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Facebook Portal adds games and web browser amidst mediocre Amazon reviews – TechCrunch

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After receiving a flogging from privacy critics, Facebook is scrambling to make its smart display video chat screen Portal more attractive to buyers. Today Facebook is announcing the addition of a web browser, plus some of Messenger’s Instant Games like Battleship, Draw Something, Sudoku and Words With Friends. ABC News and CNN are adding content to Portal, which now also has a manual zoom mode for its auto-zooming smart camera so you can zero in on a particular thing in view. Facebook has also added new augmented reality Story Time tales, seasonal AR masks, in-call music sharing through iHeartRadio beyond Spotify and Pandora that already offer it and nickname calling so you can say “Hey Portal, call Mom.”

But the question remains who’s buying? Facebook is already discounting the 10-inch-screen Portal and 15-inch Portal+. Formerly $100 off if you buy two, Facebook is still offering $50 off just one until Christmas Eve as part of a suspiciously long Black Friday Sale. That doesn’t signal this thing is flying off the shelves. We don’t have sales figures, but Portal has a 3.4 rating on Amazon, while Portal+ has a 3.6 — both trailing the 4.2 rating of Amazon’s own Echo Show’s 2. Users are griping about the lack of Amazon Video support for Ring doorbells, not receiving calls and, of course, the privacy implications.

Personally, I’ve found Portal+ to be competent in the five weeks since launch. The big screen is great as a smart photo frame and video calls look great. But Alexa and Facebook’s own voice assistant have a tough time dividing up functionality, and sometimes I can’t get either to play a specific song on Spotify, pause or change volume or other activities my Google Home has no trouble with. Facebook said it was hoping to add Google Assistant to Portal, but there’s no progress on that front yet.

The browser will be a welcome addition, and allow Facebook to sidestep some of the issues around its thin app platform. While it recently added a Smart TV version of YouTube, now users can access lots of services without those developers having to commit to building something for Portal given its uncertain future.

The hope seems to be that mainstream users who aren’t glued to the tech press where Facebook is constantly skewered might be drawn in by these device’s flashy screens and the admittedly impressive auto-zooming camera. But to overcome the brand tax levied by all of Facebook’s privacy scandals, Portal must be near perfect. Without the native apps for popular video providers like Netflix and Hulu, consistent voice recognition and more unique features missing from competing smart displays, the fear of Facebook’s surveillance may be outweighing people’s love for shiny new gadgets.

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Apple details new iPhone features like door detection, live captions

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Global Accessibility Awareness Day is Thursday, so Apple took to its newsroom blog this week to announce several major new accessibility features headed to the iPhone, Apple Watch, iPad, and Mac.

One of the most widely used will likely be Live Captions, which is coming to iPhone, Mac, and iPad. The feature shows AI-driven, live-updating subtitles for speech coming from any audio source on the phone, whether the user is “on a phone or FaceTime call, using a video conferencing or social media app, streaming media content, or having a conversation with someone next to them.”

The text (which users can resize at will) appears at the top of the screen and ticks along as the subject speaks. Additionally, Mac users will be able to type responses and have them read aloud to others on the call. Live Captions will enter public beta on supported devices (“iPhone 11 and later, iPad models with A12 Bionic and later, and Macs with Apple silicon”) later this year.

There’s also door detection. It unfortunately will only work on iPhones and iPads with a lidar sensor (so the iPhone 12 Pro, iPhone 13 Pro, or recent iPad Pro models), but it sounds useful for those who are blind or have low vision. It uses the iPhone’s camera and AR sensors, in tandem with machine learning, to identify doors and audibly tell users where the door is located, whether it’s open or closed, how it can be opened, and what writing or labeling it might have.

Door detection will join people detection and image descriptions in a new “detection mode” intended for blind or low-vision users in iOS and iPadOS. Apple’s blog post didn’t say when that feature would launch, however.

Other accessibility additions that Apple says are just around the corner include 20 new Voice Over languages, new hand gestures on Apple Watch, and a feature that allows game players to receive help from a “buddy” with another game controller without disconnecting their own. Additionally, there are new Siri and Apple Books customizations meant to expand accessibility for people with disabilities, sound recognition customizations, and Apple Watch screen mirroring on the iPhone—which gives Watch users access to many accessibility features available on the iPhone but not the Watch.

