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Messenger redesigns to clean up Facebook’s mess – TechCrunch

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If Facebook Messenger’s redesign succeeds, you won’t really notice it even happened. I hardly did over the past week of testing. There’s just a subtle sense that the claustrophobia has lifted. Perhaps that’s why Facebook decided to throw a big breakfast press event with 30 reporters today at its new downtown San Francisco office, complete with an Instagram-worthy donut wall. Even though the changes are minimal — fewer tabs, color gradients thread backgrounds, and a rounder logo — Facebook was eager to trigger an unequivocally positive news cycle.

Old Messenger vs New Messenger

In the seven years since Facebook acquired group chat app Beluga and turned it into Messenger, it’s done nothing but cram in more features. With five navigation bar options, nine total tabs, Stories, games, and businesses, Messenger’s real purpose — chatting with your friends — started to feel buried. “You build a feature, and then you build another feature, and they are piling up” says Facebook’s head of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky. “We either continue to pile on, or we build a foundation that will allow us to build simplicity and powerful features on top of something new that goes back to its roots.”

The old, overloaded Messenger

But suddenly uprooting the old design with a massive overhaul wasn’t an option. “It’s impossible to launch something for 1.3 billion people that will not piss people off” Chudnovsky told me. “It takes so much time to test things out and make sure you’re not doing something that will prevent people from doing things that are really, really important to them. At the end of the day, no one really likes change. People generally want things the way they are.”

So starting today, Messenger is globally rolling out an understated redesign globally over the next few weeks. It’s got a simpler interface with a lot more white space, a little less redundancy, and a casual vibe. Here’s a comparison of the app before and after.

Old Messenger: 

Previously, there were five main navigation buttons along the bottom of the app. Between the actually useful Chats section that’d been invaded by Stories and the chaotic People section, there were tabs for calls, group chats, active friends, . Between then  a camera button that aggressively beckoned you to post Stories, a dedicated Games tab, and a Discover tab for finding businesses and utility app.

New Messenger:

In Messenger v4, now there are just three navigation buttons. The camera button has been moved up next to the chat composer inside the Chat section above Stories, People now contains the Active list as well as all Stories by friends, and Discover combines games and businesses. The fact that Stories is in both the Chats and People section make it seem that the company wants a lot more than the existing 300 million users across Facebook and Messenger opening its Snapchat copycat.

While there 10 billion conversations with businesses and 1.7 billion games sessions happen on Messenger each month, and both hold opportunities for monetization, they’re not the app’s purpose so they got merged. And though 400 million people — nearly a third of all Messenger users — make a video or audio call each month, those typically start from a button inside chat threads so Facebook nixed the Calls tab entirely.

All the old features are still available, just not quite as prominent as before. The one new feature is several color gradients you can use to customize specific chat threads. If you rapidly scroll through the messages, you’ll see the bubble background colors fade through the gradient.  And one much-requested feature still on the way is Dark Mode, which Facebook says will launch in the next several weeks to reduce glare and make night-time usage easier on the eyes.

Finally, Messenger has a softer new logo. The sharp edges have been rounded off the quote bubble and lightning insignia. It seems designed to better compete with Snapchat and remind users that Messenger is fun and friendly as well as fast.

Inside The Messenger War Room

With the company’s downward scandal spiral of breaches, election interference, and fake news-inspired violence, it’s not just Messenger that’s a mess. It’s all of Facebook, both literally and metaphorically. Cleaning up, fighting back —  those are the messages the company wants to drive home.

Facebook scored a win on this front last week by getting dozens of journalists (myself included) to breathlessly cover its election “war room”, until everyone realized they’d played themselves for page views. Today’s Messenger event felt a little like deja-vu as Facebook drilled the word “simple” into our heads. Chudnovsky even acknowledged that Facebook had already milked the redesign for a press hit back in May. “We previewed this at F8 but that was when the work was just beginning.”

Hopefully, this will be the start of a company wide interface cleanup. Facebook’s main app is full of cruft, especially with products like Facebook Watched stuffed in the nav bar despite lukewarm user interest. Messenger did a good job of ceasing to shoehorn the camera and games into our chat behavior, though Stories still appear twice in the app even if some wish they disappeared permanently. The world would benefit from a Facebook more concerned with what users want than what it wants to show them.

