep up with their work at the lab’s website.

Gadgets – TechCrunch


Snapchat beats in Q3, adding 7M users & revenue up 50%

October 22, 2019 No Comments

The Snap-back continues. Snapchat blew past earnings expectations for a big beat in Q3, as it added 7 million daily active users this quarter to hit 210 million, up 13% year-over-year. Snap also beat on revenue, notching $ 446 million, which is up a whopping 50% year-over-year, at a loss of $ 0.04 EPS. That flew past Bloomberg’s consensus of Wall Street estimates that expected $ 437.9 million in revenue and a $ 0.05 EPS loss.

Snap has managed to continue cutting losses as it edges towards profitability. Net loss improved to $ 227 million from $ 255 million last quarter, with the loss decreasing $ 98 million versus Q3 2018.

CEO Evan Spiegel made his case in his prepared remarks for why Snapchat’s share price should be higher: “We are a high growth business, with strong operating leverage, a clear path to profitability, a distinct vision for the future, and the ability to invest over the long term.”

Snapchat’s share price had closed down 4% at $ 14, and had fallen roughly 4.6% in after-hours trading as of 1:50pm pacific to $ 13.35 despite the earnings beat. It remains below its $ 17 IPO price but has performed exceedingly well this year, rising from a low of $ 4.99 in December.

Snapchat DAU Q3 2019

That’s partially because of the high cost of Snapchat’s growth relative average revenue per user. While it notes that it saw user growth in all regions, 5 million of the 7 million new users came from the Rest Of The World, with just 1 million coming from the North America and Europe regions. That’s in part thanks to better than expected growth and retention on its reengineered Android app that’s been a hit in India. But since Snapchat serves so much high-definition video content but it earns just $ 1.01 average revenue in the Rest Of World, it has to hope it can keep growing ARPU so it becomes profitable globally.

Some other top-line stats from Snapchat’s earnings:

  • Operating cash flow improved by $ 56 million to a loss of $ 76 million in Q3 2019, compared to the prior year.
  • Free Cash Flow improved by $ 75 million to $ (84) million in Q3 2019, compared to the prior year.
  • Cash and marketable securities on hand reached $ 2.3 billion.

Snapchat ARPU Q3 2019

Interestingly, Spiegel noted that “We benefited from year-over-year growth in user activity in Q3 including growth in Snapchatters posting and viewing Stories.” Snapchat hadn’t indicated Stories was growing in at last the past two years, as it was attacked by clones including Instagram Stories that led Snapchat to start shrinking in user count a year ago before it recovered.

Since Stories viewership is critical to total ad view on Snapchat, we may see analysts insisting to hear more about that metric in the future. Snap also said users opened the app 30 times per day, up from 25 times per day as of July 2018, showing its still highly sticky and being used for rapid-fire visual communication.

The other major piece of Snapchat’s ad properties is Discover where total time spent watching grew 40% year-over-year. And rather than being driving by just a few hits, over 100 Discover channels saw over 10 million viewers per month in Q3. With Instagram’s IGTV a flop, Discover remains Snapchat’s best differentiated revenue driver, and one it needs to keep investing in and promoting. With Instagram trying to compete more heavily on chat with its new close friends-only Threads app, Snapchat can’t rely on ephemeral messaging to keep it special.

3 TikTok Ad

TikTok buys ads on Snapchat that could steal its users

Surprisingly, Spiegel said that “We definitely see TikTok as a friend” when asked about why it allowed the competitor to continue buying ads on Snapchat. The two apps are different, with Snapchat focused on messaging and biographical social media while TikTok is about storyboarded, premeditated social entertainment. But this could be dangerous friendship for Snapchat, since TikTok may be taking time away that users might spend watching Snapchat Discover, and its growth could box Snapchat out of the social entertainment space.

Looking forward, in Q4 Snap is estimating 214 to 215 million daily active users and $ 540 million to $ 560 million in revenue. It’s expecting between break even and positive $ 20 million for Adjusted EBITDA. That revenue guidance was below estimates for the holiday Q4, contributing to the share price fall.

 

Snap has a ways to go before reaching profitability. That milestone would let it more freely invest in long-term projects, specifically its Spectacles camera-glasses. Spiegel has said he doesn’t expect augmented reality glasses to be a mainstream consumer product for 10 years. That means Snap will have to survive and spend for a long time if it wants a chance to battle Apple, Facebook, Magic Leap, and more for that market.


