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Samsung Galaxy Fold review: future shock – TechCrunch

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The Galaxy Fold has been the most polarizing product I can recall having reviewed. Everyone who saw it wanted to play with the long-promised smartphone paradigm shift. The results, on the other hand, were far more mixed.

If nothing else, the Fold has a remarkably high Q-Rating. Each person who saw me using the product had at least a vague idea of what it was all about. I honestly can’t remember the last time I’ve had that reaction with a non-iPhone device. That’s great from brand perspective. It means a lot of people are curious and potentially open to the notion that the Samsung Galaxy Fold is the future.

Of course, it also means there are a lot of people looking on if you fail.

In some ways, this past week with the Samsung Galaxy Fold has been an extremely public beta. A handful of samples were given out to reviewers. Most worked fine (mine included), but at least three failed. It’s what we in the industry call a “PR nightmare.” Or at least it would be for most companies.

Samsung’s weathered larger storms — most notably with the Galaxy Note 7 a few years back. Of course, that device made it much further along, ultimately resulting in two large-scale recalls. The nature of the two issues was also vastly different. A malfunctioning screen doesn’t put the user at bodily risk like an exploding battery. The optics on these things don’t get much worse than having your smartphone banned from planes.

As of this writing, the Fold is still set to go on sale, most likely this year. To be perfectly frank, the April 26 release date seemed overly optimistic well before the first reports of malfunctioning units. It’s never a great sign when a device is announced in February and is only made available for review a few weeks ahead of launch. It’s kind of like when a studio doesn’t let reviewers watch a film before release. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

That’s the thing. The Galaxy Fold is the kind of device you want badly to succeed. You want it to be great and you want Samsung to sell a billion because it’s a genuinely exciting product after a decade of phones that look mostly the same. There’s also the fact that Samsung has essentially been hyping this thing for eight years, since it debuted a flexible display at CES 2011.

In spite of that, however, the home stretch feels rushed. Samsung no doubt saw the writing on the wall, as companies like Huawei readied their own foldable. And while Royole beat the fold to market, Samsung still had a very good shot at the claim of first commercially viable foldable on the market, with a decade of Galaxy devices under its belt and hand-in-hand work with the Google team to create an Android UX that makes sense on a pair of very different screens.

[Source: iFixit]

But this iFixit teardown speaks volumes. “Alarmingly” isn’t the kind of word you want/expect to hear about a company like Samsung, but there it is, followed directly by “fragile” — itself repeated five times over the course of the write-up. iFixit’s findings match up pretty closely with Samsung’s own reports:

  1. A fragile display means knocking it the wrong way can result in disaster.
  2. A gap in the hinges allows dirt and other particles to wedge themselves between the folding mechanism and screen.
  3. Don’t peel off the protective layer. I know it looks like you should, but this is probably the easiest way to wreck your $2,000 phone that doesn’t involve a firearm or blender.

What makes all of this doubly unfortunate is that Samsung has about as much experience as anyone making a rugged phone that works. I feel confident that the company will do just that in future generations, but unless the company can come back with definitive evidence that it’s overhauled the product ahead of launch, this is a difficult product to recommend.

Samsung knew the first-gen Galaxy Fold would be a hard sell, of course. The company was pretty transparent about the fact that the experimental form factor, coupled with the $1,980 price tag, meant the device will only appeal to a small segment of early adopters.

Even so, the company managed to sell out of preorders — though it didn’t say how large that initial run was. Nor are we sure how many users have canceled in the wake of this past week’s events. Certainly no one would blame them for doing so at this point.

But while the apocalyptic shit-posters among us will declare the death of the foldable before it was ever truly born, whatever doesn’t kill Samsung has only made it stronger. And this misfire could ultimately do that for both the company and the category, courtesy of its informal beta testing.

Rewind a mere week or so ago (seriously, it’s only been that long), when we finally got our hands on the Galaxy Fold. I was impressed. And I certainly wasn’t alone. Admittedly, there’s a bit of a glow that first time you see a device that’s seemingly been teased forever. The fact that it exists feels like a kind of victory in and of itself. But the Fold does an admirable job marrying Samsung’s hardware expertise with a new form factor. And more importantly, it’s real and works as advertised — well, mostly, at least.

The truth is, I’ve mostly enjoyed my time with the Galaxy Fold. And indeed, it’s been fun chronicling it on a (nearly) daily basis. There are some things the form factor is great for — like looking at Google Maps or propping it up to watch YouTube videos on the elliptical machine at the gym. There are others when the bulky form factor left me wanting to go back to my regular old smartphone — but those trade-offs are to be expected.

I both like the Fold’s design and understand the criticism. Samsung’s done a good job maintaining the Galaxy line’s iconic design language. The foldable looks right at home alongside the S and Note. That said, the rounded backing adds some bulk to the product. And while open, the device is thinner than an iPhone, when folded, it’s more than double the thickness, owing to a gap between the displays. It’s quite skinny in this mode, however, so it should slip nicely into all but the tightest pants pockets.

