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Facebook launches Portal TV, a $149 video chat set-top box – TechCrunch

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Facebook wants to take over your television with a clip-on camera for video calling, AR gaming and content co-watching. If you can get past the creepiness, the new Portal TV lets you hang out with friends on your home’s biggest screen. It’s a fresh product category that could give the social network a unique foothold in the living room, where, unlike on phones where it’s beholden to Apple and Google, Facebook owns the hardware and operating system.

Today Facebook unveiled a new line of Portal devices that bring to smaller smart screen form factors its auto-zooming AI camera, in-house voice assistant speaker, Alexa, apps like Spotify and newly added Amazon Prime Video, Messenger video chat and now end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp video calls.

The $149 Portal TV is the star of the show, turning most televisions with an HDMI connection into a video chat device. And if you video call between two Portal TVs, you can use the new Watch Together feature to co-view Facebook Watch videos simultaneously while chilling together over picture-in-picture. The Portal TV is a genius way for Facebook to make its hardware both cheaper yet more immersive by co-opting a screen you already own and have given a space in your life, thereby leapfrogging smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home.

There’s also the new pint-size 8-inch Portal Mini for just $129, which makes counter-top video chat exceedingly cheap. The 10-inch Portal that launched a year ago now has a sleeker, minimal bezel look with a price drop (from $199 to $179). Both look more like digital picture frames, which they are, and can be stood on their side or end for optimal full-screen chatting. Lastly, the giant 15.6-inch Portal+ swivel screen falls to $279 instead of $349, and you still get $50 off if you buy any two Portal devices.

“The TV has been a staple of living rooms around the world, but to date it’s been primarily about people who are physically interacting with the device,” Facebook’s VP of consumer hardware Andrew “Boz” Bosworth tells me at a press event inside a San Francisco Victorian house. “We see the opportunity for people to use their TVs not just to do that but also to interact with other people.”

The new Portals go on pre-sale today from Portal.facebook.com, Amazon and Best Buy in the U.S. and Canada, plus new markets like the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Italy and France (though the “Hey Portal” assistant only works in English). Portal and Portal Mini ship October 15th and Portal TV ships November 5th.

Portal Mini Black

The whole Portal gang lack essential video apps like Netflix and HBO, and Boz claims he’s not trying to compete directly with Roku, Fire TV, etc. Instead, Facebook is trying to win where it’s strongest, on communication and video chat where rivals lack a scaled social network.

“You’re kind of more hanging out. It isn’t as transactional. It’s not as urgent as when you sacrifice your left arm to the cause,” explains Boz. Like how Fortnite created a way for people to just chill together while gaming remotely, Portal TV could do the same for watching television together, apart.

Battling the creepiness

The original Portal launched a year ago to favorable reviews, except for one sticking point: journalists all thought it was too sketchy to bring Facebook surveillance tech inside their homes. Whether the mainstream consumer feels the same way is still a mystery, as the company has refused to share sales numbers. Though Boz told me, “The engagement, the retention numbers are all really positive,” we haven’t seen developers like Netflix rush to bring their apps to the Portal platform.

To that end, privacy on Portal no longer feels clipped on like the old plastic removable camera covers. “We have to always do more work to grow the number of people who have that level of comfort, and bring that technology into their home,” says Boz. “We’ve done what we can in this latest generation of products, now with integrated camera covers that are hardware, indicator lights when the microphone is off and form factors that are less obtrusive and blend more into the background of the home.”

Portal TV Closeup

One major change stems from a scandal that spread across the tech sector, with Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook all being criticized for quietly sending voice clips to human reviewers to improve speech recognition in what felt like a privacy violation. “Part of the Portal out-of-box experience is going to be a splash screen on data storage and it will literally walk through how . . . when we hear ‘Hey Portal’ a voice recording and transcription is sent, it may be reviewed by humans, and people have the ability to opt out.”

But if Portal is battling the perception of creepiness, why make human reviews the default? Boz defended the move from the perspective of accessibility. “We say, ‘oh they’re good enough,’ but for a lot of people that might have a mild speech impediment, a subtle accent, who might use different words because they’re from a different region, these assistants aren’t inclusive.” He claims more voice data reviewed by humans means better products for everyone, though I bet better sales for Facebook wouldn’t hurt.