Social – TechCrunch


Telegram introduces a feature to prevent users from texting too often in a group

August 12, 2019 No Comments

Telegram, a popular instant messaging app, has introduced a new feature to give group admins on the app better control over how members engage, the latest in a series of interesting features it has rolled out in recent months to expand its appeal.

The feature, dubbed Slow Mode, allows a group administrator to dictate how often a member could send a message in the group. If implemented by a group, members who have sent a text will have to wait between 30 seconds to as long as an hour before they can say something again in that group.

telegram slow mode groups

The messaging platform, which had more than 200 million monthly active users as of early 2018, said the new feature was aimed at making conversations in groups “more orderly” and raising the “value of each individual message.” It suggested admins to “keep [the feature] on permanently, or toggle as necessary to throttle rush hour traffic.”

Tech platforms including WhatsApp are grappling with containing the spread of misinformation on their messaging services. Though Telegram has largely been immune to such controversies, it has its fair share of issues.

WhatsApp has enforced limits on how often a user could forward a text message and is using machine learning techniques to weed out fraudulent users during the sign up procedure itself.

Shivnath Thukral, Director of Public Policy for Facebook in India and South Asia, said at a conference this month that virality of content has dropped by 25% to 30% on WhatsApp since the messaging platform imposed limits on forwards.

Telegram isn’t marketing the “Slow Mode” as a way to tackle the spread of false information, though. Instead, it says the feature would give users more “peace of mind.” Indeed, unlike WhatsApp, which allows up to 256 users to be part of a group, up to a whopping 200,000 users can join a Telegram group.

On a similar tone, Telegram has also added an option that will enable users to send a message without invoking a sound notification at the recipient’s end. “Simply hold the Send button to have any message or media delivered without sound,” the app maker said. “Your recipient will get a notification as usual, but their phone won’t make a sound – even if they forgot to enable the Do Not Disturb mode.”

Telegram has also introduced a range of other small features such as the ability for group owners to add custom titles for admins. Videos on the app now display thumbnail previews when a user scrubs through them, making it easier to them to find the right moment. Like YouTube, users on Telegram too can now share a video that jumps directly at a certain timestamp. Users can also animate their emojis now — if they are into that sort of thing.

In June, Telegram introduced a number of location-flavored features to allow users to quickly exchange contact details without needing to type in digits.


Social – TechCrunch


Instagram ad partner secretly sucked up and tracked millions of users’ locations and stories

August 8, 2019 No Comments

Hyp3r, an apparently trusted marketing partner of Facebook and Instagram, has been secretly collecting and storing location and other data on millions of users, against the policies of the social networks, Business Insider reported today. It’s hard to see how it could do this for years without intervention by the platforms except if the latter were either ignorant or complicit.

After BI informed Instagram, the company confirmed that Hyp3r (styled HYP3R) had violated its policies and has now been removed from the platform. In a statement to TechCrunch, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed the report, saying:

HYP3R’s actions were not sanctioned and violate our policies. As a result, we’ve removed them from our platform. We’ve also made a product change that should help prevent other companies from scraping public location pages in this way.

The company started several years ago as a platform via which advertisers could target users attending a given event, like a baseball game or concert. It used Instagram’s official API to hoover up data originally, the kind of data-gathering that has been happening for years by unsavory firms in tech, most infamously Cambridge Analytica.

The idea of getting an ad because you’re at a ball game isn’t so scary, but if the company maintains a persistent record not just of your exact locations, but objects in your photos and types of places you visit, in order to combine that with other demographics and build a detailed shadow profile… well, that’s a little scary. And so Hyp3r’s business model evolved.

Unfortunately, the API was severely restricted in early 2018, limiting Hyp3r’s access to location and user data. Although there were unconfirmed reports that this led to layoffs at the company around the time, the company seems to have survived (and raised millions shortly afterwards) not by adapting its business model, but by sneaking around the apparently quite minimal barriers Instagram put in place to prevent location data from being scraped.

Some of this was done by taking advantage of Instagram’s Location pages, which would serve up public accounts visiting them to anyone who asked, logged in or not. (This was one of the features turned off today by Instagram.)