In practice, the folding mechanism might be the most impressive part of the product. The inside features several interlocking gears that allow the product to open and shut with ease and let users interact with the device at various states of unfold. I found myself using the device with it open at a 90-degree angle quite a bit, resting in my hand like an open book. The Fold features a pair of magnets on its edges, which let you close it with a satisfying snap. It’s weirdly therapeutic.

Really, the biggest strike against the device from a purely aesthetic standpoint is that it’s not the Mate X. Announced by Huawei a few days after the Fold’s big unveil, the device takes a decidedly more minimalist approach to the category. It’s an elegant design that features less device and more screen, and, honestly, the kind of thing I don’t think most of us expected until at least the second-generation product.

The gulf between the two devices is especially apparent when it comes to the front screen. The front of the screen is around two-fifths bezel, leaving room for a 4.6-inch display with an awkward aspect ratio. The Mate X, meanwhile, features a 6.6-inch front-facing AND 6.4-inch rear-facing display (not to mention the larger eight-inch internal display to the Fold’s 7.3).

There’s reason to recommend the Fold over the Mate X, as well. I can’t speak to the difference in user experience, having only briefly interacted with the Huawei, but the price point is a biggie. The Mate X starts at an even more absurd $2,600, thanks in part to the fact that it will only be available in a 5G version, adding another layer of niche.

That price, mind you, is converted from euros, because 1) The product was announced at MWC in Barcelona and 2) U.S. availability is likely to be a nonstarter again, as the company continues to struggle with U.S. regulators.

Of course, the Fold’s U.S. availability is also in limbo at the moment, albeit for very different reasons.

I ultimately spent little time interacting with the front screen. It’s good for checking notifications and the like, but attempting to type on that skinny screen is close to impossible, with shades of the new Palm device, which implements its own shortcuts to get around those shortcomings. The inside, meanwhile, takes a butterfly keyboard approach, so you can type with both thumbs while holding it open like a book.

There’s also the issue of app optimization. A lot of this can be chalked up to an early version of a first-gen device. But as with every new device, the equation of how much developer time to invest is largely dependent on product adoption. If the Fold and future Fold’s aren’t a success, developers are going to be far less inclined to invest the hours.

This is most painfully obvious when it comes to App Continuity, one of the device’s primary selling points from a software perspective. When working as advertised, it makes a compelling case for the dual screens. Open something on the front and expand your canvas by unfolding the device. Google is among the companies that worked directly with Samsung to optimize apps this way, and it’s particularly handy with Maps. I used it a fair amount on my trip last week to Berkeley (shout out to the fine people at Pegasus Books on Shattuck).

When an app isn’t optimized, Samsung compels you to restart it, or else you get a nasty case of letterbox bars that retain the aspect ratio of the front screen. Continuity isn’t designed to work the other way, either — opening something on the large screen and then transferring to the front. That’s a bit trickier, as shutting the phone is designed to offer a kind of finality to that session, like hitting the power button to put the device to sleep.

I get that, and like many other pieces here, it will be interesting to see how people utilize it. Aside from the obvious hardware concerns, much of the work on the second-generation device will center around learnings from how users interact with this model. I know I surprised myself when I ended up using the 7.3-inch screen to snap photos. It felt silly — like those people who bring iPads to photograph events. But it’s ultimately a much better viewfinder than that measly 4.6-incher.

That’s really just the tip of the iceberg for the inside screen, of course. The size, which is somewhere between phablet and mini tablet, provides ample real estate that can still be held in one hand. It’s a great size for short videos. I’ve watched a lot of YouTube on this thing, though the speakers (a small series of holes on the upper and lower edges) leave a lot to be desired.

And the seam. I found myself uttering the phrase “it could be worse” a lot. Like so much of the general aesthetic (including the odd green-gold color of my Fold’s casing), it’s lighting-dependent. There are plenty of times when you don’t see it all, and other when the glare hits it and makes it look like a line right down the center.

I realized after snapping a couple of photos that it’s particularly apparent in many shots. That probably gives a false impression of its prominence. It sucks that there’s one at all, but it’s not a surprise, given the nature of the design. You mostly don’t notice it, until your finger swipes across it. And even then it’s subtle and totally not a dealbreaker, unlike, say, the massive gap that made the ZTE Axon M look like two phones pasted together.

I love the ability to stand the device up by having it open at a 90-degree angle, so I can watch videos while brushing my teeth. But this orientation blocks the bottom speakers, hampering the already iffy sound. Thankfully, your $1,980 will get you a pair of the excellent Galaxy Buds in box. It’s hard to imagine Apple bundling AirPods with the next iPhone, but I guess stranger things have happened, right?

