Google tests a helpful app comparison feature on Google Play – TechCrunch

Google is testing a new feature that could improve discovery for Android apps on Google Play. The company confirmed it’s experimenting with a “Compare Apps” option that would allow Google Play users to quickly and more easily understand the slight differences between otherwise similar apps by comparing specific features and metrics — like star ratings or total downloads, for example.

The feature was first spotted by Android Police, which found it at the bottom of an individual app listing page for a media player on the Play Store (ver. 22.4.28).

Image Credits: Android Police

Google confirmed the feature is live but only as a small test.

After users scrolled down past the app details and reviews, the page offered a comparison chart that allowed users to compare the VLC Player app with other media players across aspects like “Ease of Use,” support for offline play, and various media player specific features — like visual quality (HD, SD, etc.) and controls (gesture control, playback, scrubber, etc.).

The feature may leverage data Google has sourced from questions it asked app reviewers, though that aspect is not clear at this time. It also pulls in other data it already has on file, like the aggregate star rating and how many downloads the app has seen to date, for instance.

Typically, in place of the comparison chart, Google Play would provide a list of “similar apps” at the bottom of the listings page. This is similar to Apple’s “You Might Also Like” app suggestions and common across app stores. The idea with “similar apps” is to help point users researching apps to others in same genre. But making a determination of which to download often requires reading through the app’s descriptions and user reviews, which can be time-consuming.

With a comparison chart, users could more quickly figure out which app was the better fit for their needs, instead of wasting time researching or downloading multiple apps to install only to find they didn’t offer a particular feature the user had wanted.

Google confirmed to TechCrunch this is a “small experiment” that’s currently running, but says it doesn’t have immediate plans for a broader rollout. That’s a shame!

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Apple’s Q4: Mac, iPad, Apple Watch sales, services shine ahead of iPhone 12 sales

Apple’s fourth quarter sales were in line with expectations, but earnings came out ahead as Mac, iPads and Apple Watch delivered strong revenue growth.

The company reported fourth quarter earnings of 73 cents a share, on revenue of $64.7 billion.

Wall Street was expecting Apple to report fiscal fourth quarter revenue of $64.7 billion with non-GAAP earnings of 70 cents a share. Apple declined to provide an outlook for the first quarter due to uncertainty about the COVID-19 pandemic. 

CEO Tim Cook said Apple is in the middle of its “most prolific product introduction period ever” with its 5G iPhone 12 lineup as well as products that align well with remote work and education. Apple said that international sales were 59% of the total revenue pie. Europe fared well in the quarter. 

While fourth quarter product sales were down a bit from a year ago, services revenue surged to $14.55 billion, up from $12.51 billion a year ago.

For the year, Apple delivered sales of $274.5 billion with net income of $57.41 billion.

By product line, iPhone sales for the fourth quarter were $26.44 billion, down from $33.36 billion a year ago. Some of that decline was due to the wait for the iPhone 12 launch.

Mac sales in the fourth quarter were $9.03 billion, up from $6.99 billion a year ago. iPad sales also surged with sales of $6.8 billion, up from $4.66 billion a year ago. Wearable sales also fared well with sales of $7.88 billion, up from $6.52 billion.

On a conference call with analysts, Cook added that the company has shown resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Financial performance aside, I don’t think this year will be a time that any of us look back on with great fondness or nostalgia. Those of us who wake up every day hoping for a return to normal can count ourselves fortunate. Others don’t have that luxury. There is the great pain of a lost loved one, the uncertainty and fear of a lost job, a deep well of concern for people we care about who we are not able to see. A sense of opportunities missed, of plans delayed, of time lost. Even though we’re apart, it’s been obvious this year that around the company, teams and colleagues have been leaning on and counting on each other more than in normal times. I think that instinct, that resilience has been an essential part of how we have navigated this year.

Apple CFO Luca Maestri touted the company’s ability to grow beyond the iPhone and cited strong growth across the portfolio. He said:

This is a very impressive level of performance when we consider that this year, we did not launch and ship any new iPhone models during the quarter. Outside of iPhone, we grew 25% in aggregate and had strong double-digit year-over-year revenue growth in each of our product categories.

As for the outlook, Maestri didn’t give direct revenue guidance but did give some insight to a few items in the first quarter. Maestri said:

These directional comments assume that COVID-related impacts to our business in November and December are similar to what we’ve seen in October. We just started shipping iPhone 12 and 12 Pro and we’re off to a great start. We are also excited to start preorders on iPhone 12 mini and 12 Pro Max next Friday. Given the tremendously positive response, we expect iPhone revenue to grow during the December quarter despite shipping iPhone 12 and 12 Pro 4 weeks into the quarter and iPhone 12 mini and 12 Pro Max 7 weeks into the quarter. We expect all other products in aggregate to grow double digits, and we also expect Services to continue to grow double digits. For gross margin, we expect it to be similar to our most recent quarters despite the costs associated with the launch of several new products. For OpEx, we expect to be between $10.7 billion and $10.8 billion.

