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Apple needs a feature like Google’s Call Screen – TechCrunch

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Google just one-upped Apple in a significant way by addressing a problem that’s plaguing U.S. cellphone owners: spam calls. The company’s new Pixel 3 flagship Android smartphone is first to introduce a new call screening feature that leverages the built-in Google Assistant. The screening service transcribes the caller’s request in real-time, allowing you to decide whether or not to pick up, and gives you a way to respond.

Despite the numerous leaks about Google’s new hardware, Call Screen and the launch of Duplex for restaurant reservations were big surprises coming from Google’s hardware event yesterday.

Arguably, they’re even more important developments than fancy new camera features  – even if Group Selfie and Top Shot are cool additions to Google’s new phone.

Apple has nothing like this call screening feature, only third-party call blocking apps – which are also available on Android, of course.

Siri today simply isn’t capable of answering phones on your behalf, politely asking the caller what they want, and transcribing their response instantly. It needs to catch up, and fast.

Half of calls will be spam in 2019

Call Screen, based on Google’s Duplex technology, is a big step for our smart devices. One where we’re not just querying our Assistant for help with various tasks, or to learn the day’s news and weather, but one where the phone’s assistant is helping with real-world problems.

In addition to calling restaurants to inquire about tables, Assistant will now help save us from the increasing barrage of spam calls.

This is a massive problem that every smartphone owner can relate to, and one the larger mobile industry has so far failed to solve.

Nearly half of all cellphone calls next year will be from scammers. And their tactics have gotten much worse in recent months.

They now often trick people by claiming to be the IRS, a bank, government representatives, and more. They pretend you’re in some sort of legal trouble. They say someone has stolen your bank card. They claim you owe taxes. Plus, they often use phone number spoofing tricks to make their calls appear local in order to get recipients to pick up.

The national Do-Not-Call registry hasn’t solved the problem. And despite large FCC fines, the epidemic continues.

A.I. handles the spammers 

In light of an industry solution, Google has turned to A.I.

The system has been designed to sound more natural, stepping in to do the sort of tasks we don’t want to – like calling for bookings, or screening our calls by first asking “who is this, please?” 

With Call Screen, as Google explained yesterday, Pixel device owners will be able to tap a button when a call comes in to send it to the new service. Google Assistant will answer the call for you, saying: “Hi, the person you’re calling is using a screening service from Google, and will get a copy of this conversation. Go ahead and say your name and why you’re calling.

The caller’s response is then transcribed in real-time on your screen.

These transcripts aren’t currently being saved, but Google says they could be stored in your Call History in the future.

To handle the caller, you can tap a variety of buttons to continue or end the conversation. Based on the demo and support documentation, these include things like: “Who is this?,” “I’ll call you back,” “Tell me more,” “I can’t understand,” or “Is it urgent?”

You can also use the Assistant to say things like, “Please remove the number from your contact list. Thanks and goodbye,” the demo showed, after the recipient hit the “Report as spam” button.

While Google’s own Google Voice technology has been able to screen incoming calls, this involved little more than asking for the caller’s name. Call Screen is next-level stuff, to put it mildly.

And it’s all taking place on the device, using A.I. – it doesn’t need to use your Wi-Fi connection or your mobile data, Google says.

As Call Screen is adopted at scale, Google will have effectively built out its own database of scammers. It could then feasibly block spam calls or telemarketers on your behalf as an OS-level feature at some point in the future.

“You’ll never have to talk to another telemarketer,” said Google PM Liza Ma at the event yesterday, followed by cheers and applause – one of the few times the audience even clapped during this otherwise low-key press conference.

Google has the better A.I. Phone

The news of Call Screen, and of Duplex more broadly, is another shot fired across Apple’s bow.

Smartphone hardware is basically good enough, and has been for some time. Apple and Google’s modern smartphones take great photos, too. New developments on the camera front matter more to photography enthusiasts than to the average user. The phones are fine. The cameras are fine. So what else can the phones do?

The next battle for smartphones is going to be about A.I. technology.

Apple is aware that’s the case.

In June, the company introduced what we called its “A.I. phone” – an iPhone infused with Siri smarts to personalize the device and better assist. It allows users to create A.I.-powered workflows to automate tasks, to speak with Siri more naturally with commands they invent, and to allow apps to make suggestions instead sending interruptive notifications.

But much of Siri’s capabilities still involve manual tweaking on users’ parts.

You record custom Siri voice commands to control apps (and then have to remember what your Siri catch phrase is in order to use them). Workflows have to be pinned together in a separate Siri Shortcuts app that’s over the heads of anyone but power users.

These are great features for iPhone owners, to be sure, but they’re not exactly automating A.I. technology in a seamless way. They’re Apple’s first steps towards making A.I. a bigger part of what it means to use an iPhone.