Multi-Active Window is the other key software piece. It’s something that has been available on other Samsung devices and certainly makes sense here. Open an app, swipe left from the right side of the screen and a tray will open. From there, you can open up to three apps on the display. Once open, the windows feature a small tab at the top that lets you rearrange them.

It’s handy. I used it the most during those times I had a video playing on an exercise machine, so I didn’t have to close out of everything to check emails and Twitter. I’m a gym multi-tasker. I’m sorry, it’s just who I am now.

It worked quite well on the whole, courtesy of robust internals, including 12GB of RAM and a Snapdragon 855. The primary issue I ran into was how some of the apps maintained that half-screen format after I closed out and reopened. I’m sure some people will prefer that, and I’m honestly not sure what the ideal solution is there.

The Fold’s also got a beefy battery on board. Like Huawei’s, it’s split in two — one on either side of the fold. They work out to a beefy 4,380 mAh. That’s just slightly less than Huawei’s 4,500, but again, the Mate X is 5G by default — which means it’s going to burn through mAhs at a faster rate.

Ultimately, the Fold’s greatest strength is Samsung itself. I understand why you probably just did a double take there in the wake of the company’s latest hardware scandal, but the fact is that the company knows how to build phones. The Fold was very much built atop the foundation of the successful Galaxy line, even while it presents a curious little fork in the family tree.

That means a solid and well-thought-out user experience outside of the whole fold thing.

That list includes great cameras with excellent software features and clever tricks like the new Wireless PowerShare, which lets you fold up the phone and charge up those Galaxy Buds or another phone while it’s plugged in. For better or worse, it also includes Bixby. Our model was a European version that didn’t have the full version, but I think I’ve made my thoughts on the smart assistant pretty well known over the last couple of years.

The devoted Bixby button is very much here. And yes, I very much accidentally pressed it a whole bunch. The headphone jack, on the other hand, is conspicuously absent, which is no doubt a big driver behind the decision to include Galaxy Buds. The Fold is an anomaly in a number of ways, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that this might finally represent the beginning of the end for the port on Samsung’s premium devices.

Also absent is the S Pen. The stylus began life on the Note line and has since branched out to other Samsung devices. I suspect the company would have had a tough time squeezing in space for it alongside the dual batteries, and maybe it’s saving something for future generations, but this does feel like the ideal screen size for that accessory.

I’m parting ways with the Fold this week, per Samsung’s instructions. Unlike other products, giving it up won’t feel that tough. There wasn’t a point in the past week when the Fold didn’t feel like overkill. There were, however, times when my iPhone XS screen felt downright tiny after switching back.

In many ways, the foldable phone still feels like the future, and the Fold feels like a stop along the way. There are a lot of first-gen issues that should be/should have been hammered out before mass producing this device. That said, there are certain aspects that can only really be figured out in real-world testing. Take the fact that Samsung subjected the device to 200,000 mechanical open and closes. That’s a lot, and probably more than the life of just about any of these devices, but people don’t open and close like machines. And when it comes to the screen, well, a little dirt is bound to get between the gears, both metaphorically and literally.

As I close this Galaxy Fold a final time, it seems safe to say that the device represents a potentially exciting future for a stagnant smartphone space. But that’s the thing about the future — it’s just not here yet.

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Instagram restricts teens’ accounts, Elon Musk criticizes App Store fees, Google Play’s new policies – TechCrunch

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Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year over year.

This Week in Apps will finally be a newsletter! It will launch on August 7. Sign up now! 

Google Play updates its policies

Did you hear the one about Google Play banning sugar daddy dating apps? Google this week updated its terms to clarify that apps where users offer sex acts in exchange for money, or “sugar dating,” as the new terms state, are no longer allowed as of September 1, 2021.

More interesting, perhaps, to the larger group of legitimate Android developers is this week’s unveiling of the UI for the upcoming Google Play safety section and the accompanying app labels. The labels will function as the Android counterpart to the app “nutrition labels” the Apple App Store recently introduced. Google is giving developers plenty of time to get used to the idea of increased transparency and disclosure, by offering a detailed timeline of when it expects developers to have their privacy label submissions ready. By April 2022, all developers will need to declare specific info and have a privacy policy.

Developers will have to disclose to users whether their app uses security practices like data encryption, whether it follows Google Play’s Families policy for apps aimed at kids, whether users have a choice in data sharing, whether the app’s safety section had been verified by a third party, and if the app allowed users to request data deletion at the time of uninstalling, among other things.

Apps that don’t disclose won’t be able to list or update until the problems are fixed.

The safety section wasn’t the only Google Play policy news to be announced this week.

Google also reminded developers that it was making a technical change to how advertising IDs work. Now, when users opt out of interest-based advertising or ads personalization, their advertising ID is removed and replaced with a string of zeros. The change, however, is a phased rollout, affecting apps running on Android 12 devices starting late 2021 and expanding to all apps running on devices that support Google Play in early 2022.