Other key points:

  • Cook said that Apple has completed 5G iPhone 12 testing with more than 100 carriers in more than 30 regions.
  • The spread of iPhone 12 launches will hit the first quarter results at different times and make forecasting challenging.
  • Maestri said the 5G iPhone launch is “a once-in-a-decade opportunity.” Cook added that “we are very bullish on this cycle.”
  • Cook was asked about hardware bundles and he said there was nothing to announce, but hardware subscriptions would be akin to installment plans.
  • A second wave of COVID-19 also came up in relation to Apple stores. Cook said:

We’re doing everything we can do but we’re prioritizing safety first, obviously. And so with our stores as an example, we’ve come up with a new concept that puts an — essentially turns the store into an express storefront. And we’ve implemented that in a number of places where we believe it helps from the safety of our employee and the safety of the customer’s point of view but still allows for an interaction to take place. And so we’ve also put a lot more people on the phones because a lot of more people are reaching out to us in that way. And of course, the online store has stayed up and running through the whole of this. I think if you take some of those, the channel is doing some similar things and then some different things as well. And so I think everybody, to the best of their ability, is putting in contingency plans and finding a way to adapt to the environment. But it is difficult to call and there’s a level of uncertainty in it.

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The Level Bolt and Level Touch smart locks are a cut above the competition in design and usability – TechCrunch

Level is one of the newer players in the smart lock space, but with a design pedigree that includes a lot of former Apple employees. The company is already attracting a lot of praise for its industrial design. I tested out both of its current offerings, the Level Bolt and the Level Touch, and found that they’re well-designed, user-friendly smart locks that are a cut above the competition when it comes to aesthetics and feature set.

The basics

Level’s debut product, the $229 Level Bolt, works with existing deadbolts and just replaces the insides with a connected locking mechanism that you can control from your smartphone via the Level app. The newer $329 Level Touch is a full deadbolt replacement, including the faceplates, but unlike most other smart locks on the market it looks like a standard deadbolt from the outside — albeit a very nicely designed one. The Level Touch is available in four different finishes, including satin nickel, satin chrome, polished brass and matte black (the latter two are listed as “coming soon”).

Image Credits: Level

The Bolt is similar in concept to other smart lock products like the August lock in that you use it with your existing deadbolt, which means no need to replace keys. It also leaves the thumb turn intact, meaning from all outward appearances it isn’t obvious that you have a smart lock at all. Installing it is relatively simple and basically amounts to a lock mechanism transplant. Level includes different cam bar adapters that fit the vast majority of available deadlocks, so it should be something most homeowners can do in just a few minutes. The Bolt offers access sharing via the app, auto lock when you depart, auto unlock when you arrive, an activity log, temporary passes and a built-in audio chime. It also works with Apple’s HomeKit for remote control, voice control via Siri, automation and push notifications.

Image Credits: Level

The Level Touch takes everything that’s great about the Bolt, and adds in some super smart additional features like a capacitive external deadbolt housing, which allows an amazing touch-to-lock/touch-to-unlock feature, and NFC that allows you to use programmable NFC cards and stickers to issue revokable passes to unlock your door. On top of all that, it’s probably the most attractive deadbolt I’ve ever owned or used, which is saying a lot in a field of smart locks where most offerings have unsightly large keypads or large battery compartments.

Design and features

The Level Bolt’s design is clever in its ability to be completely invisible when in use. The deadbolt itself is the battery housing, holding one lithium CR123A battery (included in the box, offers over a year’s worth of use). Installing the Bolt was as easy as unscrewing my existing deadbolt, removing the internal deadbolt mechanism, picking out the right adapter for the cam bar, and then inserting it into my door’s deadbolt lock and screwing back together the external face plates. It took under 10 minutes, start to finish.

Setting up the lock was also simple. You just download the app and follow the instructions, and you’ll be able to control your app in just minutes, too. Using the app, you set up a home profile for your lock or locks, and you can also invite others in your household to share access (they’ll have to install the app and get a profile to do so). You can also set up HomeKit if you have an Apple device and a HomeKit hub (this could be an Apple TV or an iPad) and instantly unlock a lot of features including remote unlocking and locking control when you’re away from home.

Image Credits: Level

Even without HomeKit, you can set up Level to automatically lock once you leave a certain geofenced area around your home and to automatically unlock once you return within that perimeter. It’s a fantastic convenience feature that works great and offers tons of benefits when it comes to things like coming home with armfuls of groceries or large packages.