According to BI’s report, Hyp3r built tools to circumvent limitations on both location collection and saving of personal accounts’ stories — content meant to disappear after 24 hours. If a user posted anything at one of thousands of locations and regions monitored by Hyp3r, their data would be sucked up and added to their shadow profile.

To be clear, it only collected information from public stories and accounts. Naturally these people opted out of a certain amount of privacy by choosing a public account, but as the Cambridge Analytica case and others have shown, no one expects or should have to expect that their data is being secretly and systematically assembled into a personal profile by a company they’ve never heard of.

Facebook and Instagram, however, had definitely heard of Hyp3r. In fact, Hyp3r could until today be found in the official Facebook Marketing Partners directory, a curated list of companies it recommends for various tasks and services that advertisers might need.

And Hyp3r has been quite clear about what it is doing, though not about the methods by which it is doing it. It wasn’t a secret that the company was building profiles based around tracking locations and brands — that was presumably what Facebook listed it for. It was only when this report surfaced that Hyp3r had its Facebook Marketing Partner privileges rescinded.

For its part Hyp3r claims to be “compliant with consumer privacy regulations and social network Terms of Services,” and emphasized in a statement that it only accessed public data.

It’s unclear how Hyp3r could exist as a privileged member of Facebook’s stable of recommended companies and simultaneously be in such blatant violation of its policies. If these partners receive even cursory reviews of their products and methods, wouldn’t it have been obvious to any informed auditor that there was no legitimate source for the location and other data that Hyp3r was collecting? Wouldn’t it have been obvious that it was engaging in Automated Data Collection, which is specifically prohibited without Facebook’s permission?

I’ve asked Facebook for more detail on how and when its Marketing Partners are reviewed, and how this seemingly fundamental violation of the prohibition against automated data collection could have gone undetected for so long. This story is developing and may be updated further.


Social – TechCrunch


China’s Vivo is eyeing smartphone users in Africa and the Middle East

July 31, 2019 No Comments

Africa’s mobile phone industry has in recent times been dominated by Transsion, a Shenzhen-based company that is little known outside the African continent and is gearing up for an initial public offering in China. Now, its Chinese peer Vivo is following its shadow to this burgeoning part of the world with low-cost offerings.

Vivo, the world’s fifth-largest smartphone maker, announced this week that it’s bringing its budget-friendly Y series smartphones into Nigeria, Kenya and Egypt; the line of products is already available in Morocco.

It’s obvious that Vivo wants in on an expanding market as its home country China experiences softening smartphone sales. Despite a global slowdown, Africa posted annual growth in smartphone shipments last year for the first time since 2015 thanks in part to the abundance of entry-level products, according to market research firm IDC.

Affordability is the key driver for any smartphone brands that want to grab a slice of the African market. That’s what vaulted Transsion into a top dog on the continent where it sells feature phones for less than $ 20. Vivo’s Y series smartphones, which are priced as little as $ 170, are vying for a place with Transsion, Samsung and Huawei that have respective unit shares of 34.3%, 22.6% and 9.9% in Africa last year.

The Middle East is also part of Vivo’s latest expansion plan despite the region’s recent slump in smartphone volumes. The Y series, which comes in several models sporting features like the 89% screen-to-body ratio or the artificial intelligence-powered triple camera, is currently for sale in the United Arab Emirates and will launch in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in the coming months.

Vivo’s new international push came months after its sister company, Oppo, also owned by BBK, made a similar move into the Middle East and Africa by opening a new regional hub in Dubai.

“Since our first entry into international markets in 2014, we have been dedicated to understanding the needs of consumers through in-depth research in an effort to bring innovative products and services to meet changing lifestyle needs,” said Vivo’s senior vice president Spark Ni in a statement.

“The Middle East and Africa markets are important to us, and we will tailor our approach with consumers’ needs in mind. The launch of Y series is just the beginning. We look forward to bringing our other widely popular products beyond Y series to consumers in the Middle East and Africa very soon,” the executive added.

Gadgets – TechCrunch


New Instagram features flag potentially offensive comments, allow you to quietly ‘restrict’ users

July 9, 2019 No Comments

Instagram announced two new features today that it said are designed to combat online bullying.

In both cases, the Facebook -owned service seems to be trying to find ways to limit bad behavior without outright blocking posts or banning users.