Google also said it will test a new feature that notifies developers and ad/analytics service providers of user opt-out preferences and is prohibiting linking persistent device identifiers to personal and sensitive user data or resettable device identifiers. Kids apps will also not be able to transmit an ad ID.

Another policy update includes a plan to close dormant accounts. Google says if the account is inactive or abandoned after a year, it will be closed. This will include accounts where the developer has never uploaded an app or accessed Google Play Console in a year.

Tools to build accessible experiences will also be locked down, as Google is adding new requirements on how AccessibilityService API and IsAccessibilityTool can be used.

Apple tries to fix the Safari mess

In response to feedback and complaints, Apple is clearly trying to fix some of the issues that arose from this change. It re-added a Share button to the tab bar and put additional controls under that menu. There’s also once again a reload button in the tab bar next to the domain name, though it’s a bit smaller, and a Reader Mode button will appear in the tab bar when Reader is available

On iPad, Safari also reverted back to the traditional separate row of tabs, instead of the new compact experience.

Elon Musk sides with Epic Games

Elon Musk sided with Fortnite maker Epic Games in the Apple App Store antitrust lawsuit, as the Tesla CEO tweeted on Friday that Apple’s App Store fees were “a de facto global tax on the Internet.” The lawsuit alleges Apple is abusing its platform power with how it commissions apps and in-app purchases on its App Store platform — fees that add up to big numbers for a game like Fortnite, which arguably doesn’t need an App Store for discovery, marketing, payments and distribution. But there’s no other way to sell to iOS users today. On Android, apps can at least be sideloaded. It’s not currently clear why Musk has decided to take a stand on the issue, as none of his companies’ apps are dramatically impacted by Apple’s fees at present.

Other Platform News (Apple & Google)

Apple announced plans to end support for a number of SiriKit intents and commands, including those that could impact major apps — like ride-sharing app Uber. In total, there are over 20 SiriKit intent domains that will be deprecated and no longer supported in new and existing OS releases, Apple says.

Apple tweaked the controversial iOS 15 Safari changes in the latest betas (iOS 15 and iPadOS 15, beta 4). The new Safari design had moved the tab bar (URL bar) to the bottom of the screen — a fairly radical change for one of the iPhone’s most used apps. It was meant to make the controls easier to reach but critics said that the change made other often used features — like the reload button or Reader Mode — harder to find and use, impacting the overall usability of the browser itself.

Google this week launched version 1.0 of Jetpack Compose, Android’s new, native UI toolkit aimed at helping developers build better apps faster. The tool had been in beta since March. The new production release is built to integrate with the Jetpack libraries developers already use, and offers an implementation of Material Design components and theming. New features include Compose Preview and Deploy Preview, which require Android Studio Arctic Fox, which is also out now in a stable release.

Google also announced the availability of the CarHardwareManager API via the Android for Cars App Library as part of Jetpack.

E-commerce

Twitter launched a U.S. e-commerce pilot test that will help determine the current appetite for online shopping on its platform. The test allows brands and businesses to feature a “Shop Module” with various products for sale at the top of their Professional Profile, a business-friendly version of a profile page with support for things like an address, hours, phone number and more. Users can click on the Shop Module to go to a retail website and transact. Early testers include Game Stop and Arden Cove. The feature itself is somewhat bare bones for now, as it’s really just an image that launches an in-app browser. That’s not enough to really compete with something like Instagram Shop or Shopify’s Shop and the integrated, native checkout experience those types of app offers.

Fintech

Fintech giant Robinhood raised $2.1 billion in its IPO this week. The IPO valued the trading app at $31.8 billion, making it larger that traditional rivals like Charles Schwab, even though the offering priced at the bottom of its range. The stock dropped 8% during its first day’s trading, however. Robinhood now has 21.3 million MAUs.

PayPal during its second-quarter earnings call announced its new “super app” is now code-complete and ready to roll out. The app will feature early direct deposit, check cashing, high yield savings, budgeting tools, improved bill pay, crypto support, subscription management, buy now, pay later functionality, mobile commerce, and person-to-person messaging features. The latter hadn’t yet been announced and would allow users to chat outside of the payments process.

Code found in Apple’s Wallet app indicates that iOS 15 will require users to verify their identities by taking a selfie when they add their driver’s license or other state identification card to the iPhone.

Social

Instagram announced a series of significant changes to how it handles the accounts of younger teens. The company says it will now default users to private accounts at sign-up if they’re under the age of 16  — or under 18 in certain locales, including in the EU. It will also push existing users under 16 to switch their account to private if they have not already done so. In addition, Instagram is rolling out new technology aimed at reducing unwanted contact from adults — like those who have already been blocked or reported by other teens — and it will change how advertisers can reach its teenage audience. The changes give the company a way to argue to regulators that it’s capable of self-policing as it attempts to roll out a version of Instagram to younger users under the age of 13.