With the Level Touch, you get all of the above, plus a feature I’ve come to find indispensable: touch control. The metal exterior of the Level Touch’s outside cylinder has capacitive touch sensors, which means that like your iPhone’s screen, it can detect when it’s touched by a finger or skin. You can activate a touch-to-lock feature that will allow it to lock whenever people leave and hold their finger to the deadbolt cover, and you can even set it to unlock when it detects a touch combined with immediate proximity of your phone for identity verification purposes.

To me, this is even more useful than auto-lock/auto-unlock, and yet still much more convenient than fumbling with keys or even using the app to manually lock/unlock. It’s one of Level Touch’s unique advantages, and it’s a big one.

As for installation of the Level Touch, it’s also very easy — no more difficult than installing any deadbolt you might buy at the hardware store. Like the Bolt, it uses a single CR123A battery loaded right into the deadbolt itself that should give you enough power for over a year of use.

Bottom line

Smart locks have become a lot more prevalent over the past few years, but they also haven’t really progressed much in terms of functionality or design. Level has upended all that, bringing the best of convenience features and miniaturized hardware technology to smart, modern design that leapfrogs the competition.

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CASETiFY cases for Apple iPhone 12: Personalized drop and antimicrobial protection

A couple of years ago, the folks at CASETiFY sent along a few sample phones for me to test out. Since then I’ve had family and friends show up with their phones wrapped in CASETiFY cases because the cases fit well, protect your phone, have a wide assortment of color and texture options, and can be easily customized.

It seems that most people with an iPhone today wrap their phone in a case and people enjoy adding a personal touch to the case since their phone looks like the ones everyone else has. CASETiFY has plenty of options for the Apple iPhone 12 and I had a chance to take three for a spin over the past week.

I don’t know how they make things happen so quickly, but within just a few days of the request two of the cases that arrived were customized with the website and my name. You can enter up to 12 characters to customize your case with your choice from six fonts, four layouts, and 17 colors.

See also: Apple iPhone 12 first look

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The Flume 2 Smart Home Water Monitor is a smart, easy-to-use and essential smart home device – TechCrunch

Many smart home gadgets focus on convenience or automation of typically manual tasks, but Flume’s smart water sensor provides a potentially much more vital service: The ability to track how much water you’re consuming, and alert you to potential leaks in you home’s plumbing. The company just released its second-generation Flume Smart Home Water Monitor ($199), and the device is easier to set up and use, and smarter, than ever.

The basics

Flume’s Smart Home Water Monitor consists of a device you affix to your water meter, and a gateway that connects it to your home Wi-Fi network. Installation is super simple and requires no plumbing or any kind of home DIY expertise. The Flume app guides you through installation, and in most cases you should be up and running in less than 10 minutes — plus Flume has live assistance available via chat through the app in case you get stuck.

The Flume monitor provides up-to-date information about your whole home’s water usage, including any consumption from interior or exterior faucets, plumbing and fixtures. It can alert you when it detects suspected leaks based on water behavior, and help you budget your water use if you’re looking to save on your utility bill, or just conserve more water through more efficient usage.

Design and features

The Flume meter is a very impressive example of technology designed for use by just about anyone, anywhere. It doesn’t have its own display or interface, and instead works entirely through the app, but that simplicity is part of its genius. The water monitor itself is encased in a simple gray plastic box, which you attach to your water meter externally using the included rubber straps. All it needs is to be placed on the side of where your meter’s readout is located, and then it’s activated by you simply running water through your system by turning on a faucet. It’s reading the magnetic field generated by your water meter, which the company says can detect any water usage all the way down to one one-hundredth of a gallon — i.e. a slowly dripping faucet.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

The meter is powered by four AA batteries that come pre-installed, and you can see the battery status in the app, but those should last a very long time. The meter talks to a Flume bridge, which does need to be connected to power but can be set up pretty much anywhere within Wi-Fi range in your home. The final component is the app, which is available for iOS and Android, and which provides a dashboard visualizing your usage, as well as push notifications you can set up for when the Flume system detects a leak.

In practice, set up is a breeze, and it’s truly amazing how much detail and information Flume can provide, given how easy it is to install and use. The data itself is also incredibly fascinating, and truly resulted in my being more aware about my general water consumption, how it affects my monthly utility bills and how I might be able to conserve water going forward. My home didn’t have a dishwasher when I originally installed the Flume 2, for instance, and I realized how much more water I was using hand-washing dishes versus putting in a small, water-efficient 18-inch dishwasher instead — which was proven out by the Flume data.

Bottom line

You might not realize you need a smart home water sensor, but Flume 2 makes a strong case for everyone investing in one. The simple, practical design and user-friendly app instantly make you a much more informed consumer of water, and can save you a bundle in the long run by detecting leaks early and preventing any more serious and damaging flooding incidents. It also just feels good to be aware of what you’re using, and being able to translate that into direct action to save a little water here and there, for the good of the environment and your monthly spending.

