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The top smartphone trends to watch in 2019 – TechCrunch

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This was a bad year for the smartphone. For the first time, its seemingly unstoppable growth began to slow.

Things started off on a bad note in February, when Gartner recorded its first year-over-year decline since it began tracking the category. Not even the mighty Apple was immune from the trend. Last week, stocks took a hit as influential analyst Ming-Chi Kuo downgraded sales expectations for 2019.

People simply aren’t upgrading as fast as they used to. This is due in part to the fact that flagship phones are pretty good across the board. Manufacturers have painted themselves into a corner as they’ve battled it out over specs. There just aren’t as many compelling reasons to continually upgrade.

Of course, that’s not going to stop them from trying. Along with the standard upgrades to things like cameras, you can expect some radical rethinks of smartphone form factors, along with the first few pushes into 5G in the next calendar year.

If we’re lucky, there will be a few surprises along the way as well, but the following trends all look like no-brainers for 2019.

5G

GUANGZHOU, CHINA – DECEMBER 06: Attendees look at 5G mobile phones at the Qualcomm stand during China Mobile Global Partner Conference 2018 at Poly World Trade Center Exhibition Hall on December 6, 2018 in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province of China. The three-day conference opened on Thursday, with the theme of 5G network. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Let’s get this one out of the way, shall we? It’s a bit tricky — after all, plenty of publications are going to claim 2019 as “The Year of 5G,” but they’re all jumping the gun. It’s true that we’re going to see the first wave of 5G handsets appearing next year.

OnePlus and LG have committed to a handset and Samsung, being Samsung, has since committed to two. We’ve also seen promises of a Verizon 5G MiFi and whatever the hell this thing is from HTC and Sprint.

Others, most notably Apple, are absent from the list. The company is not expected to release a 5G handset until 2020. While that’s going to put it behind the curve, the truth of the matter is that 5G will arrive into this world as a marketing gimmick. When it does fully roll out, 5G has the potential to be a great, gaming-changing technology for smartphones and beyond. And while carriers have promised to begin rolling out the technology in the States early next year (AT&T even got a jump start), the fact of the matter is that your handset will likely spend a lot more time using 4G.

That is to say, until 5G becomes more ubiquitous, you’re going to be paying a hefty premium for a feature you barely use. Of course, that’s not going to stop hardware makers, component manufacturers and their carrier partners from rushing these devices to market as quickly as possible. Just be aware of your chosen carrier’s coverage map before shelling out that extra cash.

Foldables

We’ve already seen two — well, one-and-a-half, really. And you can be sure we’ll see even more as smartphone manufacturers scramble to figure out the next big thing. After years of waiting, we’ve been pretty unimpressed with the foldable smartphone we’ve seen so far.

The Royole is fascinating, but its execution leaves something to be desired. Samsung’s prototype, meanwhile, is just that. The company made it the centerpiece of its recent developer conference, but didn’t really step out of the shadows with the product — almost certainly because they’re not ready to show off the full product.

Now that the long-promised technology is ready in consumer form, it’s a safe bet we’ll be seeing a number of companies exploring the form factor. That will no doubt be helped along by the fact that Google partnered with Samsung to create a version of Android tailored to the form factor — similar to its embrace of the top notch with Android Pie.

Of course, like 5G, these designs are going to come at a major premium. Once the initial novelty has worn off, the hardest task of all will be convincing consumers they need one in their life.

Pinholes

Bezels be damned. For better or worse, the notch has been a mainstay of flagship smartphones. Practically everyone (save for Samsung) has embraced the cutout in an attempt to go edge to edge. Even Google made it a part of Android (while giving the world a notch you can see from space with the Pixel 3 XL).

We’ve already seen (and will continue to see) a number of clever workarounds like Oppo’s pop-up. The pin hole/hole punch design found on the Huawei Nova 4 seems like a more reasonable route for a majority of camera manufacturers.

