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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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Apple Unleashed: Everything we can expect

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Slightly over a month after its September event, Apple is set for an “Unleashed” October event. This second product launch of the fall on October 18 is scheduled a day before Google’s much-anticipated Pixel event. Strategically timed or not, the Apple event is not going to have any competitive iPhones to show. The highlight of the “Unleashed” event will be the new MacBook Pros powered by an upgraded in-house processor.

Once again, it wouldn’t be an in-person event; it will be livestreamed from Apple’s Cupertino headquarters for the world to follow. It will kick off at 10am Pacific Time on Monday, which is unusual, since Apple products are generally released on Tuesdays. To an extent, this is cleverly timed to hog up Google’s limelight.

Apple as we know has already launched iPhone 13 lineup along with the Apple Watch Series 7 and new iPads, it is exciting to understand what is in store for the latest launch event. We are definitely going to see the upgraded ARM-based M1 chipset – likely called M1X – which will find its way into the revamped MacBook Pros, in the Mac Mini, and maybe a larger iMac.

Perhaps, there is no concrete information about the M1X Macs but a recent leak does confirm the possibility of long-rumored AirPods 3 to join the party. The new AirPods were earlier expected to release along with the new iPhones, that hasn’t happened, so we are hopeful the earbuds will make an appearance on Monday.

How to watch the event?

Before we delve deeper into the expected products, let’s run through how you can watch the event live. In case you miss the livestreaming, we will be covering the product launches as and when they happen here on Slashgear.

The “Unleashed” event will be streamed live on Apple’s website or on the Apple TV app. It will also be aired on the Apple channel on YouTube, so you can tune in to your preferred medium at 10am PT on October 18.

The revamped MacBook Pro

The next-generation Apple processor designed specifically for the Mac is expected to get more than just an incremental upgrade. The M1 chip launched last year has proven its worth with powerful features and incredible efficiency. The chipset revolutionized the MacBook Pro in 2020; in 2021, the processor with upgraded performance and efficiency will power the notably distinct MacBook Pro beyond ordinary expectations.

When Apple introduced the M1 chip, it informed that the transition from Intel to Apple’s own silicon will take about “two years” to complete. Into the second year now, we expect the journey is almost complete and the potent new chipset is ready. It can replace the Intel processing in the larger-screen MacBook Pro and take the performance of the smaller Pro to an exciting new high.

Actually, two MacBook Pro variants are launching this year. The 13.3-inch model from the previous year goes out and a resized 14-inch MacBook Pro will debut, which is likely to arrive alongside a 16-inch model. Since both the variants will run on the same graphics-enhancing M1X processor, Apple may deliver two separate options of its SoC for either MacBook. The difference may be in the GPU and storage variants.

Besides the incredible processing, the MacBook Pro is for the first time in five years allegedly receiving a redesign in line with the trusted form factor of the iPhone 13. The flat-edge design that launched with the iPhone 12, will add a nice appeal to the new MacBook Pro that will arrive without the Touch Bar but a 1080p webcam.

The laptop is also likely to arrive with mini-LED panel boasting 120Hz refresh rate. There is a chance it will feature a thinner bezel and include slots for SD card and HDMI. The MagSafe charging is allegedly making a comeback to the Apple MacBook Pro.

AirPods 3

The probable launch of AirPods 3 is a rumor that doesn’t seem to settle. Whenever we discuss the pre-launch expectation of an Apple event the next-generation AirPods invariably pop up in discussion. The much-anticipated earbuds might launch this time after failing us in September when they should have logically arrived with the iPhones.

The redesigned, entry-level AirPods 3 are likely to launch with a shorter stem and a wireless charging case, similar to the AirPods Pro. There have been leaks suggesting them with silicone ear tips. Despite how close they get to the AirPods Pro, the third-gen AirPods will be an affordable alternative without ANC.

The final thoughts

In the lead-up to the second fall event, there have been half-baked stories about a few other probabilities. Notable Apple analyst Mark Gurman thinks a high-end Mac Mini powered by the improved in-house chip is on the cards. Announcement of a release date for the company’s macOS Monterey is also likely at the event. The desktop operating system was previewed at the WWDC 2021, albeit a small update, it will still be exciting to know a possible date for its release.

This is more or less what we can expect. Apple however has a knack for pulling out the unexpected, so we’ll only know what’s what on Monday when Apple goes Unleashed. There could be some surprises but 14 and 16-inch MacBook Pros powered by M1X SoC is going to be the biggest highlight.

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Tinder’s latest feature helps users find dates for in-person weddings

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If taking a total stranger as your plus one to a wedding doesn’t sound like a bad idea to you, Tinder is back with a new feature that’ll make the entire process easier. The company has announced a feature called Plus One that, as you’d expect, lets users alert others that they’re looking for a date to take to a wedding.

Tinder announced its new Plus One feature on Thursday, stating that it has teamed up with WeddingWire to help users find someone to take as a date to a wedding. The feature is available in the app’s Explore section, ensuring users are able to make their particular needs known to others who may want to tag along.

The team-up with WeddingWire, meanwhile, is to launch a ‘Wedding Guest Grant’ giveaway that’s now live. With this, the first 100 people to join the Plus One section in Explore will get $460 toward the cost of a wedding — the average amount WeddingWire says people spend to show up as guests.

Many in the industry are bracing for an anticipated onslaught in weddings later this year and through 2022. The reason is — you guessed it — because of the wedding postponements that occurred in 2020 and most of 2021 due to the pandemic.

The combination of readily available vaccines in many places, as well as cheap rapid COVID-19 tests and loosened travel restrictions, have made in-person weddings a safer option again. According to Tinder, it has seen the number of users adding “plus one” to their profiles increase 45-percent since the start of 2021.

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Steam Blockchain games ban: Good news for NFT and crypto alike

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An update to Valve’s rules for games on Steam effectively bans all Blockchain games that use cryptocurrencies or NFTs. This is GOOD news if you’re a cryptocurrency or NFT holder, at the moment, as it represents another public acknowledgement of the real-world value of cryptocurrencies and NFTs alike.

It’s not clear yet if this means that any sort of game using ANY sort of blockchain tech will be removed – but it DOES stop all blockchain-based digital tokens from playing a part in games on Steam. Information was shared by the folks behind the game Age of Rust, a game that’s built with blockchain tech that allows the exchange of NFT in accordance with puzzle solving gameplay.

SEE TOO: What is NFT? (for the crypto-newb)

If we’re looking at the situation from the perspective of the developers of a game like Age of Rust, this is certainly a setback. It might just be a temporary setback, but it IS a setback. These developers will need to find a new way to distribute their games – which might mean they need to work with less well-known game hosting platforms.

The developers of Age of Rust suggested that Valve told them that “Steam’s point of view is that items have value and they don’t allow items that can have real-world value on their platform.” So if you were wondering if a company as big as Valve considered those bits of code you were earning in your games to have any value outside of the games you’ve been playing… there’s your answer.

Now it’ll be interesting to see the point at which Valve must acknowledge the difference between in-game cryptocurrency and NFT exchange and in-game purchases, and whether there’ll be any further distinction between the two in future updates to Steam’s set of rules for hosted games. Given Steam’s use of tradeable achievement cards, tokens, and the like, it would not be shocking to find Valve incorporating non-fungible tokens (NFTs) into their platform at a higher level in the near future.

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