Portal Privacy Set Up Notice Screen

Instead, Facebook is leaning on the evolution of the smart screen market in general to help its camera blend in. “The more value we can create, not just any one player but as an entire industry, that allows consumers to feel — ‘yeah, I both am comfortable with how the data is being used and why.’ ”

One reason Facebook is forging forward despite all the criticism about launching a “surveillance” device amidst its scandals: This is its shot to control its destiny, unlike on phones. Facebook has always been vulnerable to Apple and Google because its app lives in their app stores on their devices. “You don’t have a huge amount of influence over what the phone itself is or what the operating system provides. You’re kind of at the mercy of what those manufacturers or developers provide you,” Boz notes. With Portal, Facebook can ensure communication tech like cameras stay part of the smart home, even if they’re creepy now.

Hands-on with the new Portals

If you can get past Facebook’s toxic brand, the new Portals are quite pleasing. They’re remarkably polished products for a company just a year into selling consumer hardware. They all feel sturdy and elegant enough to place in your kitchen or living room.

Portal Mini Portal TV

The Portal and Portal Mini work just like last year’s models, but without the big speaker bezel they can be flipped on their side and look much more like picture frames while running Portal’s Smart Frame showing your Facebook, Instagram or camera roll photos.Portal Specs

Portal TV’s flexible form factor is a clever innovation, first spotted as “Codename: Ripley” by Jane Manchun Wong and reported by Alex Heath for Cheddar a year ago. It has an integrated stand for placing the gadget on your TV console, but that stand also squeezes onto a front wing to let it clip onto both wide and extremely thin new flatscreen televisions. With just an HDMI connection it brings a 12.5 megapixel, 120-degree camera and 8-mic array to any tube. It also ships with a stubby remote control for basic browsing without having to shout across the room.

Portal TV includes an integrated smart speaker that can be used even when the TV is off or on a different input, and offers HDMI CEC for control through other remotes. The built-in camera cover gives users peace of mind and a switch conjures a red light to signal that all sensors are disabled. Overall, control responsiveness felt a tad sluggish, but passable.

Portal TV and Remote

Portal’s software is largely the same as before, with a few key improvements, the addition of WhatsApp and one big bonus feature for Portal TVs. The AI Smart Camera is the best part, automatically tracking multiple people to keep everyone in frame and zoomed-in as possible. Improved adaptive background modeling and human pose estimation lets it keep faces in view without facial recognition, and all video processing is done locally on the device. A sharper Spotlight feature lets you select one person, like a child running around the room, so you don’t miss the gymnastics routines.

The Portal app platform that features Spotify and Pandora is gaining Amazon’s suite of apps, starting with Prime Video while Ring doorbell and smart home controls are on the way. Beyond Messenger calls and AR Storytime, where you don characters’ AR masks as you read aloud a children’s book, there are new AR games like Cats Catching Donuts With Their Mouths. Designed for kids and casual players, the games had some trouble with motion tracking and felt too thin for more than a few seconds of play. But if Facebook gave Portal TV a real controller or bought a better AR games studio, it could dive deeper into gaming as a selling point.

Portal Mini Alexa

WhatsApp is the top new feature for all the Portals. Though you can’t use the voice assistant to call people, you can now WhatsApp video chat friends with end-to-end encryption rather than just Messenger’s encryption in transit. The two messaging apps combined give Portal a big advantage over Google and Amazon’s devices since their parents have screwed up or ignored chat over the years. Still, there’s no way to send text messages, which would be exceedingly helpful.

Reserved for Portal TV-to-Portal TV Messenger chats is the new Watch Together feature we broke the news of a year ago after Ananay Arora spotted it in Messenger’s code. This lets you do a picture-in-picture video chat with friends while you simultaneously view a Facebook Watch video. It even smartly ducks down the video’s audio while friends are talking so you can share reactions. While it doesn’t work with other content apps like Prime Video, Watch Together shows the potential of Portal: passive hang out time.

PortalTV CoWatching

“Have you ever thought about how weird bowling is, Josh? Bowling is a weird thing to go do. I enjoy bowling. I don’t enjoy bowling by myself that much. I enjoy going with other people,” Boz tells me. “It’s just a pretext, it’s some reason for us to get together and have some beers and to have time and have conversation. Whether it’s video calling or the AR games . . . those are a pretext, to have an excuse to go be together.”

This is Portal’s true purpose. Facebook has always been about time spent, getting deeper into your life and learning more about you. While other companies’ products might feel less creepy or be more entertaining, none have the ubiquitous social connection of Facebook and Portal. When your friends are on screen too, a mediocre game or silly video is elevated into a memorable experience. You can burn hours simply co-chilling. With Portal TV, Facebook finally has something unique enough to possibly offset its brand tax and earn it a place in your home.