Embedded Fingerprint Readers

The flip side of the race to infinite displays is what to do with the fingerprint reader. Some moved it to the rear, while others, like Apple, did away with it in favor of face scanning. Of course, for those unable to register a full 3D face scan, that tech is pretty easy to spoof. For that reason, fingerprint scanners aren’t going away any time soon.

OnePlus’ 6T was among the first to bring the in-display fingerprint scanner to market, and it works like a charm. Here’s how the tech works (quoting from my own writeup from a few months ago):

When the screen is locked, a fingerprint icon pops up, showing you where to press. When the finger is in the right spot, the AMOLED display flashes a bright light to capture a scan of the surface from the reflected light. The company says it takes around a third of a second, though in my own testing, that number was closer to one second or sometimes longer as I negotiated my thumb into the right spot.

Samsung’s S10 is expected to bring that technology when it arrives around the February time frame, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of other manufacturers follow suit.

Cameras, cameras, cameras (also, cameras)

What’s the reasonable limit for rear-facing cameras? Two? Three? What about the five cameras on that leaked Nokia from a few months back? When does it stop being a phone back and start being a camera front? These are the sorts of existential crises we’ll have to grapple with as manufacturers continue to attempt differentiation through imagining.

Smartphone cameras are pretty good across the board these days, so one of the simple solutions has been simply adding more to the equation. LG’s latest offers a pretty reasonable example of how this will play out for many. The V40 ThinQ has two front and three rear-facing cameras. The three on the back are standard, super wide-angle and 2x optical zoom, offering a way to capture different types of images when a smartphone camera isn’t really capable of that kind of optical zoom in a thin form factor.

On the flip side, companies will also be investing a fair deal in software to help bring better shots to existing components. Apple and Google both demonstrated how a little AI and ML can go a long way toward improving image capture on their last handsets. Expect much of that to be focused on ultra-low light and zoom.

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TikTok introduces a strike system for violations, tests a feature to “refresh” the For You feed • TechCrunch

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TikTok today is announcing several changes to its service, including what it claims will be increased enforcement against bad actors as well as tests of new user-facing tools that will force a refresh of the app’s main algorithmic feed, known as the For You feed. The company said the changes are focused on keeping the platform both safe and entertaining for its users and creators alike.

While all major social media companies have content guidelines, their enforcement varies. As is often the case, people who violate the rules and are subject to takedowns of their content or bans, don’t always learn from their mistakes — they just become repeat violators. Today, TikTok’s enforcement system includes a variety of penalties, like temporary bans on posting or commenting, designed to reduce harmful content on the platform.

However, admits TikTok’s Global Head of Product Policy, Julie de Bailliencourt, in an announcement, creators complain that the current system can be confusing to navigate — especially if they don’t typically break TikTok’s rules or have unknowingly violated policy, and aren’t sure why they’ve been penalized. What’s more, this system is not efficient at deterring repeat violators, the exec explained

“Repeat violators tend to follow a pattern – our analysis has found that almost 90% violate using the same feature consistently, and over 75% violate the same policy category repeatedly,” de Bailliencourt wrote.

As a result, TikTok will move instead to a strike system, similar to YouTube. In all but the most severe cases, creators will accrue strikes as their content is removed. If they then reach a threshold of strikes within either a product feature (like comments or TikTok LIVE), or policy (like bullying or harassment), they will be permanently banned. The company said the threshold will vary depending on the violation and its potential to harm community members. It said, for instance, there may be a lower threshold for violating hateful content policies than there would be for posting low-harm spam.

TikTok will still issue permanent bans for severe violations, like videos that are “promoting or threatening violence, showing or facilitating child sexual abuse material (CSAM), or showing real-world violence or torture,” the post said.

The accumulated strikes will expire from an account’s record after 90 days, but accounts that “accrue a high number of cumulative strikes across policies and features” will be permanently banned. TikTok did not detail what a “high number” would be, nor did it share more information about what the thresholds are in the various areas. That could potentially cause more confusion among creators as they try to reverse engineer the system based on which accounts received strikes and why.