Call Screen, meanwhile, is a use case for A.I. that doesn’t require a ton of user education or manual labor. Even if you didn’t know it existed, pushing a “screen call” button when the phone rings is fairly straightforward stuff.

And it’s not just going to be just a Pixel 3 feature.

Said Google, Pixel 3 owners in the U.S. are just getting it first. It will also roll out to older Pixel devices next month (in English). Presumably, however, it will come to Android itself in time, when these early tests wrap.

After all, if the mobile OS battle is going to be over A.I. going forward, there’s no reason to keep A.I. advancements tied to only Google’s own hardware devices.

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Apple returns to No. 1 as global smartphone shipments grapple with supply chain concerns – TechCrunch

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Supply chain issues continue to have a major impact on smartphone manufacturers per newly released figures from analyst firm Canalys — global shipments grew only 1% year over year in the final quarter of 2021. The numbers come on the tail of Q3 reports, which saw an overall drop of 6%, citing similar issues over component supply.

The firm also factors in a resurgence of COVID-19, courtesy of the omicron variant, which has sent a number of locals into shutdown reminiscent of the pandemic’s early days roughly two years ago. Canalys notes that this impact is greatest among the smaller manufacturers in the market, who have had the greatest issues finding new suppliers.

“Component manufacturers are eking out additional production, but it will take years for major foundries to significantly increase chip capacity,” the firm’s Mobility VP Nicole Peng said in a statement tied to the new figures. “Smartphone brands are already innovating to make the most of their circumstances, tweaking device specs in response to available materials, approaching emerging chipmakers to secure new sources for ICs, focusing product lines on the best-selling models and staggering new product releases.”

Image Credits: Canalys

Larger companies remain less impacted overall by shortages and bottlenecks. The quarter also saw Apple return to the overall top spot in the global market, after three quarters away. The company’s rise is attributed to the success of the iPhone 13 and an extremely solid performance in Mainland China — the world’s largest smartphone market.

Apple’s overall marketshare ticked up from 12% to 23% of the market since last quarter. The previous drop owed in part, to the company’s trouble meeting demand in a number of regions in recent quarters.

“Apple’s supply chain is starting to recover, but it was still forced to cut production in Q4 amid shortages of key components and could not make enough iPhones to meet demand,” says analyst Sanyam Chaurasia. “In prioritized markets, it maintained adequate delivery times, but in some markets its customers had to wait to get their hands on the latest iPhones.”

Samsung, meanwhile, dropped to second, from 23% to 20% of the total market. Chinese manufacturers Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo rounded out the top five for Q4.

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Block’s Cash App adopts Lightning Network for free bitcoin payments – TechCrunch

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Late last year, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey stepped down from his position in order to give his full attention to his other company Square, now called Block, which had become increasingly invested in blockchain technology and cryptocurrency — just like Dorsey himself. Now we’re starting to see the results of Block’s embrace of crypto, as this morning Cash App announced it’s integrated with the Lightning Network, allowing its U.S. users to send bitcoin for free to anyone worldwide.

The feature had been slowly rolling out to Cash App customers before today, but Cash App had not yet made a formal announcement. The company says the rollout is expected to complete over the “coming weeks,” reaching all U.S. Cash App customers.

Once live, Cash App users will be able to send bitcoin internationally to any external compatible wallet, including those for family or friends or a self-managed wallet, like Chivo Wallet, BlueWallet, or Muun Wallet, for example. Users will also be able to send bitcoin to any merchant that accepts Lightning Network payments, with zero fees. While this isn’t yet a mainstream activity, a few merchants have begun to accept Lightning payments, allowing customers to do things like order a pizza over the Lightning Network or buy gift cards.

The Lightning Network’s integration into Cash App could also help to empower the growing creator economy, as fans could send bitcoin to show their support for an individual creator or cause if they accepted Lightning payments. 

Cash App explains the advantages of this system, noting that typical Bitcoin network transactions can take some time to process and see higher fees, compared with Lightning Network — whose name is meant to convey its speedier capabilities. Its transactions also take place independently of the blockchain (off-chain), which helps to reduce the fees, time, and energy usage that would otherwise be involved. But the Lightning Network will still benefit from the blockchain’s technology and decentralization, as the transactions taking place on the network are later consolidated and recorded to the main Bitcoin blockchain.

Dorsey himself had demonstrated interest in the Lightning Network, tweeting back in 2019 that it was a “cool example” of the experimentation taking place among #BitcoinTwitter users. More recently, Block’s bitcoin-focused company, Spiral, presented its Lightning Development Kit (LDK) which offers a way to easily integrate bitcoin payments into any application. The new Lightning integration on Cash App is also powered by Spiral’s LDK — and Cash App is also the first and largest payments app to integrate with LDK at this time, the company notes.