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Best not-so-new phones in 2020: Why last year’s and older models make great deals

High-end flagships smartphones appear in advertisements and dominate review headlines, but these innovative smartphones are often priced at $1,000 or more. With smartphones being released with high-quality components, durable features, and the capability to receive software updates, phones that were flagships one or two years ago can save you hundreds while offering nearly the same experience as the latest and greatest.

It’s that time of year when all the newest Android smartphones and the latest Apple iPhones are announced and released into the market. The following are excellent smartphones to consider as you ignore the hype around the shiny new phones available at the end of 2020. They are not in any sort of ranked order, but they are all very capable phones that are definitely worth considering.

$699 for a gorgeous powerful 5G phone

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At the end of 2019, the OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren was at the top of my 10 best smartphones list and is still a stunning phone. While the name is a mouthful, it was one of the first 5G phones on T-Mobile and has several cool McLaren design elements, including the unboxing experience.

The OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 Plus processor with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage. Three rear cameras offer a solid imaging experience. The front-facing camera slides up from the top only when you need it and is a sleek design feature.

A large battery and super fast Warp Charge 30T keep you topped up all day long. The black with papaya orange highlights is delightful and it was tough to sell this phone and move on. Right now it is $200 off the original price so $699 for a very capable 5G phone is a great buy.

$699 at OnePlus

On sale: $449 full price

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The OnePlus 7T was recently succeeded by the OnePlus 8T, but that means a huge price drop on last year’s model. You can now find it $150 less than last year for just $449 on sale. It is an extremely capable phone with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 Plus processor, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of UFS 3.0 internal storage. The 90Hz display offers one of the smoothest experiences seen on an Android phone.

Triple rear cameras let you capture standard, ultra-wide, and telephoto images. There is also a macro mode that lets you capture images from as close as 2.5cm. It’s rare to have this capability on a phone without an external macro lens.

The Warp Charge 30T adapter keeps the 3,800mAh battery topped off in minutes. In our full review, we stated that it was the best smartphone value of 2019 and while competitors are now offering phones in this price range those phones often compromise on the internal specifications.

$599 at OnePlus

Bluetooth S Pen and amazing note features

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The new Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G is probably the best enterprise phone available today, but last year’s Galaxy Note 10 Plus is still worth considering. It is priced at $1,099.99, which is still a lot of money, but the comparable new Note 20 Ultra 5G starts at $1,299.99. You can also find it from other online retailers for less than Samsung.

The Galaxy Note 10 Plus improved on the Note 9 with enhancements in the S Pen, enhanced audio, and an improved camera experience. It’s a gorgeous phone powered by a Snapdragon 855 process and will be upgraded to Android 11.

$559 at Back Market

$1,078 at Amazon

$1,150 at Best Buy

Three sizes to meet your needs

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The Samsung Galaxy S20 was announced in February with multiple models ranging from a smaller sized one up to one packing 5G and taking on the best flagships available. Last year’s Samsung flagships were arguably the best smartphones available at the time.

The Galaxy S10 is offered in a small S10e form, S10, and S10 Plus. There is some difference in the cameras, as well as display and battery size. These devices have an interesting feature where you can charge up your Galaxy Buds, or even other wireless charging capable phones, by placing them on the back of the Galaxy S10.

The Galaxy S10 phones are now running Android 10 with Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processors, plenty of RAM and internal storage, IP68 dust and water resistance, and more. These phones are renowned for excellent cellular reception and fast performance.

$400 at Back Market

$729 at Amazon

$750 at Best Buy

2019’s Pro models are still awesome

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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Apple’s iPhone models are sold on an annual basis, but Apple is the leader in keeping its phones updated for years after launch. While the four new iPhone 12 models are compelling, you can save some money and pick up the iPhone 11 Pro or Pro Max from last year and maintain a high level of productivity.

The 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max differ only in screen size and battery capacity with the Apple A13 Bionic chip, 4GB of RAM, and three internal storage options. The latest version of iOS is available on these phones and the triple rear cameras help you capture amazing still and video content.

The iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max have a high level of water resistance and will last you through a full day, and there are plenty of accessories available at low prices. The 11 Pro and Pro Max are no longer available directly from Apple, but can be found from other online retailers. Amazon sells renewed iPhone 11 Pros starting at $729.

$720 at Back Market

$999 at Amazon

$900 at Best Buy

2019’s best iPhone for everyone

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Image: Apple

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The best value iPhone of 2019 and the one universally loved was the Apple iPhone 11. It remains a classic and despite the new four iPhone 12 models Apple still sells the iPhone 11, starting at $599.

The iPhone 11 provides a nice 6.1-inch display while being powered by Apple’s A13 Bionic processor, 4GB of RAM, and three internal storage options. The display is LCD, compared to the OLED panels used on the Pro models. We also find two cameras on the iPhone 11 so no telephoto option is present.

Several color options are available for the Apple iPhone 11 and it slots into Apple’s new pricing tier nicely.