Twitter rolls out an update to its live audio platform, Twitter Spaces, that will make it easier to share the audio room with others. Users will be able to compose a tweet right from the Space that links to the room and includes any accompanying hashtags. iOS users also received new guest management controls for hosts.

Snapchat resolved an outage that was stopping people from logging in on Thursday. Unlike other app blips, which fix themselves often without users’ awareness, Snap told users to manually update their app if the issues continued.

Snapchat also this week added a “My Places” feature to Snap Map, which allows users to log their favorite spots, share them with friends and find recommendations. The feature supports over 30 million businesses and allows Snap to differentiate its map from a utility like Google Maps or Apple Maps, because it’s about personal recommendations from people you know and trust: your friends.

Instagram added support for 60-second videos to its TikTok clone, Reels. Previously, only Reels of up to 30 seconds were supported. Sixty seconds is in line with other platforms like YouTube Shorts and Snapchat’s Spotlight. But TikTok is now inching into YouTube territory, as it recently expanded to support three-minute videos.

TikTok expanded its LIVE platform with a huge lineup of new features including the ability to go live with others, host Q&As, use moderators and improved keyword filters, and more. For viewers, TikTok is adding new discovery and viewing tools, including picture-in-picture mode and ways to jump to LIVE streams from the For You and Following feeds. Some markets, including the U.S. already had access to LIVE Events, but the feature is now expanding. Meanwhile, the co-host feature currently supports going live with one other creator, but TikTok says it’s now testing multiple hosts.

Discord launched a new feature, Threads, which will make it easier to read through longer conversations on busy servers. Now, any server with “Community” features enabled will be able to transform their messages into threaded conversations across mobile and desktop. The threads will be designated by their own subject name and can be created by selecting a new hashtag symbol that appears in the menu when hovering over messages or by pressing the + sign in the chat bar.

Pinterest shares dropped by more than 12% after the company reported its second-quarter earnings on Thursday. Despite beating on estimates with revenue of $613.2 million and earnings per share of 25 cents, investors were disappointed by the miss on user growth. The company reported monthly active user growth of just 9% to reach 454 million, when analysts were expecting 482 million. Pinterest blamed COVID impacts for the slowdown. The news follows Pinterest’s launch of new tools for creators to monetize their content, with Ideas Pins — the recently launched video-first format that lets creators show off their work. Now, creators can make their pins “shoppable” and take commissions on those purchases.

Messaging

WhatsApp is testing support for higher image upload quality on iOS devices. The feature was discovered on WhatsApp’s TestFlight version for iOS but is not yet public and offers three options: auto, best quality or data saver.

Streaming & Entertainment

Spotify’s Clubhouse clone, Greenroom, is off to a slow start. The app has only been downloaded 140,000+ times on iOS and 100,000+ on Android, including installs from its earlier life as Locker Room, an app that Spotify acquired to move into live audio. Meanwhile, Spotify has 365 million monthly active users on its flagship streaming app.

Spotify also reported its Q2 earnings this week, where it posted a $23.6 million loss and failed to reach its forecast for total MAUs, despite growing MAUs 22% YOY to 365 million. It now has 165 million paying subscribers, which is up 20% YOY.

In a change to its app, Spotify added an attention-grabbing “What’s New” feed that offers personalized updates about new releases and new podcast episodes. The feature is available through a notification bell icon and uses a blue dot to indicate when there’s something new to see. Dots like this are a psychological hacks popularized by social apps like Facebook and Instagram to addict users, which could impact user engagement time on Spotify’s app.

Apple’s GarageBand app for iOS and iPadOS now lets you remix tracks from top artists and producers like Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga. There are also new Producer Packs with beats, loops and instruments created for GarageBand by top producers, including Boys Noize, Mark Lettieri, Oak Felder, Soulection, Take A Daytrip, Tom Misch and TRAKGIRL.

Google TV’s mobile app was updated with new services and personalized recommendations, following last fall’s launch of the Google TV user experience for Chromecast devices. The app now sports 16:9 widescreen movie and show posters, and added new providers Discovery+, Viki, Cartoon Network, PBS Kids, Boomerang, plus on-demand content from live TV services, including YouTube TV, Philo and fuboTV.

Gaming

Epic Games announced that Fortnite will host another in-game event it’s calling the “Rift Tour,” which kicks off Friday, August 6 and runs through Sunday, August 8. What it hasn’t yet said is what the Rift Tour is, beyond a “musical journey into magical new realities” that will feature a “record-breaking superstar.”

Health & Fitness

Facebook’s Oculus division is exploring an integration of Oculus Workouts with Apple’s Health app, according to the app’s code. An integration would allow users to store their workout data in Health.

Productivity

Usage of mobile video conferencing apps like Zoom grew by 150% in the first half of 2021, according to a report from Sensor Tower. Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet saw a surge in usage, collectively climbing to nearly 21x higher than in H1 2019, the firm found.

