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Facebook is building an operating system so it can ditch Android – TechCrunch

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Facebook doesn’t want its hardware like Oculus or its augmented reality glasses to be at the mercy of Google because they rely on its Android operating system. That’s why Facebook has tasked Mark Lucovsky, a co-author of Microsoft’s Windows NT, with building the social network an operating system from scratch, according to The Information’s Alex Heath. To be clear, Facebook’s smartphone apps will remain available on Android.

“We really want to make sure the next generation has space for us,” says Facebook’s VP of Hardware, Andrew ‘Boz’ Bosworth. “We don’t think we can trust the marketplace or competitors to ensure that’s the case. And so we’re gonna do it ourselves.”

Eye OS

By moving to its own OS, Facebook could have more freedom to bake social interaction — and hopefully privacy — deeper into its devices. It could also prevent a disagreement between Google and Facebook from derailing the roadmaps of its gadgets. Facebook tells TechCrunch the focus of this work is on what’s needed for AR glasses. It’s exploring all the options right now, including potentially partnering with other companies or building a custom OS specifically for augmented reality.

One added bonus of moving to a Facebook-owned operating system? It could make it tougher to force Facebook to spin out some of its acquisitions, especially if Facebook goes with Instagram branding for its future augmented reality glasses.

Facebook Portal Lineup

Facebook has always been sore about not owning an operating system and having to depend on the courtesy of some of its biggest rivals. Those include Apple, whose CEO Tim Cook has repeatedly thrown jabs at Facebook and its chief Mark Zuckerberg over privacy and data collection. In a previous hedge against the power of the mobile operating systems, Facebook worked on a secret project codenamed Oxygen circa 2013 that would help it distribute Android apps from outside the Google Play store if necessary, Vox’s Kurt Wagner reported.

That said, its last attempt to wrestle more control of mobile away from the OS giants in 2013 went down in flames. The Facebook phone, built with HTC hardware, ran a forked version of Android and the Facebook Home user interface. But drowning the experience in friends’ photos and Messenger chat bubbles proved wildly unpopular, and both the HTC First and Facebook Home were shelved.

Investing in tomorrow tech

Now Facebook is hoping to learn from past mistakes as it ramps up its hardware efforts with a new office for the AR/VR team in Burlingame, 15 miles north of the company’s headquarters. The 770,000-square-foot space is designed to house roughly 4,000 employees. Facebook tells TechCrunch the team will move there in the second half of 2020 to make use of its labs, prototype space and testing areas. The AR/VR team will still have members at other offices across California, Washington, New York and abroad.

TechCrunch asked for more info about the space, and Facebook revealed that it’s planning to open a public-facing, experiential space — possibly the first Facebook-branded permanent location that anyone can visit. There, people will be able to come play with its augmented reality and virtual reality products. Those could range from the Oculus Quest headsets and Facebook Portal smart displays it currently sells to potential future products like the camera glasses it’s reportedly building with Ray Ban-maker Luxottica and eventually its full-fledged AR eyewear.

A rendering of Facebook’s under-construction new space in Burlingame, Calif.

Facebook says it’s considering building true retail space into the Burlingame office to let people try and then buy its hardware products. This would be a significant first step toward self-branded Facebook retail spaces in the vein of Apple and Microsoft’s stores.

Interested in potentially controlling more of the hardware stack, Facebook held acquisition talks with $4.5 billion market cap semiconductor company Cirrus Logic, which makes audio chips for Apple and more, The Information reports. That deal never happened, and it’s unclear how far the talks went given tech giants constantly keep their M&A teams open to discussions. But it shows how serious Facebook is taking hardware, even if Portal and Oculus sales have been slow to date. Facebook declined to comment on the matter.