“We can do more to prevent bullying from happening on Instagram, and we can do more to empower the targets of bullying to stand up for themselves,” wrote Instagram head Adam Mosseri in the announcement. “Today we’re announcing one new feature in both areas. These tools are grounded in a deep understanding of how people bully each other and how they respond to bullying on Instagram, but they’re only two steps on a longer path.”

The first feature is supposed to use artificial intelligence to flag comments that “may be considered offensive.” In those cases, users are asked, “Are you sure you want to post this?” and then given the option button to “undo” their comment before it posts.

This might seem like a relatively tame response, particularly because users can still go ahead and post the original comment if they want, but Mosseri said that in early tests, his team found that the prompt “encourages some people to undo their comment and share something less hurtful once they have had a chance to reflect.”

Instagram warning

The other addition, which Mosseri said the service will start testing soon, is the ability to “restrict” users looking at your account.

“We’ve heard from young people in our community that they’re reluctant to block, unfollow, or report their bully because it could escalate the situation, especially if they interact with their bully in real life,” Mosseri wrote.

So by using this new option, you can limit another user’s interaction with your account without making it obvious. If you restrict someone, their comments on your posts will only be visible to them, unless you approve a comment for general consumption. They also won’t be able to see if you’re active on Instagram or if you’ve read their direct messages.

Mosseri described earlier versions of these features at Facebook’s F8 developer conference in April.


Social – TechCrunch


Facebook admits 18% of Research spyware users were teens, not

March 1, 2019 No Comments

Facebook has changed its story after initially trying to downplay how it targeted teens with its Research program that a TechCrunch investigation revealed was paying them gift cards to monitor all their mobile app usage and browser traffic. “Less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch and many other news outlets in a damage control effort 7 hours after we published our report on January 29th. At the time,  Facebook claimed that it had removed its Research app from iOS. The next morning we learned that wasn’t true, as Apple had already forcibly blocked the Facebook Research app for violating its Enterprise Certificate program that supposed to reserved for companies distributing internal apps to employees.

It turns out that wasn’t the only time Facebook deceived the public in its response regarding the Research VPN scandal. TechCrunch has obtained Facebook’s unpublished February 21st response to questions about the Research program in a letter from Senator Mark Warner, who wrote to CEO Mark Zuckerberg that “Facebook’s apparent lack of full transparency with users – particularly in the context of ‘research’ efforts – has been a source of frustration for me.”

In the response from Facebook’s VP of US public policy Kevin Martin, the company admits that (emphasis ours) “At the time we ended the Facebook Research App on Apple’s iOS platform, less than 5 percent of the people sharing data with us through this program were teens. Analysis shows that number is about 18 percent when you look at the complete lifetime of the program, and also add people who had become inactive and uninstalled the app.” So 18 percent of research testers were teens. It was only less than 5 percent when Facebook got caught. Given users age 13 to 35 were eligible for Facebook’s Research program, 13 to 18 year olds made of 22 percent of the age range. That means Facebook clearly wasn’t trying to minimize teen involvement, nor were they just a tiny fraction of users.

WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 10: Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Warner asked Facebook “Do you think any use reasonable understood Facebook was using this data for commercial purposes includingto track competitors?” Facebook response indicates it never told Research users anything about tracking “competitors”, and instead dances around the question. Facebook says the registration process told users the data would help the company “understand how people use mobile apps,” “improve . . . services,” and “introduce new features for millions of people around the world.”

Facebook had also told reporters on January 29th regarding teens’ participation, “All of them with signed parental consent forms.” Yet in its response to Senator Warner, Facebook admitted that “Potential participants were required to confirm that they were over 18 or provide other evidence of parental consent, though the vendors did not require a signed parental consent form for teen users.” In some cases, underage users merely had to check a box to claim they had parental consent, and there was no verification of users’ ages or that their parents actually approved.

So to quickly recap:

Facebook targeted teens with ads on Instagram and Snapchat to join the Research program without revealing its involvement

The contradictions between Facebook’s initial response to reporters and what it told Warner, who has the power to pursue regulation of the the tech giant, shows Facebook willingness to move fast and play loose with the truth when it’s less accountable. It’s no wonder the company never shared the response with TechCrunch or posted a blog post or press release about it.