Google Voice’s app was updated with a few refinements, including a way to see the reason for a missed call or dropped call, and an easy way to redial. iOS users can now show their Google Voice number as their caller ID when they get a calling through a forwarding number. Another change will allow users to delete multiple SMS messages at once.

Edtech

Language learning app Duolingo raised $521 million in its U.S. IPO, priced above the marketed range. The company priced 5.1 million shared at $102, after first marketing them at $95 to $100.

Utilities

Amazon this week rolled out an update to its Alexa iOS app that allows users to add an Alexa widget to their iOS homescreen. The widget lets you tap on a button to speak to the virtual assistant and issue commands. Watch out Siri! (Ha, just kidding.)

Google Maps also updated its iOS app this week to add support for a homescreen widget. There are two different widgets sizes to choose from — one that gives info like weather and traffic, while another is more of a shortcut to nearby places like gas stations, restaurants, work and home.

Google is working on a”Switch to Android” app for iOS users that will copy over data and apps from an iPhone to bring them to a new Android device. Apple already offers a similar app, called “Move to iOS” for Android users.

Transportation

Parking app usage has popped to pre-pandemic levels, Apptopia reported. Apps in this space help users find availability in lots and garages nearby and facilitate payments. Browsing time in apps was up 57% YOY in July, and overall parking app usage is now 6.2% above Jan. 2020 pre-pandemic levels.

Moovit integrated Lime’s electric scooters, bikes and mopeds into its transit-planning app that’s live in 117 cities across 20 countries and continents, including the United States, South America, Australia and Europe.

Government & Policy

Tencent’s WeChat suspended new user registrations in China to comply with “relevant laws and regulations.” The move comes amid a broad crackdown on tech companies by Chinese regulators, related to data collection and other harmful practices.

Recently, China ordered Tencent and 13 other developers to fix problems related to pop-ups inside their apps, as part of the tech crackdown. The regulator also said it would tighten controls on misleading and explicit content used for marketing, and issued fines for offensive content to Tencent, Kuaishou and Alibaba.

Security & Privacy

Apple released patches for iOS, iPadOS and macOS to address a zero-day vulnerability that had been exploited in the wild. Apple said the exploit could exploit the vulnerability known as CVE-2021-30807 to execute arbitrary code with kernel privileges on a vulnerable and unpatched device.

Google Play Protect failed an Android security test, according to a report from Bleeping Computer. The mobile threat protection solution ranked last out of 15 Android security apps tested over a span of six months, between January to June 2021.

💰 Product insights and analytics startup Pendo raised $150 million at a $2.6 billion valuation, ahead of its expected IPO. The round was led by B Capital, the firm from Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, and included new investor Silver Lake Waterman, alongside existing backers. Pendo’s platform helps companies gather data on how customers use their apps, including clients like Okta, Toast and others.

🤝 Twitter “acqui-hired” the team from subscription news app, Brief, who will now join Twitter’s Experience.org group, which works on Twitter Spaces and Explore. Brief had offered a non-biased news app that allowed you to get both sides of a story and all the necessary facts. Deal terms weren’t disclosed.

💰 Delivery app Gopuff confirmed its $1 billion fundraise at a $15 billion valuation, aimed at expanding its instant delivery service. TechCrunch previously reported the news when the Series H was still being closed.

💰 Indian travel app Ixigo raised $53 million (Rs 395 crore), prepping the business for a valuation of $750 million-$800 million for its upcoming IPO. The round was led by Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC.

💰 Mobile-first digital wallet Valora native to the Celo network raised $20 million in Series A funding led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z), a Celo backer, to become a global gateway to crypto.

💰 Crypto wallet company Eco, backed by a16z, raised $60 million in new funding led by Activant Capital and L Catterton. Eco offers a digital wallet with rewards and no fees, and has average deposits of around $6,000.

💰 Search API startup Algolia, which lets developers integrate real-time search in apps or websites, raised $150 million in Series D funding, valuing the business at $2.25 billion, post-money. The round was led by Lone Pine Capital. Algolia now has over 10,000 customers, including Slack, Stripe, Medium, Zendesk and Lacoste.

💰 Brain Technologies raised $50+ million for Natural, a natural language search engine and super app for iOS, which wants users to stop switching between apps to order food, groceries or go shopping. Backers include Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, Goodwater Capital, Scott Cook and WTT Investment.

💰 Messaging app Element, built on the decentralized Matrix protocol, raised $30 million in a Series B round of funding. Investors include open-source R&D lab Protocol Labs and Metaplanet. a fund from Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, as well as past investors Automattic and Notion.

💰 Indonesia-based grocery app HappyFresh raised $65 million in Series D funding in a round led by Naver Financial Corporation and Gafina B.V. The app offers an Instacart-like grocery delivery service for parts of Asia, which today operates in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

💰 Indian D2C beauty brand MyGlamm, which sells products through an app and website, raised $71.3 million in Series C financing, from Amazon, Ascent Capital and Wipro.