That could start to change next year, though, as flagship virtual reality experiences hit the market. I got a press preview of the upcoming Medal of Honor first-person shooter that will launch on the Oculus Quest in 2020. An hour of playing the World War II game flew by, and it was one of the first VR games that felt like you could enjoy it week after week rather than being just a tech demo. Medal of Honor could prove to be the killer app that convinces gamers they have to get a Quest.

Social hardware

Facebook has also been working on hardware experiences for the enterprise. Facebook Workplace video calls can now run on Portal, with its smart camera auto-zooming to keep everyone in the board room in frame or focused on the action. The Information reports Facebook is also prototyping a VR videoconferencing system that Boz has been testing with his team. Facebook tells TechCrunch that Boz hosted two internal events where he videoconferenced through VR to about 100 of his team leaders using virtual Q&A software Facebook is prototyping internally. It’s hoping to learn what would be necessary to consistently hold meetings in VR.

The hardware initiatives, meanwhile, feed back into Facebook’s core ad business. It’s now using some data about what people do on their Oculus or Portal to target them with ads. From playing certain games to accessing kid-focused experiences to virtually teleporting to vacation destinations, there’s plenty of lucrative data for Facebook to potentially mine.

Facebook tells TechCrunch that Portal currently takes data — like if you log in, make calls or use certain features — to inform ad targeting. For example, it could show you ads related to video calling if you do that a lot. With Oculus, if you connect your Facebook account, then data about apps you use or events you join could be used to tune its algorithms or target ads.

Facebook even wants to know what’s on our mind before we act on it. The Information reports that Facebook’s brain-computer interface hardware for controlling interfaces by employing sensors to recognize a word a user is thinking has been shrunk down. It’s gone from the size of a refrigerator to something hand-held, but is still far from ready for integration into a phone. Facebook tells TechCrunch it’s making progress, improving the word error rate significantly up the state-of-the-art research and expanding the dictionary of words that can be recognized. Facebook can now decode brain activity in real time, and it’s working on an intermediary system for identifying single words as it pushes toward 100 words-per-minute brain typing.

Selling Oculus headsets, Portal screens and mind-readers might never generate the billions in profits Facebook earns from its efficient ads business, but they could ensure the social network isn’t locked out of the next waves of computing. Whether those are fully immersive like virtual reality, convenient complements to our phones like smart displays or minimally invasive sensors, Facebook wants them to be social. If it can bring your friends along to your new gadgets, Facebook will find some way to squeeze out revenue while keeping these devices from making us more isolated and less human.



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Oracle now monitoring TikTok’s algorithms and moderation system for manipulation by China’s government – TechCrunch

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Oracle has begun auditing TikTok’s algorithms and content moderation models, according to a new report from Axios out this morning. Those reviews began last week, and follow TikTok’s June announcement it had moved its U.S. traffic to Oracle servers amid claims its U.S. user data had been accessed by TikTok colleagues in China.

The new arrangement is meant to allow Oracle the ability to monitor TikTok’s systems to help the company in its efforts to assure U.S. lawmakers that its app is not being manipulated by Chinese government authorities. Oracle will audit how TikTok’s algorithm surfaces content to “ensure outcomes are in line with expectations,” and that those models have not been manipulated, the report said. In addition, TikTok will regularly audit TikTok’s content moderation practices, including both its automated systems and its moderation decisions where people are choosing how to enforce TikTok policy.

TikTok’s moderation policies have been controversial in years past. In 2019, The Washington Post reported TikTok’s U.S. employees had often been ordered to restrict some videos on its platform at the behest of Beijing-based teams, and that teams in China would sometimes block or penalize certain videos out of caution about Chinese government restrictions. That same year, The Guardian also reported TikTok had been telling its moderators to censor videos that mentioned things like Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong, per a set of leaked documents. In 2020, The Intercept reported TikTok moderators were told to censor political speech in livestreams and to suppress posts from “undesirable users” — the unattractive, poor or disabled, its documents said.

All the while, TikTok disputed the various claims — calling leaked documents outdated, for instance, in the latter two scenarios. It also continued to insist that its U.S. arm didn’t take instructions from its Chinese parent, ByteDance.