Facebook’s attempt to minimize the issue in the wake of backlash exemplifies the trend of of the social network’s “reactionary” PR strategy that employees described to BuzzFeed’s Ryan Mac. The company often views its scandals as communications errors rather than actual product screwups or as signals of deep-seeded problems with Facebook’s respect for privacy. Facebook needs to learn to take its lumps, change course, and do better rather than constantly trying to challenge details of negative press about it, especially before it has all the necessary information. Until then, the never-ending news cycle of Facebook’s self-made disasters will continue.

Below is Facebook’s full response to Senator Warner’s inquiry, and following that is Warner’s original letter to Mark Zuckerberg.

Additional reporting by Krystal Hu


Social – TechCrunch


Facebook admits 18% of Research spyware users were teens, not

March 1, 2019 No Comments

Facebook has changed its story after initially trying to downplay how it targeted teens with its Research program that a TechCrunch investigation revealed was paying them gift cards to monitor all their mobile app usage and browser traffic. “Less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch and many other news outlets in a damage control effort 7 hours after we published our report on January 29th. At the time,  Facebook claimed that it had removed its Research app from iOS. The next morning we learned that wasn’t true, as Apple had already forcibly blocked the Facebook Research app for violating its Enterprise Certificate program that supposed to reserved for companies distributing internal apps to employees.

It turns out that wasn’t the only time Facebook deceived the public in its response regarding the Research VPN scandal. TechCrunch has obtained Facebook’s unpublished February 21st response to questions about the Research program in a letter from Senator Mark Warner, who wrote to CEO Mark Zuckerberg that “Facebook’s apparent lack of full transparency with users – particularly in the context of ‘research’ efforts – has been a source of frustration for me.”

In the response from Facebook’s VP of US public policy Kevin Martin, the company admits that (emphasis ours) “At the time we ended the Facebook Research App on Apple’s iOS platform, less than 5 percent of the people sharing data with us through this program were teens. Analysis shows that number is about 18 percent when you look at the complete lifetime of the program, and also add people who had become inactive and uninstalled the app.” So 18 percent of research testers were teens. It was only less than 5 percent when Facebook got caught. Given users age 13 to 35 were eligible for Facebook’s Research program, 13 to 18 year olds made of 22 percent of the age range. That means Facebook clearly wasn’t trying to minimize teen involvement, nor were they just a tiny fraction of users.

WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 10: Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Warner asked Facebook “Do you think any use reasonable understood Facebook was using this data for commercial purposes includingto track competitors?” Facebook response indicates it never told Research users anything about tracking “competitors”, and instead dances around the question. Facebook says the registration process told users the data would help the company “understand how people use mobile apps,” “improve . . . services,” and “introduce new features for millions of people around the world.”

Facebook had also told reporters on January 29th regarding teens’ participation, “All of them with signed parental consent forms.” Yet in its response to Senator Warner, Facebook admitted that “Potential participants were required to confirm that they were over 18 or provide other evidence of parental consent, though the vendors did not require a signed parental consent form for teen users.” In some cases, underage users merely had to check a box to claim they had parental consent, and there was no verification of users’ ages or that their parents actually approved.

So to quickly recap:

Facebook targeted teens with ads on Instagram and Snapchat to join the Research program without revealing its involvement

The contradictions between Facebook’s initial response to reporters and what it told Warner, who has the power to pursue regulation of the the tech giant, shows Facebook willingness to move fast and play loose with the truth when it’s less accountable. It’s no wonder the company never shared the response with TechCrunch or posted a blog post or press release about it.

Facebook’s attempt to minimize the issue in the wake of backlash exemplifies the trend of of the social network’s “reactionary” PR strategy that employees described to BuzzFeed’s Ryan Mac. The company often views its scandals as communications errors rather than actual product screwups or as signals of deep-seeded problems with Facebook’s respect for privacy. Facebook needs to learn to take its lumps, change course, and do better rather than constantly trying to challenge details of negative press about it, especially before it has all the necessary information. Until then, the never-ending news cycle of Facebook’s self-made disasters will continue.

Below is Facebook’s full response to Senator Warner’s inquiry, and following that is Warner’s original letter to Mark Zuckerberg.