With the news going live just an hour after the event ended, many reporters stayed, writing their posts about Facebook while still inside Facebook. Chudnovsky admitted that beyond educating users via the press, the event was designed to celebrate the team that had labored over each pixel. “You can imagine at a company like ours, how many conversations you have to have about changing the logo.”

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Google introduces Pixel Pass, an all-in-one subscription combining phones and premium services – TechCrunch

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Alongside the launch of the new Google Pixel 6 smartphones, the company also introduced a new way to purchase them: Pixel Pass. This all-in-one subscription service allows consumers to purchase a Pixel phone for a low monthly price, rather than paying for it all upfront. The service is available at $45 per month for the Pixel 6 and $55 per month for the Pixel 6 Pro — but it doesn’t just provide access to the phones themselves. Also included with the subscription are Google’s services, like storage, music, YouTube Premium and free apps and games.

Specifically, subscribers will have access to ad-free YouTube, aka YouTube Premium, typically $11.99 per month. This includes YouTube Music Premium, the company’s answer to Spotify and Apple Music, and its replacement for Google Play Music, which was wound down.

Pixel Pass subscribers will also get 200 GB of cloud storage with Google One, Google Store discounts and Google Play Pass — the otherwise $4.99 USD per month or $29.99 per year subscription, which offers a free selection of apps and games without in-app purchase or ads, similar to Apple Arcade.

The subscription additionally includes insurance, with Preferred Care coverage for hassle-free repairs and “life’s little accidents,” says Google. This is Google’s version of something like AppleCare for Apple devices.

The Pixel devices that ship with Pixel Pass are unlocked so they work with all major carriers.

Consumers can buy the service through the Google Store or with a phone plan on Google Fi, the company’s own cell service, Google says.

By paying for Pixel Pass as a subscription, device owners would save up to $294 over the course of two years, Google notes. But if they purchase through Google Fi, you’ll also save an additional $4 off your monthly Fi plan, equaling $414 in savings over the two years.

The subscription is designed for regular updaters who like to always carry the latest devices, but also want access to premium services. It’s clearly aimed to be the Google alternative to Apple’s own iPhone subscription plan, via the iPhone Upgrade Program. But while Apple offers its own set of subscription services separately through its newer Apple One subscription plans, the Pixel Pass bundles them in.

The new Pixel Pass with Pixel 6 is available for preorder today in the U.S. starting at $45 per month on the Google Store or via Google Fi.

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Google’s brand new Android 12 operating system launches today – TechCrunch

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With Android 12, the world’s most-used mobile operating system continues its steady march of carving out its unique selling points and finding differentiators from Apple’s iOS. Available for Pixel 3 and beyond, the new OS beefs up some of the strengths in the operating system, while adding some new features along the way.

When everyone has a phone that looks essentially like every other smartphone ever made, personalization becomes more important. That’s why Google brings the Material You feature to the OS – when you change your wallpaper, the entire Android 12 experience changes to match its colors. The OS includes color extraction algorithms which helps everything looks integrated and slick. Everything is personalizable, including the lockscreen, notifications, settings, widgets and even apps. Material You comes to Pixel first, and will be rolled out to devices from other device makers further down the line.

Fully customizable OS makes your phone look more… you.

Security and privacy are other themes across the OS. For example, Android 12 enables you to keep your precise location private from apps that, strictly, only need an approximate location to work their magic. You can also see when an app is using your mic or camera, with a new status-bar indicator. And if you want to turn off your camera and mic across the entire OS, you can turn them off in the Quick Settings with a pair of new toggles. The OS also adds additional features to lock down apps you’ve forgotten about, by automatically revoking permissions from apps after several months of lack of use.

The OS also finally divorces the connection between location and Bluetooth. As Google puts it: “While your wireless headphones need to connect to your phone, they probably don’t need to know where you are.” Android 12 makes that possible at long last.

Google introduced a ton of new Android features for Google Lens in previous releases of the OS – you can do optical character recognition on any screen shot, for example. Android 12 adds additional extensions to that functionality, such as ‘scrolling screen shots.” Just because you reach the end of your screen doesn’t mean you need to reach the end of your screenshot. New scrolling screenshots will allow you to capture all the content on the page in one image. Clever!