But a damning June 2022 report by BuzzFeed News proved that TikTok’s connection to China was closer than it had said. The news outlet found that U.S. data had been repeatedly accessed by staff in China, citing recordings from 80 TikTok internal meetings.

Following BuzzFeed’s reporting, TikTok announced that it was moving all U.S. traffic to Oracle’s infrastructure cloud service — a move designed to keep TikTok’s U.S. user data from prying eyes.

That agreement, a part of a larger operation called “Project Texas,” had been in progress for over a year and was focused on further separating TikTok’s U.S. operations from China, and employing an outside firm to oversee its algorithms.

Now, it seems Oracle is in charge of keeping an eye on TikTok to help prevent data emanating from the U.S. from being directed to China. The deal steps up Oracle’s involvement with TikTok as not only the host for the user data, but an auditor who could later back up or dispute TikTok’s claims that its system is operating fairly and without China’s influence. 

Oracle and TikTok have an interesting history. Towards the end of the Trump administration, the former president tried to force a sale between the two companies, bringing in long-time supporter, Oracle founder and CTO Larry Ellison to help broker the deal for his company. That deal eventually fell apart in February 2021, but the story didn’t end there, as it turned out.

But while this new TikTok-Oracle agreement has significance in terms of the tech industry and in politics, Oracle’s deal with TikTok doesn’t necessarily make the firm a more powerful player in the cloud infrastructure market.

Even with TikTok’s business, Oracle’s cloud infrastructure service represents just a fraction of the cloud infrastructure market. In the most recent quarter, Synergy Research, a firm that tracks this data, reported the cloud infrastructure market reached almost $55 billion with Amazon leading the way with 34%, Microsoft in second with 21%, and Google in third place with 10%. Oracle remains under 2%, says John Dinsdale, who is a principal analyst at the firm.

“Oracle’s share of the worldwide cloud infrastructure services market remains at just below 2% and has shown no signs of meaningful increase. So Oracle’s cloud revenue growth is pretty much keeping pace with overall market growth,” Dinsdale told TechCrunch. Synergy defines “cloud infrastructure services” as Infrastructure as a Service, Platform as a Service and hosted private cloud services. Dinsdale points out that Oracle’s SaaS business is much stronger.”

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Spotify prompts some users to record reaction podcasts to playlists – TechCrunch

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After testing new in-app podcast recording tools for users in New Zealand, Spotify is now trialing a new audio feature in Vietnam, one that’s designed to encourage users to record voice reactions to playlists.

A Reddit user posted screenshots of the feature, showing how they received a prompt to react to a playlist with a voice clip that will be posted as a podcast episode. As per its previous test in New Zealand, it’s fair to assume that these reaction ‘podcasts’ will be published directly to creators’ personal profilers where followers will be able to listen.

The screenshots show that users included in the test are seeing a microphone icon on playlist screens, and upon tapping that, they see a new screen that prompts them to record a voice reaction to the playlist.

Users are seeing a mic icon to record a voice reaction to a playlist Image Credits: Reddit (opens in a new window)

Spotify recording prompt

Image Credits: Reddit (opens in a new window)

Once they hit the button, they can either record in one go or multiple clips by pausing. Later, they can edit the clip, add background music, and tag the playlist before publishing.

This workflow is similar to the test in New Zealand, except in that test, the starting point was a “Record Podcast” button on the home screen. So this test is more about giving a prompt to users who might not have a podcast idea in their mind.

Spotify podcast

Spotify shows some rules creators must follow for podcast recording for safety Image Credits: Reddit (opens in a new window)

Spotify has confirmed the test, but the company didn’t share any details about what locations the feature is available, and how it plans to moderate these voice reactions.