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Apple and Google’s AI wizardry promises privacy—at a cost

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Since the dawn of the iPhone, many of the smarts in smartphones have come from elsewhere: the corporate computers known as the cloud. Mobile apps sent user data cloudward for useful tasks like transcribing speech or suggesting message replies. Now Apple and Google say smartphones are smart enough to do some crucial and sensitive machine learning tasks like those on their own.

At Apple’s WWDC event this month, the company said its virtual assistant Siri will transcribe speech without tapping the cloud in some languages on recent and future iPhones and iPads. During its own I/O developer event last month, Google said the latest version of its Android operating system has a feature dedicated to secure, on-device processing of sensitive data, called the Private Compute Core. Its initial uses include powering the version of the company’s Smart Reply feature built into its mobile keyboard that can suggest responses to incoming messages.

Apple and Google both say on-device machine learning offers more privacy and snappier apps. Not transmitting personal data cuts the risk of exposure and saves time spent waiting for data to traverse the internet. At the same time, keeping data on devices aligns with the tech giants’ long-term interest in keeping consumers bound into their ecosystems. People that hear their data can be processed more privately might become more willing to agree to share more data.

The companies’ recent promotion of on-device machine learning comes after years of work on technology to constrain the data their clouds can “see.”

In 2014, Google started gathering some data on Chrome browser usage through a technique called differential privacy, which adds noise to harvested data in ways that restrict what those samples reveal about individuals. Apple has used the technique on data gathered from phones to inform emoji and typing predictions and for web browsing data.

More recently, both companies have adopted a technology called federated learning. It allows a cloud-based machine learning system to be updated without scooping in raw data; instead, individual devices process data locally and share only digested updates. As with differential privacy, the companies have discussed using federated learning only in limited cases. Google has used the technique to keep its mobile typing predictions up to date with language trends; Apple has published research on using it to update speech recognition models.

Rachel Cummings, an assistant professor at Columbia who has previously consulted on privacy for Apple, says the rapid shift to do some machine learning on phones has been striking. “It’s incredibly rare to see something going from the first conception to being deployed at scale in so few years,” she says.

That progress has required not just advances in computer science but for companies to take on the practical challenges of processing data on devices owned by consumers. Google has said that its federated learning system only taps users’ devices when they are plugged in, idle, and on a free internet connection. The technique was enabled in part by improvements in the power of mobile processors.

Beefier mobile hardware also contributed to Google’s 2019 announcement that voice recognition for its virtual assistant on Pixel devices would be wholly on-device, free from the crutch of the cloud. Apple’s new on-device voice recognition for Siri, announced at WWDC this month, will use the “neural engine” the company added to its mobile processorsto power up machine learning algorithms.

The technical feats are impressive. It’s debatable how much they will meaningfully change users’ relationship with tech giants.

Presenters at Apple’s WWDC said Siri’s new design was a “major update to privacy” that addressed the risk associated with accidentally transmitting audio to the cloud, saying that was users’ largest privacy concern about voice assistants. Some Siri commands—such as setting timers—can be recognized wholly locally, making for a speedy response. Yet in many cases transcribed commands to Siri—presumably including from accidental recordings—will be sent to Apple servers for software to decode and respond. Siri voice transcription will still be cloud-based for HomePod smart speakers commonly installed in bedrooms and kitchens, where accidental recording can be more concerning.

Google also promotes on-device data processing as a privacy win and has signaled it will expand the practice. The company expects partners such as Samsung that use its Android operating system to adopt the new Privacy Compute Core and use it for features that rely on sensitive data.

Google has also made local analysis of browsing data a feature of its proposal for reinventing online ad targeting, dubbed FLoC and claimed to be more private. Academics and some rival tech companies have said the design is likely to help Google consolidate its dominance of online ads by making targeting more difficult for other companies.

Michael Veale, a lecturer in digital rights at University College London, says on-device data processing can be a good thing but adds that the way tech companies promote it shows they are primarily motivated by a desire to keep people tied into lucrative digital ecosystems.

“Privacy gets confused with keeping data confidential, but it’s also about limiting power,” says Veale. “If you’re a big tech company and manage to reframe privacy as only confidentiality of data, that allows you to continue business as normal and gives you license to operate.”

A Google spokesperson said the company “builds for privacy everywhere computing happens” and that data sent to the Private Compute Core for processing “needs to be tied to user value.” Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

Cummings of Columbia says new privacy techniques and the way companies market them add complexity to the trade-offs of digital life. Over recent years, as machine learning has become more widely deployed, tech companies have steadily expanded the range of data they collect and analyze. There is evidence some consumers misunderstand the privacy protections trumpeted by tech giants.