The new features extend beyond functionality; Android 12 also brings power-saving and better accessibility features. The company is also rolling out hot-updates, so you can keep using an app even while an update for the very same app is downloading and installing in the background. God forbid you’d have to put down Pokemon Go for a couple of minutes.

Google’s Android 12 operating system is rolling out to supported phones starting today.

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Google’s Pixel 6 camera smartens up snapshots with AI tools – TechCrunch

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Google’s latest flagship phones have an impressive set of automated, AI-powered tools to help make your photos look better, with smart blurs, object removal, and skin tone exposure. While we’ll have to test them out to see if they work as advertised, they could be useful for everyone from pixel peepers to casual snapshot takers.

The new cameras themselves are pretty impressive to start with. The main rear camera, shared by the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, is a 50-megapixel beast with decent-sized pixel wells and an F/1.85 equivalent aperture (no, it doesn’t capture as much light as an F/1.8 on a DSLR, but it’s still good). The ultrawide one, also shared, is 12 megapixels and f/2.2 on a smaller sensor, so don’t expect mind-blowing image quality. The 6 Pro gets a 48-megapixel telephoto with less low light capability but a 4x equivalent zoom. They’re all stabilized and have laser-assisted autofocus.

Basically if you want the best quality in any situation, stick to the main camera, but if you’re sure about your light go ahead and fire up the wide or zoom. It sounds like all the new camera features work on all the cameras, but generally speaking the better the shot to start with, the better the final result.

The simplest tool to use is probably “face deblur.” How many times have you gotten the perfect shot but it’s not quite sharp? The Pixel Camera will automatically always capture multiple exposures (it’s part of the ordinary process of taking a picture now), and combines the main shot from one camera with a clear shot of the face captured with another. To do it, you just tap on a shot in your gallery that isn’t quite sharp and if there’s a “face deblur” option: boom.

Image Credits: Google

OK, it’s definitely kind of weird to have only the face sharp in a blurry photo, as you can see in the sample, but look: do you want the picture or not? Thought so.

Also in the blur department are two new “motion modes.” One is an “action pan” that assists in capturing a moving subject like a passing car clearly, while blurring the background “creatively.” That means it applies a directed zoom blur instead of the handheld blur it would normally have, so it looks a little ‘shoppy, if you will, but it’s a fun option. The other one is a long exposure helper that adds blur to moving subjects while keeping the background clear. Helpful for doing something like headlight streaks without a tripod. These will be found in their own motion mode area in the camera app.

An image on the beach before using 'magic eraser' and after, with background people removed.

Image Credits: Google

“Magic Eraser” is the most obviously “AI” thing here. If you take a picture and it’s great except someone just walked into the background or there’s a car parked in the scenic vista, it’ll help you zap those pesky real-world objects so you can forget they ever existed. Tap the tool and it’ll automatically highlight things you might want to remove, like distant people, cars, and according to the example they provided, even unsightly logs and other random features. Driftwood, though, on the beach…really? Fortunately you can pick which to throw in the memory hole, no pressure, or circle unrecognized objects and it will do its best to dispose of them.

“Speech Enhancement” isn’t for images, obviously, but when you’re in front camera mode you can opt to have the device tone down the ambient noise and focus on your voice. Basically Krisp by Google. If it works anywhere near as well you will probably want to use it all the time.

“Real Tone” is an interesting but potentially fraught feature that we’ll be looking into in more detail soon. Here’s how Google describes it: “We worked with a diverse set of expert image makers and photographers to tune our AWB [auto white balance], AE [auto exposure], and stray light algorithms to ensure that Google’s camera and imagery products work for everyone, of every skin tone.”

Photo of a family with dark skin sitting on the beach.

They look great, sure… but they’re models.

Basically they wanted to make sure that their “smart” camera’s core features don’t work better or look better on certain skin tones than others. This has happened many, many times before and it’s an insult and embarrassment when billion-dollar companies blow it over and over. Hopefully Real Tone works, but even if it does there is the fundamental question of whether it amounts to lightening or darkening someone’s skin in the photo — a sensitive matter for many people. “This feature cannot be turned off nor disabled,” Google says, so they must be confident. We’ll be testing this and talking with developers and photographers about the feature, so look for a deeper dive into this interesting but complex corner of the field.

It’s not entirely clear how many of these features will be available beyond the Pixel line of phones or when, but we’ll let you know what we find out.

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