$699 at Amazon

$539 at Back Market

$600 at Best Buy

High-end imaging for just $349

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Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

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Last year, Google tried something different and released two mid-range phones in the Pixel 3a and 3a XL. This year, it went with just the smaller variant and launched the Pixel 4a. Since then we have seen the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5 released so if you want a higher-powered 5G Google Pixel phone then look to either of these two.

The Pixel 4a brings nearly the same amazing imaging experience to a phone with a mid-level processor and al ow starting price of just $349. If fantastic still photos that you can capture with ease are desired then you may even want to consider carrying one around as a second imaging phone.

With the Pixel 4a, you get a classic, fast rear fingerprint sensor, 6GB of RAM, 128GB of internal storage, 12.2-megapixel camera, front 8-megapixel camera, and a capable Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G processor.

$349 at Amazon

$350 at Best Buy

$349 at B&H Photo-Video

An affordable dual screen option

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This year we have seen LG roll out the LG Velvet and LG Wing phones, but one phone released earlier this year stands out as an affordable option to gain dual-screen functionality. The LG V60 with Dual Screen cover is available 

The LG V60 ThinQ is a 5G phone with MIL-STD 810G shock resistance, a Google Assistant key with LG specific functions, and a triple rear camera system. The 5,000 mAh battery seems to go on forever.

Inside the phone, we see a Snapdragon 865 processor, 6.8-inch display, 8GB of RAM, 128GB internal storage with a microSD card slot, IP68 rating, 5000mAh battery, and more. It is available now for $699.99, $200 less than the original launch price, and this includes the Dual Screen cover.

$900 at Best Buy

$900 at LG

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Apple eyes the TikTok generation with an updated version of Clips – TechCrunch

Apple is today rolling out an update to its video creation app, Clips, which brings much-needed support for vertical videos, allowing for sharing to TikTok and the “Stories” feature in other social apps. The addition is one of several arriving with the release of Clips 3.0, which also introduces support for horizontal video, as well as HDR for iPhone 12 users, along with other smaller changes, like new stickers, sounds and posters, for example.

Apple’s Clips was first launched in 2017 with an eye on being a first stop for video creation before publishing to Instagram. But the app’s support for only square-formatted video has since become outdated. Casual social videos today are often now published to newer video-centric social media networks, like TikTok and its short-form rivals, including Triller, Dubsmash, Instagram Reels and others.

Meanwhile, Stories — like those found on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Pinterest and, soon, Twitter — have become a key way that today’s users publish content to social media.

Apple, in fact, says that support for vertical video had become its No. 1 request from users since Clips launched.

Clips 3.0 supports both 16:9 and 4:3 aspect ratios, in addition to the square format. When the app is opened on iPad, it will default to the landscape format, which can be particularly useful in educational scenarios where teachers are using the app in classrooms with students.

On iPad, Clips users can also interact with the app when their iPad is in a case, like Magic Keyboard for iPad and others. It also supports use with a mouse or trackpad, and allows users to write text in text fields using Apple Pencil.

Image Credits: Apple

The new app will also now support recording HDR video footage with the rear-facing camera on iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro.

Clips’ overall user interface has been refreshed, too. You’ll notice a redesigned record screen that floats on top of the viewer when shooting vertically or horizontally, which could help to address some user complaints of the app feeling “slow.”

Users will also be able to more easily view and access the various Effects options, their Clips Projects and other media.

The tweaks to the user interface also feel a bit like a nod to TikTok. For example, you can now swipe up on the Effects to see a full-height card that shows you the available stickers and text labels to add to your videos. This format of a pop-up card filled with effects is similar to TikTok — though there it’s opened with a button tap and not a gesture.

Image Credits: Apple

The update also brings more content options, including eight new social stickers (like “Sound On” for Instagram Stories), 24 new royalty-free soundtracks (bringing the total library to 100), and six new arrows and shapes. From the new Media browser in Clips, you can pull in your own photos and videos or toggle over to a Posters section to pick from 70 customizable, animated full-screen title cards that can be added to your video.

There are also updated filters, Live Titles and Selfie scenes available.

When your project is complete, you can easily share the resulting video to social networks from an updated sharing screen that includes quick access to destinations like Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and Snapchat, in addition to standard options like iMessage or saving the file locally.

Though Clips hasn’t had as much attention as some of Apple’s other apps — its last update was six months ago, for instance — it has gained a following. Apple says that users create “millions” of Clips projects per day, and it sees higher usage in the U.S., U.K. and China.

This year, Clips usage increased by 30%, Apple noted — a change that could have been brought about by the shift to virtual schooling which saw teachers in need of tools for creating digital content.

Image Credits: Apple

With its expanded focus on vertical video, Clips has the potential to reach a much broader audience.