Tech enthusiasts often lament that smartphones (and personal tech in general) have become stagnant, without many exciting new developments. But that couldn’t be further from the truth for many people with disabilities. Google, Apple, and numerous researchers and startups have been making significant advancements, bringing powerful new accessibility features to mobile devices.

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Google Russia forced to declare bankruptcy after bank account seizure

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Enlarge / The Google doodle for Russia National Day 2016.

Google’s going… out of business?! That’s apparently the case in Russia. As Reuters reports, Google’s Russia subsidiary plans to file for bankruptcy after “the authorities seized its bank account, making it impossible to carry on operations.” Reuters has a statement from Google:

The Russian authorities’ seizure of Google Russia’s bank account has made it untenable for our Russia office to function, including employing and paying Russia-based employees, paying suppliers and vendors, and meeting other financial obligations. Google Russia has published a notice of its intention to file for bankruptcy.

A regulatory filing showed Google Russia has been expecting to file for bankruptcy since March 22. The division did $2 billion in revenue last year, but that doesn’t matter much when authorities take your entire bank account.

Unlike many tech companies that have abandoned Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, Google has tried to keep doing business in the country. Heavy hitters like Google Search, YouTube, Maps, Gmail, and Google Play are all still running in Russia. Google’s most important product, the ad platform, was shut down on March 3 in Russia after the Russian government started demanding it censor ads about the war. Over the next few days in March, the big four credit card companies all pulled out of Russia, making normal business transactions very difficult. Google cited this “payment system disruption” as the reason for shutting down Google Play paid apps.

It’s not clear how much of a presence Google will have in Russia going forward. Google has been accused of having a cozy relationship with Russia, and its behavior is an outlier over competitors like Microsoft and Apple, which both voluntarily stopped paid services in the country before the credit card companies pulled out. While Google enjoys a ~90 percent search market share in many countries, Russia is one of the few places it faces a viable search competitor; Google splits the search market nearly 50/50 with local tech company Yandex. That market share might explain why Google doesn’t take a tough stance against Russia—if it gets blocked even temporarily, there might not be a market to come back to.

The Russian government still wants to rely on Google for some services, though. The government said Tuesday it wants to keep YouTube running in the country, saying that a shutdown would harm Russian citizens. Like the rest of the world, there are no video sites on the same scale as YouTube in Russia.

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Microsoft previews a new, totally redesigned Outlook for Windows app

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Enlarge / The new Outlook client for Windows will unify the web and offline clients—when it’s done, anyway.

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For years now, Microsoft has been planning behind the scenes to unify its disparate Outlook clients across the web, Windows, and macOS. Today, that goal moved one step closer to completion with the introduction of a new Outlook client for Windows users that closely mirrors the interface and functionality of the Outlook web client.

The new app is available to Office Insiders in the Beta channel who have work or school Microsoft 365 accounts. Regular Microsoft accounts aren’t currently supported. This appears to be the same version of the Outlook client that leaked to the public a couple of weeks ago.

A unified Outlook client, also known as “One Outlook” or “Project Monarch,” will be an especially welcome change for Mac users. The Mac version of Outlook has always looked different from and been less fully featured than the Windows client, though the current situation is much better than the bad old days of Microsoft Entourage.

The new Outlook app will reportedly replace not just the current Outlook app but also Windows’ built-in Mail and Calendar apps. Those apps received minor updates for Windows 11 to bring them in line with its redesigned user interface but otherwise haven’t seen many functional improvements in recent years. The new Outlook app will run on Windows 10 and 11, but we don’t know whether it will replace the Mail and Calendar apps in both OSes.

The new Outlook app is still in early development, and as such, there is a long list of common mail client features that it doesn’t support. In-development and planned features that aren’t yet supported include support for IMAP mail accounts, @outlook.com accounts, offline use, use with multiple accounts, and support for working with .pst Outlook data files.

We may get more information on the One Outlook project at Microsoft’s Build developer conference, which runs next week from May 24–26.

Listing image by Microsoft

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