Additional reporting by Krystal Hu

Mobile – TechCrunch


Tech giants offer empty apologies because users can’t quit

November 27, 2018 No Comments

A true apology consists of a sincere acknowledgement of wrong-doing, a show of empathic remorse for why you wronged and the harm it caused and a promise of restitution by improving ones actions to make things right. Without the follow-through, saying sorry isn’t an apology, it’s a hollow ploy for forgiveness.

That’s the kind of “sorry” we’re getting from tech giants — an attempt to quell bad PR and placate the afflicted, often without the systemic change necessary to prevent repeated problems. Sometimes it’s delivered in a blog post. Sometimes it’s in an executive apology tour of media interviews. But rarely is it in the form of change to the underlying structures of a business that caused the issue.

Intractable revenue

Unfortunately, tech company business models often conflict with the way we wish they would act. We want more privacy, but they thrive on targeting and personalization data. We want control of our attention, but they subsist on stealing as much of it as possible with distraction while showing us ads. We want safe, ethically built devices that don’t spy on us, but they make their margins by manufacturing them wherever’s cheap with questionable standards of labor and oversight. We want groundbreaking technologies to be responsibly applied, but juicy government contracts and the allure of China’s enormous population compromise their morals. And we want to stick to what we need and what’s best for us, but they monetize our craving for the latest status symbol or content through planned obsolescence and locking us into their platforms.

The result is that even if their leaders earnestly wanted to impart meaningful change to provide restitution for their wrongs, their hands are tied by entrenched business models and the short-term focus of the quarterly earnings cycle. They apologize and go right back to problematic behavior. The Washington Post recently chronicled a dozen times Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has apologized, yet the social network keeps experiencing fiasco after fiasco. Tech giants won’t improve enough on their own.

Addiction to utility

The threat of us abandoning ship should theoretically hold the captains in line. But tech giants have evolved into fundamental utilities that many have a hard time imagining living without. How would you connect with friends? Find what you needed? Get work done? Spend your time? What hardware or software would you cuddle up with in the moments you feel lonely? We live our lives through tech, have become addicted to its utility and fear the withdrawal.

If there were principled alternatives to switch to, perhaps we could hold the giants accountable. But the scalability, network effects and aggregation of supply by distributors has led to near monopolies in these core utilities. The second-place solution is often distant. What’s the next best social network that serves as an identity and login platform that isn’t owned by Facebook? The next best premium mobile and PC maker behind Apple? The next best mobile operating system for the developing world beyond Google’s Android? The next best e-commerce hub that’s not Amazon? The next best search engine? Photo feed? Web hosting service? Global chat app? Spreadsheet?

Facebook is still growing in the U.S. and Canada despite the backlash, proving that tech users aren’t voting with their feet. And if not for a calculation methodology change, it would have added 1 million users in Europe this quarter too.

One of the few tech backlashes that led to real flight was #DeleteUber. Workplace discrimination, shady business protocols, exploitative pricing and more combined to spur the movement to ditch the ride-hailing app. But what was different here is that U.S. Uber users did have a principled alternative to switch to without much hassle: Lyft. The result was that “Lyft benefitted tremendously from Uber’s troubles in 2018” eMarketer’s forecasting director Shelleen Shum told the USA Today in May. Uber missed eMarketer’s projections while Lyft exceeded them, narrowing the gap between the car services. And meanwhile, Uber’s CEO stepped down as it tried to overhaul its internal policies.

This is why we need regulation that promotes competition by preventing massive mergers and giving users the right to interoperable data portability so they can easily switch away from companies that treat them poorly

But in the absence of viable alternatives to the giants, leaving these mainstays is inconvenient. After all, they’re the ones that made us practically allergic to friction. Even after massive scandals, data breaches, toxic cultures and unfair practices, we largely stick with them to avoid the uncertainty of life without them. Even Facebook added 1 million monthly users in the U.S. and Canada last quarter despite seemingly every possible source of unrest. Tech users are not voting with their feet. We’ve proven we can harbor ill will toward the giants while begrudgingly buying and using their products. Our leverage to improve their behavior is vastly weakened by our loyalty.