Today, many users prep videos for Stories or TikTok on third-party apps, like InShot, Prequel, Splice, PicCollage, Canva, VSCO, Funimate, KineMaster, Magisto, CapCut and others topping the App Store charts. But Clips, until now, couldn’t compete because it didn’t include vertical video support at all.

The new version of Clips is rolling out today to users worldwide.

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SpaceX launches Starlink app and provides pricing and service info to early beta testers – TechCrunch

SpaceX has debuted an official app for its Starlink satellite broadband internet service, for both iOS and Android devices. The Starlink app allows users to manage their connection — but to take part you’ll have to be part of the official beta program, and the initial public rollout of that is only just about to begin, according to emails SpaceX sent to potential beta testers this week.

The Starlink app provides guidance on how to install the Starlink receiver dish, as well as connection status (including signal quality), a device overview for seeing what’s connected to your network and a speed test tool. It’s similar to other mobile apps for managing home WiFi connections and routers. Meanwhile, the emails to potential testers that CNBC obtained detail what users can expect in terms of pricing, speeds and latency.

The initial Starlink public beta test is called the “Better Than Nothing Beta Program,” SpaceX confirms in their app description, and will be rolled out across the U.S. and Canada before the end of the year, which matches up with earlier stated timelines. As per the name, SpaceX is hoping to set expectations for early customers, with speeds users can expect ranging from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s, and latency of 20ms to 40ms according to the customer emails, with some periods including no connectivity at all. Even with expectations set low, if those values prove accurate, it should be a big improvement for users in some hard-to-reach areas where service is currently costly, unreliable and operating at roughly dial-up equivalent speeds.

Image Credits: SpaceX

In terms of pricing, SpaceX says in the emails that the cost for participants in this beta program will be $99 per moth, plus a one-time cost of $499 initially to pay for the hardware, which includes the mounting kit and receiver dish, as well as a router with WiFi networking capabilities.

The goal eventually is to offer reliable, low-latency broadband that provides consistent connection by handing off connectivity between a large constellation of small satellites circling the globe in low-Earth orbit. Already, SpaceX has nearly 1,000 of those launched, but it hopes to launch many thousands more before it reaches global coverage and offers general availability of its services.

SpaceX has already announced some initial commercial partnerships and pilot programs for Starlink, too, including a team-up with Microsoft to connect that company’s mobile Azure data centers, and a project with an East Texas school board to connect the local community.

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Google’s EU Android choice screen isn’t working say search rivals, calling for a joint process to devise a fair remedy – TechCrunch

Google search engine rivals have dialled up pressure on the European Commission over the tech giant’s ‘pay-to-play’ choice screen for Android users in Europe — arguing the Google-devised auction has failed to remedy antitrust issues identified by the European Commission more than two years ago.

The joint letter to the Commission, which has been signed by Ecosia, DuckDuckGo, Lilo, Qwant and Seznam, requests a trilateral meeting between the EU executive, Google, and the five search rivals — with “the goal of establishing an effective preference menu”.

“We are companies operating search engines that compete against Google. As you know, we are deeply dissatisfied with the so-called remedy created by Google to address the adverse effects of its anticompetitive conduct in the Android case,” they write. “We understand that Google regularly updates you regarding its pay-to-play auction, but it appears that you may not be receiving complete or accurate information.”

A Commission spokeswoman confirmed it’s received the letter and said it will respond in due course, adding that it’s “seen in the past that a choice screen can be an effective way to promote user choice”.

“We have been discussing the choice screen mechanism with Google, following relevant feedback from the market, in particular in relation to the presentation and mechanics of the choice screen and to the selection mechanism of rival search providers,” the spokeswoman also told us, adding that the Commission is “committed to a full and effective implementation of the decision” and “will continue monitoring closely the implementation of the choice screen mechanism”.

Back in 2018 the EU’s antitrust division fined Google $5BN for competition violations related to how it operates its smartphone platform and instructed the company to make good on the issues identified — leading it to offer Android users in Europe a search engine choice screen, rather than simply preloading its own.

Google initially offered a choice based on rivals’ local market share but quickly moved to a paid auction model. This appears to benefit larger, commercial entities at the expense of privacy-focused, regional and not-for-profit alternatives.

Pro-privacy DuckDuckGo has, for example, lost out in recent auctions — while Microsoft-owned Bing has gained more slots. The former lowered how much it bids, saying it believes it cannot profitably win a slot.

European tech for good not-for-profit, Ecosia — which uses search click revenue to fund tree planting — has also denounced the model as unfair, going so far as to boycott it entirely at first. It gave in after seeing its revenue take a massive hit during the coronavirus crisis. (Though failed to gain a slot in almost every market in the most recent auction.)

Google, meanwhile, continue to enjoy a search marketshare in excess of 90% in the region.

The five rivals argue that Google is unfairly constraining the search market by limiting the number of available slots on the choice screen to three (Google’s own search engine is a staple fourth option).