Nanogram

Image Credits: Nanogram

Developer Kosta Eleftheriou may have taken on Apple in legal battles and on Twitter, as he points out the numerous app scams on the App Store, but that hasn’t stopped him from building new apps.

This week, Eleftheriou introduced Nanogram, a Telegram client app that works on the Apple Watch without needing an iPhone connection. Eleftheriou said he was inspired to build Nanogram because he wanted a Telegram app for his LTE Apple Watch and didn’t like the official version that didn’t provide “basic and reliable messaging functionality.” So he built his own app from scratch using the Telegram SDK, which allows you to send, receive and view all your messages and notifications right from your wrist — even if you don’t have your phone nearby. The app also supports Eleftheriou’s FlickType Swipe Keyboard for faster replies while on the go.

Eleftheriou notes the app doesn’t collect any personal information and requires an Apple Watch Series 3 or later, running watchOS 7 or later.

Lightricks’ Videoleap for Android

Image Credits: Lightricks

After seeing a 70% yearly increase for its iOS version, Lightricks brought its Videoleap app to the Google Play Store. The app has grown popular with online creators for offering professional quality editing tools on mobile, including those that let you apply artistic effects, mix videos with images, add text and layer transformations and more. The company says Videoleap users are now creating 35 million pieces of content per month, and 47% of users are exporting their creations to TikTok in pursuit of monetizing their content further. The app, like others from Lightricks (which also makes FaceTune and others), monetizes by way of in-app subscriptions.

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PayPal’s new ‘super app’ is ready to launch, will also include messaging – TechCrunch

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PayPal’s plan to morph itself into a “super app” have been given a go for launch. According to PayPal CEO Dan Schulman, speaking to investors during this week’s second-quarter earnings, the initial version of PayPal’s new consumer digital wallet app is now “code complete” and the company is preparing to slowly ramp up. Over the next several months, PayPal expects to be fully ramped in the U.S., with new payment services, financial services, commerce and shopping tools arriving every quarter.

The company has spoken for some time about its “super app” ambitions — a shift in product direction that would make PayPal a U.S.-based version of something like China’s WeChat or Alipay or India’s Paytm. Similar to these apps, PayPal aims to offer a host of consumer services under one roof, beyond just mobile payments.

In previous quarters, PayPal said these new features may include things like enhanced direct deposit, check cashing, budgeting tools, bill pay, crypto support, subscription management, and buy now/pay later functionality. It also said it would integrate commerce, thanks to the mobile shopping tools acquired by way of its $4 billion Honey acquisition from 2019.

So far, PayPal has continued to run Honey as a standalone application, website and browser extension, but the super app could incorporate more of its deal-finding functions, price tracking features, and other benefits.

On Wednesday’s earnings call, Schulman revealed the super app would include a few other features as well, including high-yield savings, early access to direct deposit funds, and messaging functionality outside of peer-to-peer payments — meaning you could chat with family and friends directly through the app’s user interface.

PayPal hadn’t yet announced its plans to include a messaging component until now, but the feature makes sense in terms of how people often combine chat and peer-to-peer payments today. For example, someone may want to make a personal request for the funds instead of just sending an automated request through an app. Or, after receiving payment, a user may want to respond with a “thank you,” or other acknowledgement. Currently, these conversations take place outside of the payment app itself on platforms like iMessage. Now, that could change.

“We think that’s going to drive a lot of engagement on the platform,” said Schulman. “You don’t have to leave the platform to message back and forth.”

With the increased user engagement, the company expects to see a related bump in average revenue per active account.

Schulman also hinted at “additional crypto capabilities,” which were not detailed. However, PayPal earlier this month increased the crypto purchase limit from $20,000 to $100,000 for eligible PayPal customers in the U.S., with no annual purchase limit. The company also this year made it possible for consumers to check out at millions of online businesses using their cryptocurrencies, by first converting the crypto to cash then settling with the merchant in U.S. dollars.

Though the app’s code is now complete, Schulman said the plan is to continue to iterate on the product experience, noting that the initial version will not be “the be-all and end-all.” Instead, the app will see steady releases and new functionality on a quarterly basis.

However, he did say that early on, the new features would include the high-yield savings, improved bill pay with a better user experience and more billers and aggregators, as well as early access to direct deposit, budgeting tools, and the new two-way messaging feature.

To integrate all the new features into the super app, PayPal will undergo a major overhaul of its user interface.

“Obviously, the [user experience] is being redesigned,” Schulman noted. “We’ve got rewards and shopping. We’ve got a whole giving hub around crowdsourcing, giving to charities. And then, obviously, Buy Now, Pay Later will be fully integrated into it…The last time I counted, it was like 25 new capabilities that we’re going to put into the super app,” he said.

The digital wallet app will also be personalized to the end user, so no two apps are the same. This will be done using both A.I. and machine learning capabilities to  “enhance each customer’s experiences and opportunities,” said Schulman.