Inadequate oversight

Regulators have failed to adequately step up either. This year’s congressional hearings about Facebook and social media often devolved into inane and uninformed questioning, like how does Facebook earn money if its doesn’t charge? “Senator, we run ads,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said with a smirk. Other times, politicians were so intent on scoring partisan points by grandstanding or advancing conspiracy theories about bias that they were unable to make any real progress. A recent survey commissioned by Axios found that “In the past year, there has been a 15-point spike in the number of people who fear the federal government won’t do enough to regulate big tech companies — with 55% now sharing this concern.”

When regulators do step in, their attempts can backfire. GDPR was supposed to help tamp down on the dominance of Google and Facebook by limiting how they could collect user data and making them more transparent. But the high cost of compliance simply hindered smaller players or drove them out of the market while the giants had ample cash to spend on jumping through government hoops. Google actually gained ad tech market share and Facebook saw the littlest loss while smaller adtech firms lost 20 or 30 percent of their business.

Europe’s GDPR privacy regulations backfired, reinforcing Google and Facebook’s dominance. Chart via Ghostery, Cliqz and WhoTracksMe.

Even the Honest Ads act, which was designed to bring political campaign transparency to internet platforms following election interference in 2016, has yet to be passed, despite support from Facebook and Twitter. There’s hasn’t been meaningful discussion of blocking social networks from acquiring their competitors in the future, let alone actually breaking Instagram and WhatsApp off of Facebook. Governments like the U.K. that just forcibly seized documents related to Facebook’s machinations surrounding the Cambridge Analytica debacle provide some indication of willpower. But clumsy regulation could deepen the moats of the incumbents, and prevent disruptors from gaining a foothold. We can’t depend on regulators to sufficiently protect us from tech giants right now.

Our hope on the inside

The best bet for change will come from the rank and file of these monolithic companies. With the war for talent raging, rock-star employees able to have huge impact on products and compensation costs to keep them around rising, tech giants are vulnerable to the opinions of their own staff. It’s simply too expensive and disjointing to have to recruit new high-skilled workers to replace those who flee.

Google declined to renew a contract with the government after 4,000 employees petitioned and a few resigned over Project Maven’s artificial intelligence being used to target lethal drone strikes. Change can even flow across company lines. Many tech giants, including Facebook and Airbnb, have removed their forced arbitration rules for harassment disputes after Google did the same in response to 20,000 of its employees walking out in protest.

Thousands of Google employees protested the company’s handling of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations on November 1.

Facebook is desperately pushing an internal communications campaign to reassure staffers it’s improving in the wake of damning press reports from The New York Times and others. TechCrunch published an internal memo from Facebook’s outgoing VP of Communications Elliot Schrage, in which he took the blame for recent issues, encouraged employees to avoid finger-pointing, and COO Sheryl Sandberg tried to reassure employees that “I know this has been a distraction at a time when you’re all working hard to close out the year — and I am sorry.” These internal apologies could come with much more contrition and real change than those paraded for the public.

And so after years of us relying on these tech workers to build the product we use every day, we must now rely that will save us from them. It’s a weighty responsibility to move their talents where the impact is positive, or commit to standing up against the business imperatives of their employers. We as the public and media must in turn celebrate when they do what’s right for society, even when it reduces value for shareholders. If apps abuse us or unduly rob us of our attention, we need to stay off of them.

And we must accept that shaping the future for the collective good may be inconvenient for the individual. There’s an opportunity here not just to complain or wish, but to build a social movement that holds tech giants accountable for delivering the change they’ve promised over and over.

For more on this topic:


Social – TechCrunch


Google Pixel 3 XL users are getting twice the notch, thanks to a bug

October 30, 2018 No Comments

Over the past two years, the notch moved from anomaly to fact of life, and no company has proven itself more pro-notch than Google. From its embrace of #notchlife in Android Pie to the downright gigantic one found up top on the Pixel 3 XL, Google’s really notchin’ it up.

In fact, as noted by Android Police, the Pixel 3 XL has a notch so nice, Google’s delivering it twice. A number of owners have reported an admittedly hilarious bug that’s causing the massive handset to double up on the notch, with a second cutout appearing on the side of the device.

Google has acknowledged (acknotchleged?) the issue and noted that it’s working on a fix, which should be coming soon. The company hasn’t offered a reason behind the issue, but it appears to stem from Pie’s built-in notch feature, and likely has something to do with how the background adjusts when the handset changes from portrait to landscape mode.

It seems even in 2018, that’s a notch too far.

Mobile – TechCrunch