They want a collaborative process to devise a choice screen, rather than Google being allowed to continue to design its own ‘solution’ — favoring a non-paid choice screen with space for many more choices than the current three (non-Google) options, likely with selections based on multiple, pro-competition criteria.

The timing of the letter comes hard on the heels of a competition investigation in the US that’s sparked a similar antitrust case against Google on home turf. The department of Justice filed a long-awaited case against it earlier this month, arguing the tech giant uses a web of exclusionary business agreements to shut out competitors.

Discussing how DuckDuckGo would like to see the Android choice screen evolve, founder Gabe Weinberg told TechCrunch: “We would like to see a properly designed search preference menu that gives people all the search engine options they expect, is free of all dark patterns, and enables search competition to sustainably flourish. Unfortunately, the current implementation meets none of these essential criteria, but we are hopeful that a more collaborative process could fix this failing remedy.”

Another signatory to the letter, France’s Qwant, also brings up the Commission’s goal of regional digital sovereignty — arguing that the Google-devised auction favors US tech giants at the expense of European alternatives, undermining the EU executive’s wider tech ambitions.

“After more or less three to four quarters of auction we are now in the situation where the auction system is seeing the price going up and up every quarter,” Qwant CEO Jean-Claude Ghinozzi told TechCrunch. “The prices are going up and up and competition moves to the large search engine and the global search engine — or the ones that have the ability to invest a lot in this search auction.” 

The result is a return to “unfair competition”, argued Ghinozzi, because the cost of acquiring users via Google’s auction is simply too high for smaller European competitors to participate. With the cost per click to win a slot on the choice screen inflating he suggested the current model essentially amounts to Google outsourcing the cost of its EU antitrust penalty to rivals.

“That’s in this letter to the commissioner. We require an urgent opportunity to discuss — inviting potentially Google if they [wish to participate] — that this mechanism doesn’t work,” he said, adding: “We are just starting to pay the bill for Google because at the end of the day we are getting to a level where it is not acceptable anymore for us as a [smaller] search [engine] to pay such an amount to Google just to be listed.”

“The system should be open and not related to any auction or payment and with a much larger list of search being proposed and provided to the new Android phone users,” he added, calling on the EU’s competition commissioner to “urgently” review the mechanism — and “propose some solutions for opening the European search [market]”.

“After more or less a year of the auction system being active we see that definitely they should look again because it does not work. It does not create a fair market and an open market. So that’s the reason we are coming now with this proposition — we urgently need to totally reconsider.”

Auction participants are constrained in what they can say publicly given Google’s requirement that they sign an NDA. This is another reason why they’re asking for a tripartite meeting — with the rivals expressing concerns that not every stakeholder involved in Google’s auction process is seeing the same data as Google is.

“The problem is that we don’t really know what Google says to the European Commission and what we fear is that they say some things to us that they don’t say to the European Commission,” said Guillaume Champeau, Qwant’s chief ethics and legal affairs officer. “The idea behind the tripartite meeting would be to ensure that we all have around the table the same kind of information and the same kind of answers to our concerns.”

Asked about the letter’s reference to a concern that the Commission is not receiving complete and/or accurate information from Google, Champeau also told us: “It’s really a matter of being sure that all that’s being said is the same. And that it doesn’t change depending on who is on the other side of the table.

“We don’t understand why the European Commission wouldn’t ask for changes to the choice screen based on the information that we have. So the only guess that we have is that it’s based on information that is not accurate. Otherwise we would be probably sure that the European Commission would have required changes to the choice screen even sooner than today.”

“We need to design something that appeals, that resonates with Europeans in Europe,” added Ghinozzi, reiterating that the design of the mechanism shouldn’t be left to the same company that’s been fined for anticompetitive behavior and which maintains up to 90% marketshare in Europe.

We reached out to Google for a response to the complaints about the auction model and it sent us this statement, attributed to a spokesperson:

Android provides people with unprecedented choice in deciding which applications they install, use and set as default on their devices. The choice screen for Europe strikes a careful balance between giving users yet more choice and ensuring that we can continue to invest in developing and maintaining the open-source Android platform for the long-term. The goal for the choice screen is to give all search providers equal opportunity to bid — not to give certain rivals special treatment.

While the Commission has yet to offer any relief to the consistent complaints from Google’s search rivals that the paid choice screen doesn’t meaningfully reset the competitive landscape on Android it is set to introduce a legislation package next month which will update ecommerce regulations and introduce a new set of obligations and requirements for so-called gatekeeper platforms holding dominant market positions — a move that’s being widely interpreted as a push to clip the wings of US tech giants like Google.

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Facebook steps into cloud gaming — and another feud with Apple – TechCrunch

Facebook will soon be the latest tech giant to enter the world of cloud gaming. Their approach is different than what Microsoft or Google has built, but Facebook highlights a shared central challenge: dealing with Apple.