Creators will soon be able to track their own strikes and their account’s standing in the app, TikTok said, through an update to the Safety Center for creators. Here, they can view their own status and the status of the reports they’ve made on other videos or accounts. They’ll also be able to appeal strikes from this Safety Center if they feel they were given out in error. If the creator is close to a permanent ban, TikTok will notify them.

Related to this, the company said it will also begin to test a new feature in select markets that will inform creators which videos of theirs have been marked as ineligible for recommendation to users’ For You feeds, and why.

For end users, however, another new test may be more interesting.

Soon, TikTok will allow some users to tap a new “Refresh” button to receive an updated set of For You feed recommendations. Though TikTok’s feed is highly personalized and fairly addictive, many complain the content becomes stale as it doesn’t add enough variety after some time. With the new refresh button, which will be available in account settings, users will be able to force the app to bring “new, diversified content not based on previous activity or interactions” to their For You feed.

After hitting the button, users will then begin to see content that’s based on their new interactions, a TikTok spokesperson told TechCrunch. In addition to providing a refreshed feed, the company noted that the feature could serve as a way to support potentially vulnerable users who want to distance themselves from their current content experience.

The changes to TikTok’s policies and product come on the heels of increased concern over the app’s ties to China and the risks it poses. Across the U.S., TikTok has been banned on government devices after executive orders from governors prohibited the app. Several universities have banned the app on their Wi-Fi networks as well. And the Biden administration banned TikTok from government devices in a bill signed at the end of December. In response, TikTok has been taking meetings with officials, think tanks, and public interest groups in Washington, The New York Times reported, and this week invited media to tour its Transparency and Accountability Center in L.A.

Amid the increasing calls for a nationwide ban in the U.S., TikTok has been working to convince the public of its platform safety and rolling out new transparency tools that inform users why videos were recommended or allow them to filter out specific content. However, with every new announcement, there comes a bit of bad press, too. For instance, it was revealed last month the company had a secret heating button to make videos go viral, and just before that, Forbes reported TikTok had spied on its journalists. These reveals have tarnished the company’s image further at a time when it’s trying to increase trust.

TikTok says the refresh button will roll out in the “coming days” while the policy update is currently rolling out globally and users will be notified as it’s available to them.

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Roblox to host a free virtual Super Bowl concert featuring Saweetie • TechCrunch

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Hip-hop artist Saweetie is performing exclusively in Roblox for the NFL’s Super Bowl LVII pregame on February 10, the National Football League announced today.

The virtual concert will take place at 7:00 pm ET in Warner Music Group’s Rhythm City, a new destination on Roblox that was announced earlier this week. Rhythm City is set to launch on February 4 and offers mini-games and social roleplaying experiences like becoming a musician and owning a house and car.

The NFL claims that Saweetie will give a “family-friendly,” fully motion-captured performance and sing her hit songs like “Tap-In.” The concert will re-air every hour until Sunday, February 12.

Fans that virtually attend the Saweetie Super Bowl Concert can also get digital items on the Roblox marketplace or win items by finishing challenges. The digital collection includes wearable hairstyles, hats, boots, headphones, and sweatsuits, which are based on Saweetie’s merchandise and her album looks.

“I’m really excited to bring this iconic moment to the metaverse and share my music with a whole new audience in such a unique way! As an artist, innovator, and football fan, to be able to perform during Super Bowl LVII weekend in this new world – Rhythm City on Roblox – is something I never imagined that I would be involved in. I am very grateful and happy about this opportunity,” Saweetie said in a statement.

Image Credits: Roblox/NFL

The NFL is also launching Super NFL Tycoon within Roblox. The metaverse experience allows users to pretend that they’re NFL team owners, draft a team, and build a stadium. Super NFL Tycoon will launch on February 4 to coincide with the virtual Super Bowl concert. Users can move between Super NFL Tycoon and Rhythm City through a designated portal.