“At Spotify, we are always looking for ways to enhance our users’ experience on our platform, and we regularly test features that we believe will bring value to listeners and creators. We are currently running a limited test of in-app audio creation, but have no further details to share at this time,” the company said in a statement to TechCrunch.

As we noted in our story in June, a lot of these features are powered by Spotify-owned podcast creation app Anchor. These tests indicate that the streaming giant is trying to convert listeners to creators by providing them with easy in-app tools to make and publish podcasts.

In its Q2 2022 earnings last month, Spotify said it now has 4.4 million podcasts on the platform, and users engaging with them have grown at a “substantial double digits year-on-year.” Spotify has invested more than $1 billion in podcasting in the last few years with €83 million ($84.3 million) invested this year alone to acquire podcast analytics companies Podsights and Chartable.

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Bumble experiments with group chats, polls and video calls for its new social networking feature, ‘Hive’ – TechCrunch

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Dating app maker Bumble revealed more of its plans to strengthen its social networking features during last week’s Q2 earnings, which saw the company’s shares slump over its lowered financial outlook despite delivering a revenue beat. Now, new images show what Bumble has been developing as part of the larger revamp of its “Bumble BFF” friend-finding feature — a change that could help the app attract a new audience beyond just young singles. Specifically, Bumble BFF has been testing a new “communities” offering it’s calling “Hive,” which, the images show, may include support for features like group chat, polls and video calls.

Bumble briefly referenced its plans for Hive on its Q2 2022 earnings call with investors, noting Hive was a “next-generation offering” focused on helping people find “platonic connections through small communities.” In other words, a groups product.

“As we have shared before, our approach is built on the insight that people want to find friends, acquaintances and connections through shared struggles and common joys: moving to a new city, navigating parenthood, finding a partner for hiking, or really anything else in between,” founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd told investors.

She noted Bumble had recently expanded its alpha tests of the new Bumble BFF feature to the Greater Toronto area where Bumble users have since created thousands of these online communities known as “Hives.”

Image Credits: Bumble Hives via Watchful

The promise of platonic social networking is one the company believes could help it find engagement beyond the world of online dating. During its tests, Bumble said the weekly average number of sessions for BFF members increased by two-thirds, and their weekly time spent in-app was up 16%.

According to new images released by product intelligence firm Watchful, Bumble’s Hive includes a variety of now-standard social networking features. It shows BFF members can create profiles, join interest groups led by admins, publish posts, engage in group chats, create and respond to polls and more. There’s also an option for group video calls within the “Hives.”

Image Credits: Bumble Hives via Watchful

Video is not entirely new to Bumble, however.

The company also told investors it has been testing both video and audio in select markets as a way to enhance member profiles with “richer and more dynamic” content. This could additionally help Bumble better compete against a growing number of video-focused dating apps, like Snack, S’More, Desti and others.

Image Credits: Bumble Hives via Watchful

More broadly, Bumble’s latest updates aim to address the shift among younger, Gen Z users who are inclined to embrace apps that allow them to socially “hang out” online — like livestreaming app Yubo and various friend-finders, including those that help them make new friends on Snapchat and elsewhere, such as Hoop, Wink, Wizz, Qudo, Wave, LMK, Swipr and Vibe, among others. Dating giant Match also embraced this trend with its $1.73 billion deal for Hyperconnect, a company that had been more focused on social networking than dating. However, that investment has not yet paid off beyond bringing audio and video technologies to various Match dating apps.

Bumble was unable to provide a statement on the new Hive features, when reached for comment.

In Q2, Bumble reported $220.5 million in revenue in its most recent quarter, ahead of Wall Street estimates, but saw a loss of 3 cents per share versus the 1 cent loss expected. It also lowered its full-year revenue forecast citing increased competition with Match, the war in Ukraine, inflation and foreign exchange headwinds.

In addition to Bumble BFF’s Hive, the company is working on new astrology features, product enhancements for LGBTQIA+ users, tests of “messaging before match” features, audio and video features, and other monetization products.

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