Facebook is not building a console gaming competitor to compete with Stadia or xCloud; instead, the focus is wholly on mobile games. Why cloud stream mobile games that your device is already capable of running locally? Facebook is aiming to get users into games more quickly and put less friction between a user seeing an advertisement for a game and actually playing it themselves. Users can quickly tap into the title without downloading anything, and if they eventually opt to download the title from a mobile app store, they’ll be able to pick up where they left off.

Facebook’s service will launch on the desktop web and Android, but not iOS due to what Facebook frames as usability restrictions outlined in Apple’s App Store terms and conditions.

With the new platform, users will  be able to start playing mobile games directly from Facebook ads. Image via Facebook.

While Apple has suffered an onslaught of criticism in 2020 from developers of major apps like Spotify, Tinder and Fortnite for how much money they take as a cut from revenues of apps downloaded from the App Store, the plights of companies aiming to build cloud gaming platforms have been more nuanced and are tied to how those platforms are fundamentally allowed to operate on Apple devices.

Apple was initially slow to provide a path forward for cloud gaming apps from Google and Microsoft, which had previously been outlawed on the App Store. The iPhone maker recently updated its policies to allow these apps to exist, but in a more convoluted capacity than the platform makers had hoped, forcing them to first send users to the App Store before being able to cloud stream a gaming title on their platform.

For a user downloading a lengthy single-player console epic, the short pitstop is an inconvenience, but long-time Facebook gaming exec Jason Rubin says that the stipulations are a non-starter for what Facebook’s platform envisions, a way to start playing mobile games immediately without downloading anything.

“It’s a sequence of hurdles that altogether make a bad consumer experience,” Rubin tells TechCrunch.

Apple tells TechCrunch that they have continued to engage with Facebook on bringing its gaming efforts under its guidelines and that platforms can reach iOS by either submitting each individual game to the App Store for review or operating their service on Safari.

In terms of building the new platform onto the mobile web, Rubin says that without being able to point users of their iOS app to browser-based experiences, as current rules forbid, Facebook doesn’t see pushing its billions of users to accessing the service primarily from a browser as a reasonable alternative. In a Zoom call, Rubin demonstrates how this  could operate on iOS, with users tapping an advertisement inside the app and being redirected to a game experience in mobile Safari.

“But if I click on that, I can’t go to the web. Apple says, ‘No, no, no, no, no, you can’t do that,’ ” Rubin tells us. “Apple may say that it’s a free and open web, but what you can actually build on that web is dictated by what they decide to put in their core functionality.”

Facebook VP of Play Jason Rubin. Image via Facebook.

Rubin, who co-founded the game development studio Naughty Dog in 1994 before it was acquired by Sony in 2001, has been at Facebook since he joined Oculus months after its 2014 acquisition was announced. Rubin had previously been tasked with managing the games ecosystem for its virtual reality headsets; this year he was put in charge of the company’s gaming initiatives across their core family of apps as the company’s VP of Play.

Rubin, well familiar with game developer/platform skirmishes, was quick to distinguish the bone Facebook had to pick with Apple and complaints from those like Epic Games, which sued Apple this summer.

“I do want to put a pin in the fact that we’re giving Google 30% [on Android]. The Apple issue is not about money,” Rubin tells TechCrunch. “We can talk about whether or not it’s fair that Google takes that 30%. But we would be willing to give Apple the 30% right now, if they would just let consumers have the opportunity to do what we’re offering here.”

Facebook is notably also taking a 30% cut of transaction within these games, even as Facebook’s executive team has taken its own shots at Apple’s steep revenue fee in the past, most recently criticizing how Apple’s App Store model was hurting small businesses during the pandemic. This saga eventually led to Apple announcing that it would withhold its cut through the end of the year for ticket sales of small businesses hosting online events.

Apple’s reticence to allow major gaming platforms a path toward independently serving up games to consumers underscores the significant portion of App Store revenues that could be eliminated by a consumer shift toward these cloud platforms. Apple earned around $50 billion from the App Store last year, CNBC estimates, and gaming has long been their most profitable vertical.

Though Facebook is framing this as an uphill battle against a major platform for the good of the gamer, this is hardly a battle between two underdogs. Facebook pulled in nearly $70 billion in ad revenues last year, and improving their offerings for mobile game studios could be a meaningful step toward increasing that number, something Apple’s App Store rules threaten.

For the time being, Facebook is keeping this launch pretty conservative. There are just 5-10 titles that are going to be available at launch, Rubin says. Facebook is rolling out access to the new service, which is free, this week across a handful of states in America, including California, Texas, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Virginia and West Virginia. The hodge-podge nature of the geographic rollout is owed to the technical limitations of cloud-gaming — people have to be close to data centers where the service has rolled out in order to have a usable experience. Facebook is aiming to scale to the rest of the U.S. in the coming months, they say.

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