Interestingly, the experience–which is presented by the global financial technology platform Intuit—is also an attempt to teach younger users “important financial concepts in a fun and engaging manner,” said Lara Balazs, Intuit’s Chief Marketing Officer and General Manager of Strategic Partner Group. So, while users fantasize about owning an NFL team, they can also learn how to manage cash flow, payroll, taxes, and customer acquisition (because that’s supposed to be fun somehow).

The concert, Super NFL Tycoon, and Rhythm City are also developed in partnership with Gamefam, a gaming company across metaverse platforms.

“Bringing a cultural moment like the Super Bowl to the metaverse with such innovative partners marks a shift in how brands are coming together to create the next generation of metaverse gaming experiences,” said Ricardo Briceno, Chief Business Officer of Gamefam.

This is the second year in a row that NFL and Roblox are offering the NFL Tycoon experience. For the 2022 Super Bowl, Roblox users could attend an interactive event called “Destruction House,” inspired by the Super Bowl LVI commercial. Also, in 2021, Roblox launched a virtual NFL storefront, giving users NFL-themed digital items to dress up their Roblox avatars.

The NFL’s foray into the metaverse points how the league tries to cater to a younger demographic.

“Working with Roblox has enabled us to create interactive shared experiences and with the virtual concert and Super NFL Tycoon, we will unlock deeper fan engagement,” said Ed Kiang, VP of Video Gaming at the NFL.

Roblox reported that its third quarter saw the fastest year-over-year growth in daily active users that range from 17 to 24 years old, which saw an increase of 41%. Roblox’s daily active users that are older than 13 years old grew by 34% year-over-year and accounted for 54% of all daily active users.

The streaming rights deal with Amazon has proven to attract a younger audience for the NFL. Amazon reported that Thursday Night Football (TNF) on Prime Video delivered an audience eight years younger than last year’s average TNF audience. The NFL also recently struck a deal with YouTube for the Sunday Ticket.

Super Bowl LVII will take place next Sunday, February 12, with the Kansas City Chiefs playing against the Philadelphia Eagles.

In September, Apple Music announced it is the official sponsor of the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

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Netflix to include more EVs in its TV shows and movies as part of new partnership with GM • TechCrunch

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Netflix and General Motors announced today that the streaming service will join the automaker’s “Everybody In” campaign that aims to accelerate mass adoption of electric vehicles. As part of the partnership, Netflix says it will increase the presence of EVs in Netflix-produced shows and films, where relevant over the course of the next year, while also taking steps to enable more sustainable productions.

To kick off the new alliance, the two companies will air a new commercial during the Super Bowl on February 12 that will see Will Ferrell enter the world of some of Netflix’s popular shows and films, including “Army of the Dead” andSquid Game,” in various GM EVs.  

The automaker’s EVs will be also seen in select Netflix shows and films, including “Love Is Blind,” “Queer Eye” and “Unstable,” which will feature the Chevrolet Bolt EUV, GMC HUMMER EV Pickup and Cadillac LYRIQ, respectively.

A spokesperson for GM told TechCrunch that the company is not paying Netflix for placement of its vehicles in the streaming service’s content. While GM is a partner on Netflix’s ad-supported tier, the company said that the strategic alliance between the two companies is separate from any advertising deal. The goal of the alliance is to expose people to EVs in a natural way.

GM says the two companies don’t have an end date in mind for the alliance, and that the automaker is looking forward to working with Netflix as it builds up its advertising business. As for the Super Bowl ad, GM says it’s unclear if the two will partner on another similar ad in the future.

The automaker says it will educate show runners about EVs so that they can find a way to integrate them naturally into storylines in a way that doesn’t make them feel out of place when they appear in TV shows and movies.

Netflix has been incorporating EVs into the TV shows and movies that it produces over the past year. The streaming service included EVs from Hyundai and Audi in its content, along with EVs from GM, as well. