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A first look at Twitter’s new beta app and its bid to remain ‘valuable and relevant’ – TechCrunch

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Twitter has made a name for itself, at its most basic level, as a platform that gives everyone who uses it a voice. But as it has grown, that unique selling point has set Twitter up for as many challenges — harassment, confusing way to manage conversations — as it has opportunities — the best place to see in real time how the public reacts to something, be it a TV show, a political uprising, or a hurricane.

Now, to fix some of the challenges, the company is going to eat its own dogfood (birdfood?) when it comes to having a voice.

In the coming weeks, it’s going to launch a new beta program, where a select group of users will get access to features, by way of a standalone app, to use and talk about new features with others. Twitter, in turn, will use data that it picks up from that usage and chatter to decide how and if to turn those tests into full-blown product features for the rest of its user base.

We sat down with Sara Haider, Twitter’s director of product management, to take a closer look at the new app and what features Twitter will be testing in it (and what it won’t), now and in the future.

The company today already runs an Experiments Program for testing, as well as other tests, for example to curb abusive behavior, to figure out how to help the service run more smoothly. This new beta program will operate differently.

While there will only be around a couple thousand participants, those accepted will not be under NDA (unlike the Experiments Program). That means they can publicly discuss and tweet about the new features, allowing the wider Twitter community to comment and ask questions.

And unlike traditional betas, where users test nearly completed features before a public launch, the feedback from the beta could radically change the direction of what’s being built. Or, in some cases, what’s not.

“Unlike a traditional beta that is the last step before launch, we’re bringing people in super early,” Haider said.

The first version of the beta will focus on a new design for the way conversation threads work on Twitter. This includes a different color scheme, and visual cues to highlight important replies.

“It’s kind of a new take on our thinking about product development,” explains Haider. “One of the reasons why this is so critical for this particular feature is because we know we’re making changes that are pretty significant.”

She says changes of this scale shouldn’t just be dropped on users one day.

“We need you to be part of this process, so that we know we’re building the right experience,” Haider says.

Once accepted into the beta program, users will download a separate beta app – something that Twitter isn’t sure will always be the case. It’s unclear if that process will create too much friction, the company says, so it will see how testers respond.

Here are some of the more interesting features we talked and saw getting tested in the beta we were shown:

Color-coded replies

During the first beta, participants will try out new conversation features which offer color-coded replies to differentiate between responses from the original poster of the tweet, those from people you follow, and those from people you don’t follow.

In a development build of the beta app, Haider showed us what this looked like, with the caveat that the color scheme being used has been intentionally made to be overly saturated – it will be dialed down when the features launch to testers.

When you click into a conversation thread, the beta app will also offer visual cues to help you better find the parts of the thread that are of interest to you.

One way it’s doing so is by highlighting the replies in a thread that were written by people you follow on Twitter. Another change is that the person who posted the original tweet will also have their own replies in the thread highlighted.

In the build Haider showed us, replies from people she followed were shown in green, those from non-followers were blue, and her own replies were blue.

Algorithmically sorted responses

One of the big themes in Twitter’s user experience for power and more casual users is that they come up with workarounds for certain features that Twitter does not offer.

Take reading through long threads that may have some interesting detail that you would like to come back to later, or that branches off at some point that you’d like to follow after reading through everything else. Haider says she marks replies she’s seen with a heart to keep her place. Other people use Twitter’s “Tweets & Replies” section to find out when the original poster had replied within the thread, since it’s hard to find those replies when just scrolling down.

Now, the same kind of algorithmic sorting that Twitter has applied to your main timeline might start to make its way to your replies. These may also now be shown in a ranked order, so the important ones — like those from your Twitter friends — are moved to the top.

A later test may involve a version of Twitter’s Highlights, summaries of what it deems important, coming to longer threads, Haider said.

The time-based view is not going to completely leave, however. “The buzz, that feeling and that vibe [of live activity] that is something that we never want to lose,” CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey said last week on stage at CES. “Not everyone will be in the moment at the exact same time, but when you are, it’s an electrifying feeling…. Anything we can do to make a feeling of something much larger than yourself [we should].”

Removing hearts + other engagement icons

Another experiment Twitter is looking at is what it should do with its engagement buttons to streamline the look of replies for users. The build that we saw did not have any hearts to favorite/like Tweets, nor any icons for retweets or replies, when the Tweets came in the form of replies to another Tweet.

The icons and features didn’t completely disappear, but they would only appear when you tapped on a specific post. The basic idea seems to be: engagement for those who want it, a more simplified view for those who do not.

The heart icon has been a subject of speculation for some time now. Last year, the company told us that it was considering removing it, as part of an overall effort to improve the quality of conversation. This could be an example of how Twitter might implement just that.

Twitter may also test other things like icebreakers (pinned tweets designed to start conversations), and a status update field (i.e. your availability, location, or what you are doing, as on IM).

The status test, in fact, points to a bigger shift we may see in how Twitter as a whole is used, especially by those who come to the platform around a specific event.

One of the biggest laments has been that on-boarding on the app — the experience for those who are coming to Twitter for the first time — continues to be confusing. Twitter admits as much itself, and so — as with its recent deal with the NBA to provide a unique Twitter experience around a specific game — it will be making more tweaks and tests to figure out how to move Twitter on from being fundamentally focused around the people you follow.

“We have some work to do to make it easier to discover,” Dorsey said, adding that right now the platform is “more about people than interests.”

While all products need to evolve over time, Twitter in particular seems a bit obsessed with continually changing the basic mechanics of how its app operates.

It seems that there are at least a couple of reasons for that. One is that, although the service continues to see some growth in its daily active users, its monthly active users globally have been either flat, in decline, or growing by a mere two percent in the last four quarters (and in decline in the last three of the four quarters in the key market of the US).

That underscores how the company still has some work to do to keep people engaged.

The other is that change and responsiveness seem to be the essence of how Twitter wants to position itself these days. Last week, Dorsey noted that Twitter itself didn’t invent most of the ways that the platform gets used today. (The “RT” (retweet), which is now a button in the app; the hashtag; tweetstorms; expanded tweets, and even the now-ubiquitous @mention are all examples of features that weren’t created originally by Twitter, but added in based around how the app was used.)

“We want to continue our power of observation and learning… what people want Twitter to be and how to use it,” Dorsey said. “It allows us to be valuable and relevant.”

While these continual changes can sometimes make things more confusing, the beta program could potentially head off any design mistakes, uncover issues Twitter itself may have missed, and help Twitter harness that sort of viral development in a more focused way.



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This is the real voice behind Google Assistant

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When using Google Assistant, most of us don’t even consider who the voice is coming from — after all, it’s artificial intelligence, not a real person. Our virtual assistants, be it Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant, are always at our beck and call, but we (for the most part) remain well-aware of the fact that they’re just lines of code and intricate algorithms. But how would you feel if you knew that Google Assistant has a very human backstory?

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In an interview with The Atlantic, James Giangola, the lead conversation and persona designer at Google, spoke about the Assistant at great length. When the team set out to create its AI-based assistant, they knew that the line between a cool, futuristic feature and a mildly creepy if uncanny voice bot is very, very thin. Google Assistant was never meant to seem human — that would just be disturbing — but she was meant to be just human enough to make us feel comfortable. To achieve that elusive feeling of somewhat reserved comfort, Giangola and his team went to great lengths to perfect the Assistant.

You’d think that just hiring a skilled voice actor would be enough, but there was much more to consider than just finding a pleasant voice. James Giangola set out on a quest to make the Google Assistant sound normal and to hide that alien feeling of speaking to a robot. In order to do this, he made up a lengthy backstory for the Assistant.

A robot with an extensive backstory

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When searching for the right voice actress and then training her later on, The Atlantic notes that James Giangola came up with a very specific backstory for the AI. He did so because he wanted Google Assistant to appear real, and in order to give it a distinct personality, he gave the voice actress a lengthy background on the Assistant. First and foremost, the Assistant comes from Colorado, which gives her a neutral accent.

She comes from a well-read family and is the youngest daughter of a physics professor (who has a B.A. in art history from Northwestern University, no less) and a research librarian. She once worked for “a very popular late-night-TV satirical pundit” as a personal assistant. She was always a smart kid, she won $100,000 on the Kids Edition of “Jeopardy.” Oh, and she also likes kayaking. Let’s not forget: She’s not real.

The need to create such a specific backstory may seem questionable, and it actually was questioned by James Giangola’s colleagues. However, Giangola was able to prove his point during the audition process. When a colleague asked him how does anyone even sound like they’re into kayaking, Giangola fired back: “The candidate who just gave an audition — do you think she sounded energetic, like she’s up for kayaking?” And she didn’t, which to Giangola meant that she wasn’t the right voice.

Google aimed for ‘upbeat geekiness’

Phone with Google Assistant

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Aside from nailing the exact tone of her voice, which The Atlantic described as “upbeat geekiness,” the Assistant had to be trained to sound human not just by voice, but also by speech patterns and rhythms. In the interview, James Giangola talks about some of the different small changes that were made to take the Assistant from robotic to almost natural.

To illustrate the example, Giangola played a recording in which the AI had to contradict a user who wanted to book something on June 31. It had to be done in a delicate, natural-sounding manner that still delivers the required information. When prompted, the Assistant replied: “Actually, June has only 30 days,” achieving the level of vocal realism Giangola was looking for.

Although the Assistant’s intricate backstory may seem overkill, it seems to have helped Google find the right voice actress. According to Tech Bezeer, the main voice of the Assistant is Antonia Flynn, who was cast back in 2016. However, Google is not very forthcoming with information about who exactly voices each version of the Assistant, so this needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The information originates from Reddit, where a user was able to track Flynn down based on her voice, but only Google knows whether she really is the friendly AI inside our mobile devices.

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Microsoft’s post-Windows Phone vision leaks, but don’t get your hopes up

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While Microsoft’s Windows Phone ambitions are well and truly dead at this point, there was a time when the company was plotting a follow-up to the ill-fated mobile operating system. That follow-up was known internally as Andromeda OS, and it was being developed as the operating system for the Surface Duo. Sadly, Microsoft’s plan to create a version of Windows for dual-screen devices never saw the light of day, but today we’re getting a look at an internal build of Andromeda OS and what could have been.

Image: Microsoft

That look comes from Zac Bowden at Windows Central, who managed to get a build of Andromeda OS up and running on a Lumia 950. Even though Andromeda OS was intended for the Surface Duo, Microsoft apparently conducted internal testing on Lumia 950 devices, making it a solid choice for this hands-on.

In both his write-up and the video you see embedded below, Bowden is very clear that this is not some leak of a work-in-progress mobile operating system. Andromeda OS is dead and not in active development, so there’s no real hope of seeing a more fully-featured version launch on Microsoft’s mobile hardware at any point in the future. Despite that rather grim reality, this is a good look at the progress Microsoft made before it ultimately decided to ship the Surface Duo with Android.

Though the hands-on shows us an operating system that is very rough-around-the-edges and somewhat clunky, it’s immediately obvious that Microsoft planned Andromeda OS with inking capabilities at the center. For instance, the lock screen doubles as an inking space, allowing users to jot quick notes down on it that persist until they’re erased or the lock screen is cleared entirely.

Just as well, unlocking the device takes you to a home screen that also doubles as a journal. As with the lock screen, you can use this page to take notes, but you can also do things like paste stuff from the clipboard or insert an image for markup. Having the phone unlock to what is essentially a blank canvas instead of a home screen full of app icons is an interesting idea and one that we’re probably never going to see on other devices.

Andromeda OS also features a Start menu reminiscent of Windows Phone, which means that it has those familiar Live Tiles. Bowden also shows off the various gesture controls included in Andromeda OS, swiping from the left to summon the aforementioned Start menu and from the right to bring up Cortana and notifications. Swiping down pulls up the Control Center, which will look familiar to those who are currently using Windows 11.

Image: Windows Central

We’re also given a brief demo of what Andromeda OS might have looked like on an actual dual-screen device, but since that demo is also on a Lumia 950, we sadly don’t get the full experience. Still, it’s interesting to see what might have been before Microsoft decided to can Andromeda OS entirely and switch to Android for the Surface Duo.

While there’s no chance we’ll see this project revived for future Microsoft hardware, there is always the chance that some individual features could make their way to the Surface Duo. Even then, it’s probably best to appreciate this as a relic of the past rather than something that might inform Microsoft’s future efforts, as disappointing as that may be for those who miss Windows Phone and Windows 10 Mobile.

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Google just got terrible news in Europe – and it could get much worse

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Google was just hit by some very bad news coming from Europe, but the news may be even worse for website owners than for Google itself. In an unprecedented case, the court in Austria has just ruled that Google Analytics is in violation with the European data protection laws. As a result, Google Analytics has been made illegal in Austria.

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It all comes back to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) observed in Europe. Implemented in 2018, GDPR was created to give European citizens more control over their personal data, both online and offline. Unfortunately, the GDPR and US surveillance laws just do not mix.

According to a decision made in 2020 by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU,) policies that force website providers in the US to provide personal user data to authorities are against the GDPR. While this may not seem that related to Google Analytics at the first glance, it very much is. Some of the information readily collected by US providers is in direct violation with the GDPR, which in theory means that these websites would have to stop collecting private information in order to legally operate within Europe. In practice, it seems that not much has changed since 2018.

Google Analytics is now completely illegal in Austria

Prior to 2020, a law called the Privacy Shield was in place that allowed European data to be transferred to the United States. However, the shield was invalidated by the CJEU on July 16, 2020. Since then, US-based websites were not allowed to transfer the data of European citizens to the US. Of course, this only applies to data that falls under the GDPR, which only includes identifiable information about any given person. However, according to FieldFisher, this also includes IP addresses, as that is regarded as an “online identifier.”

Regardless of the 2020 ruling made by the CJEU, many providers continued to send personal data to the US — including Google Analytics. As stated by Max Schrems, honorary chair of NOYB, an European non-profit focused on digital rights, “Instead of actually adapting services to be GDPR compliant, US companies have tried to simply add some text to their privacy policies and ignore the Court of Justice. Many EU companies have followed the lead instead of switching to legal options.”

The Austrian Data Protection Authority has now followed up on what the CJEU ruled back in 2020 and made the use of Google Analytics completely illegal. The ruling comes into effect immediately, so all the websites that service Austrian citizens need to act quickly in order to not be fined for violating the local laws.

What will the new court ruling change?

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Many companies that operate in Europe will now have to decide between continuing to use Google Analytics and swapping to an alternative website traffic tool. Refusing to comply may result in hefty fines. However, it could be that providers will continue to ignore the European laws and risk the fines: After all, not every such business will be caught or reported. If caught, the price could be high: NOYB has described a case where the Irish Data Protection Commission issued a fine of 225 million euro on WhatsApp for violating data protection laws.

Ultimately, US-based companies will have to think of workarounds for European privacy laws. Simply hosting customer data in Europe would be helpful, although this would of course limit the type of data that can be freely collected and distributed. For the time being, websites that continue to use Google Analytics will need to obtain consent from each visitor prior to collecting any data.

The choice to ban Google Analytics in Austria may be the first step in a larger revolution. Other countries in the European Union are likely to follow, so while Austria may be the first bit of bad news for Google, there is likely much more to come.

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