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The state of the foldable – TechCrunch

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You’d be forgiven for being cynical. I’ve been seeing foldable display concepts for as long as I’ve been attending tech trade shows (which, quite frankly, is longer than I care to mention). Big names like Samsung and LG have been pumping countless R&D dollars into the technology in hopes of being first to next step in the evolution of the smart phone form factor.

The concept is nothing new, of course. The flip phone pre-dates the ubiquitous smartphone slab by decades. And a number of companies have tried to cheat the system. 2017’s Axon M was one of the more memorable attempts in recent memory — though that device amounted to little more than two screens jammed together on a hinge.

It bold and brash, but more than anything it was completely silly with an execution that left a lot to be desired. In my review, I called it “a fascinating mess.” But hey, ZTE deserves at least some credit for a run of products that attempted — with varying degrees of success — to buck the trend of samey smartphones.

There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the state of technology in 2019, but I humbly offer you a beacon of light. This is the year smartphones become fun again. With their back to the corner, facing flagging sales, smartphone makers are taking leaps. Hell, it’s still January, and we’ve already caught a glimpse of what’s to compete.

At the front of the charger are foldables. That seems to be the term we’ve settled on for now — and it suits the category just fine. What convertibles were to the laptop category, foldables are to phones. True foldables require the display itself to do the folding, so devices can ostensibly transform from a one-handed smartphone to a larger tablet.

The Axon M didn’t fit the description for a number of reason, not the least of which was the gap between the two displays, which, quite frankly, made for a pretty crappy movie viewing experience, among others.

The first real foldable we’ve seen was a surprise contender. If the name “Royole” meant anything to you, prior to the Flex Pai, it was probably followed by the phrase “with cheese.” From the moment we first saw grainy footage of the handset, it was clear that being first and being best are rarely one and the same. “Folding screens are here,” I wrote at the time, “and they look crappy.”

I got some time with an updated version of the handset about a month later in China, and reappraised my initial impressions a bit. Even still, the Flex Pai didn’t and doesn’t strike me as much more than a little known company’s push bid to make a name for itself simply by being first.

Romain spent a bit more time with the device at CES, and appears to have come to similar conclusions. Royole does get credit for actually making the device a reality — even if it’s one that’s more developer focused than consumer. That does, of course, speak to a broader issue around usability.

It was a cause Google was happy to take up in November, when the company announced Android support for foldable displays. Like the notch before it, Google was attempting to get out ahead of the looming trend.

Here’s how Android VP Dave Burke described the category at the time, “You can think of the device as both a phone and a tablet, Broadly, there are two variants — two-screen devices and one-screen devices. When folded, it looks like a phone, fitting in your pocket or purse. The defining feature for this form factor is something we call screen continuity.”

It’s going to be fascinating to see if the industry coalesces around a single form factor here. The Flex Pai is one of the simpler ones — essentially operating like a sheet of paper that (somewhat awkwardly) folds in half so you can slip it in your pocket.

The same day that Google announced Android support, Samsung (briefly) showed off its own version of the technology. In the whooping 45 seconds the company devoted to it during a its two-hour keynote, we caught a glimpse of what looks to be an early prototype. Here, the device sports a display on the outside and unfolds to reveal a larger display within.

The “Infinity Flex Display” appeared at first glance to be more sophisticated than Royole’s — but “glance” is really the operative word here. It was a big, blocky prototype that we’ll be hearing more about at Unpacked next month.

Earlier this week, meanwhile, Xiaomi debuted what’s since come to be regarded as the most advanced of the bunch, but like Samsung, we only got a glimpse. And here it was in a much more controlled environment of a short, pre-recorded clip and extremely low resolution. That said, “the world’s first ever double folding phone” looks like a thing out of a sci-fi film.

The company, telling, tossed around the word “prototype” quite liberally there.

And then there’s Huawei. Mobile Chief Richard Yu highlight plans to announce a 5G folding phone at Mobile World Congress next month. As ever, details are scarce. Same goes for Motorola’s Razer, a $1,500 folding throwback, which is firmly in the rumor stages.

If that price point gives you pause, well, get used to it. The Flex Pai is already available at $1,300, and most other handsets are appear on track to hit roughly the same price point, making the latest iPhone and Samsung Galaxy devices look like a downright bargain.



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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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Google unveils its proposed ‘Safety Section’ for apps on Google Play – TechCrunch

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In the wake of Apple’s advances into consumer privacy with initiatives like App Tracking Transparency and App Store privacy labels, Google recently announced its own plans to introduce a new “safety section” on Google Play that offers more information about the data apps collect and share, and other security and privacy details. Today, the company is sharing for the first time what the new section’ user interface will look like, along with other requirements for developers.

In May, Google explained the safety section would be designed to easily communicate to users how apps are handling their data, so they could make informed choices. It said app developers would need 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 uninstall, among other things.

In the user interface concept Google debuted today, developers are now able to see how this feature will look to the end user.

Image Credits: Google

In the safety section, users will be able to see the developer’s explanation of what data the app collects followed by those other details, each with their own icon to serve as a visual indicator.

When users tap into the summary, they’ll be able to then see other details like what data is collected or shared — like location, contacts, personal information (e.g., name, email address), financial information and more.

They’ll also be able to see how the data is used — for app functionality, personalization, etc. — and whether data collection is optional. 

Image Credits: Google

Google says it wants to give developers plenty of time to prepare for these Play Store changes which is why it’s now sharing more information about the data type definitions, user journey and policy requirements of the new feature. 

It notes that all developers will have to provide a privacy policy by April 2022. Before, only apps that collected personal and sensitive user data were required to do so. Developers will also be required to share accurate and complete information about all the data in their safety section, including how it’s used by the app’s third-party libraries and SDKs. This is in line with what Apple demands for its apps.

Image Credits: Google

In October 2021, developers will be able to submit their information in the Google Play Console for review, ahead of the planned launch of the safety section in Google Play, which is scheduled for the first quarter of 2022.

The company also notes it’s offering some buffer time after the section’s launch before apps must have their safety section approved by Google. However, the company says apps will have to be approved by Q2 2022 or risk having their app submissions or app updates rejected. And if an app doesn’t provide an approved safety section, the app will say “No information available.”

The change will help to highlight how many active developers are present on Google Play, as those will be the ones who will adopt the new policy and showcase how their apps collect and use data.

The question that remains is how stringent Google will be about enforcing its new guidelines and how carefully apps will be reviewed. One interesting note here is that conscientious developers will be able to submit their safety section for a third-party review and then be able to promote that to users concerned app data privacy and security.

This could help to address some potential criticism that these safety sections aren’t factual. That’s been a problem for Apple since the launch of its App Store privacy labels, in fact. The Washington Post discovered that a number of apps were displaying false information, making them less helpful to the users whose data they aimed to protect.

When reached for comment, however, Google declined to share more details about how the third-party verification process will work.

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