PayPal delivered an earnings beat in the second quarter with $6.24 billion in revenue, versus the $6.27 billion Wall St. expected, and earnings per share of $1.15 versus the $1.12 expected. Total payment volume from merchant customers also jumped 40% to $311 billion, while analysts had projected $295.2 billion. But the company’s stock slipped due to a lowered outlook for Q3, impacted by eBay’s transition to its own managed payments service.

In addition, PayPal gained 11.4 million net new active accounts in the quarter, to reach 403 million total active accounts.

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Spotify’s Clubhouse rival, Greenroom, tops 140K installs on iOS, 100K on Android – TechCrunch

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Spotify’s recently launched live audio app and Clubhouse rival, Spotify Greenroom, has a long road ahead of it if it wants to take on top social audio platforms like Clubhouse, Airtime, Spoon and others, not to mention those from top social networks, like Twitter and Facebook. To date, the new Greenroom app has only been downloaded a total of 141,000 times on iOS, according to data from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower. This includes downloads from its earlier iteration, Locker Room — an app Spotify acquired to make its move into live audio.

On Android, Google Play data indicates the app has been installed over 100,000 times, but Sensor Tower cannot yet confirm this figure.

For comparison, Clubhouse today has 30.2 million total installs, 18.7 million of which are on iOS, Sensor Tower says.

Other top audio apps include Airtime, with 11.4 million iOS installs, out of a total of 14.3 million (including Android); and Spoon, with 7.6 million iOS installs, out of a total of  27.3 million.

International apps like UAE’s Yalla and China’s Lizhi are massive, as well, with the former sporting 48.1 total installs, 3.8 million of which are on iOS. The latter has 29.5+ million total installs, but only a handful on iOS.

There are other newcomers that have managed to stake smaller claims in the social audio space, too, including Fishbowl (759,000 total installs), Cappuccino (497,000 installs), Riff (339,000 installs) and Sonar (154,000 installs.)

Image Credits: Sensor Tower. The firm analyzed 34 social audio apps. The chart shows those with the most installs.  

Spotify Greenroom’s launch last month, meanwhile, seems to have attracted only a small fraction of Spotify’s larger user base, which has now grown to 365 million monthly active users.

The majority of Greenroom’s installs — around 106,000 — took place after Greenroom’s official launch on July 16, 2021 through July 25, 2021, Sensor Tower says. Counting only its Greenroom installs, the app is ranked at No. 12 among social audio apps. It follows Tin Can, which gained 127,000 installs since launching in early March.

Because Greenroom took over Locker Room’s install base, some portion of Greenroom’s total iOS installs (141K) included downloads that occurred when the app was still Locker Room. But that number is fairly small. Sensor Tower estimates Locker Room saw only around 35,000 total iOS installs to date. That includes the time frame of October 26, 2020 — the month when the sports chat app launched to the public — up until the day before Greenroom’s debut (July 15, 2021).

We should also point out that downloads are not the same thing as registered users, and are far short of active users. Many people download a new app to try it, but then abandon it shortly after downloading it, or never remember to open it at all.

That means the number of people actively using Greenroom at this time, is likely much smaller that these figures indicate.

Spotify declined to comment on third-party estimates.

While Sensor Tower looked at competition across social audio apps on the app stores, Spotify’s competition in the live audio market won’t be limited to standalone apps, of course.

Other large tech platforms have more recently integrated social audio into their apps, too, including Facebook (Live Audio Rooms), Twitter (Spaces), Discord (Stage Channels) and trading app Public. A comparison with Greenroom here is not possible, as these companies would have to disclose how many of their active users are engaging with live audio, and they have not yet done so.

Despite what may be a slower uptake, Greenroom shouldn’t be counted out yet. The app is brand-new, and has time to catch up if all goes well. (And if the market for live audio, in general, continues to grow — even though the height of Covid lockdowns, which prompted all this live audio socializing in the first place, seems to have passed.)

Spotify’s success or failure with live audio will be particularly interesting to watch given the potential for the company to cross-promote live audio shows, events, and artist-produced content through its flagship streaming music application. What sort of programming Greenroom may later include is still unknown, however.

Following Spotify’s acquisition of Locker Room maker Betty Labs, the company said it would roll out programmed content related to music, culture, and entertainment, in addition to sports. It also launched a Creator Fund to help fuel the app with new content. 

But so far, Spotify hasn’t given its users a huge incentive to visit Greenroom.

The company, during its Q2 2021 earnings, explained why. It said it first needed to get Greenroom stabilized for a “Spotify-sized audience,” which it why it only soft-launched the app in June. Going forward, Spotify says there will be “more tie-ins” with the main Spotify app, but didn’t offer any specifics.

“Obviously we’ll leverage our existing distribution on Spotify,” noted Spotify CEO Daniel Ek. “But this feels like a great way to learn, experiment and iterate, much faster than if we had to wait for a full on integration into the main app,” he added.

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