The rollout of LDK is also an example of Block’s strategic vision in action, where one arm may build the tools that are adopted by other Block-owned businesses.

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Kenyan low-cost ISP Poa Internet secures $28 million in round led by AfDB-backed Africa50, plans to link region with cheap, limit-free connectivity

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In 2020, Africa50, an infrastructure financier backed by the Africa Development Bank (AfDB) Group and a good number of African governments, hosted an innovation challenge that sought affordable and reliable solutions for last-mile internet connectivity across the continent. A proposal by Poa Internet, a Kenyan startup beat 673 others from across the world as a result of which it was added to Africa50’s investment pipeline in addition to winning a cash prize.

Slightly over one year after the win, the internet service provider (ISP) has received $28 million in a Series C funding round led by Africa50, bringing the total amount it has raised to date to $36 million. Also participating in the latest round was Novastar Ventures, one of the firm’s earliest backers.

Poa plans to use the new funding to grow its reach, first across Kenya then progressively to other countries in the continent.

“We are focused on Kenya at the moment, but the problem we’re solving is continent-wide. And for us, it’s not just about getting people some connectivity. Our aim is to get a lot of people online and to give them a meaningful internet experience like the ability to stream videos, without worrying about how much data they’re consuming,” Poa Internet’s CEO and founder, Andy Halsall, told TechCrunch.

Poa Internet currently serves over 12,000 customers (homes and small businesses) in Nairobi’s low and middle-income neighborhoods, and tens of thousands more through its street Wi-Fi connections. The startup has laid out its fiber network in neighborhoods that are typically not the first target markets for its competitors like Safaricom Home by East Africa’s biggest telco Safaricom, Faiba by Jamii Telecommunication Limited and Zuku.

Poa Internet founding team from left to right: Mike Puchol (CTO), Andy Halsall (CEO), Chris Rhodes (COO) and DJ Koeman (CBDO). Image Credits: Poa Internet

Poa Internet charges its customers a monthly fee of about $13, which is half the market rate, giving it a competitive edge. Its customers also have unlimited data usage, another aspect that makes their products attractive to internet users in the country, where major ISPs offer monthly subscription bundles with data caps.

The startup has also set up Wi-Fi hotspots in public areas, where users pay about $0.18 for 1 GB of data, 10 times cheaper than the country’s telcos charge for a similar bundle of non-expiring internet.

“Our internet speeds are 4mbps, which is fast enough for video, because everyone wants to stream Netflix, use YouTube, download movies and make video calls. So, we’ve designed our service to be fast enough to deliver video, but most importantly, our price is a winning factor,” said Halsall.

“Our primary focus is to get the price as low as possible and to operate in the communities that don’t have fiber connectivity or are unlikely to get fiber. Therefore, we’re not really going to compete really against anyone because we are going after a market sector that is not well served.”

Affordability remains one of the main roadblocks to internet access across the continent and Poa Internet service has been trying to solve this puzzle since it entered Kenya in 2015.

Africa, and more narrowly sub-Saharan Africa, has the most expensive internet prices in the world, and this negatively impacts on the continent’s ability to grow its digital economies and to adapt to situations like the Covid pandemic. The pandemic’s containment measures, for instance, required most people to work from home and for students to continue learning online — but this remained impractical in most countries across the continent due to the lack of necessary gadgets and internet connectivity, partly due to underdeveloped infrastructure and pricing.

Benefits of affordable data and a more connected continent are massive in that as more people get connected sectors such as e-commerce and e-learning will experience a take-off.

There were 303 million people, which is less than a third of the population, connected to the mobile internet according to the 2021 GSM Association, an industry organization representing mobile operators, mobile economy report. This figure is expected to grow to about 40% of this population by 2025. However, while mobile internet contributes a great deal in getting people online, as Halsall hinted earlier, the experience of limited connectivity is incomparable to freedom that comes with a limitless connection.

Poa Internet currently serves homes and small businesses in Nairobi’s low and middle-income neighborhoods, and tens of thousands more through its street Wi-Fi connections. Image Credits: Poa Internet (Brian Otieno)

“Poa has been instrumental in bridging the needs of last- mile connectivity, and their ultra-low-cost solutions can be used to address the significant connectivity gaps in Kenya and across the continent as a whole. This is particularly important at a time when societies and economic activities are increasingly becoming digitized as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Africa50 managing director and head of infrastructure investments at Africa50, Raza Hasnani.

Africa50 currently has 31 shareholders including the AfDB, the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO), Bank Al-Maghrib (the Central Bank of the Kingdom of Morocco, and 28 African countries.

“Increasing access to reliable and affordable internet connectivity is strongly aligned with the key pillars of Africa50’s strategy, and we are excited to be part of this high impact journey and to support Poa’s growth in Africa,” said Hasnani.

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