A forthcoming survey study from Cummings and collaborators at Boston University and the Max Planck Institute showed descriptions of differential privacy drawn from tech companies, media, and academics to 675 Americans. Hearing about the technique made people about twice as likely to report they would be willing to share data. But there was evidence that descriptions of differential privacy’s benefits also encouraged unrealistic expectations. One-fifth of respondents expected their data to be protected against law enforcement searches, something differential privacy does not do. Apple’s and Google’s latest proclamations about on-device data processing may bring new opportunities for misunderstandings.

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

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Amazon joins Apple, Google by reducing its app store cut

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Enlarge / The Amazon Fire HD 8 tablet, which runs Amazon’s Fire OS.

Apparently following the lead of Apple and Google, Amazon has announced that it will take a smaller revenue cut from apps developed by teams earning less than $1 million annually from their apps on the Amazon Appstore. The same applies to developers who are brand-new to the marketplace.

The new program from Amazon, called the Amazon Appstore Small Business Accelerator Program, launches in Q4 of this year, and it will reduce the cut Amazon takes from app revenue, which was previously 30 percent. (Developers making over $1 million annually will continue to pay the original rate.) For some, it’s a slightly worse deal than Apple’s or Google’s, and for others, it’s better.

Amazon’s new indie-friendly rate is 20 percent, in contrast to Apple’s and Google’s 15 percent. Amazon seeks to offset this difference by granting developers 10 percent of their Appstore revenue in the form of a credit for AWS. For certain developers who use AWS, it could mean that Amazon’s effective cut is actually 10 percent, not 15 or 20 percent.

But for some, it amounts to something more like giving the developer a coupon on a purchase of services from Amazon than actually putting more cash in their pockets. It leaves small developers who aren’t spending a bunch of money on Amazon’s services with a worse deal than they’d get on Apple’s or Google’s marketplaces.

As with Apple’s program—but not Google’s—the lower rate applies to developers only if they made $1 million or less in total (in this case, the numbers assessed are those from the previous year). Crossing that threshold will lead developers to pay the older, higher rate on all of their earnings. In contrast, Google always takes a smaller cut of the first million in a given year and then applies the bigger cut to revenues after $1 million without changing the amount it took from the first million.

The Amazon Appstore primarily exists as the app store for Amazon’s Android-based Fire OS software that runs on tablets. It’s also offered as an alternative App Store for users of other Android-based operating systems.

All three companies are facing various forms of regulatory scrutiny, and that scrutiny was likely a factor in Apple’s decision to cut the fees it applies to apps released by small developers on the Apple App Store. Google followed shortly afterward for its Google Play marketplace.

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Microsoft’s Linux repositories were down for 18+ hours

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Enlarge / In 2017, Tux was sad that he had a Microsoft logo on his chest. In 2021, he’s mostly sad that Microsoft’s repositories were down for most of a day.

Jim Salter

Yesterday, packages.microsoft.com—the repository from which Microsoft serves software installers for Linux distributions including CentOS, Debian, Fedora, OpenSUSE, and more—went down hard, and it stayed down for around 18 hours. The outage impacted users trying to install .NET Core, Microsoft Teams, Microsoft SQL Server for Linux (yes, that’s a thing) and more—as well as Azure’s own devops pipelines.

We first became aware of the problem Wednesday evening when we saw 404 errors in the output of apt update on an Ubuntu workstation with Microsoft Teams installed. The outage is somewhat better documented at this .NET Core-issue report on Github, with many users from all around the world sharing their experiences and theories.

The short version is, the entire repository cluster which serves all Linux packages for Microsoft was completely down—issuing a range of HTTP 404 (content not found) and 500 (Internal Server Error) messages for any URL—for roughly 18 hours. Microsoft engineer Rahul Bhandari confirmed the outage roughly five hours after it was initially reported, with a cryptic comment about the infrastructure team “running into some space issues.”

Eighteen hours after the issue was reported, Bhandari reported that the mirrors were once again available—although with temporarily degraded performance, likely due to cold caches. In this update, Bhandari said that the original cause of the outage was “a regression in [apt repositories] during some feature migration work that resulted in those packages becoming unavailable on the mirrors.”

We’re still waiting for a comprehensive incident report, since Bhandari’s status updates provide clues but no real explanations. The good news is, we can confirm that packages.microsoft.com is indeed up once again, and it is serving packages as it should.

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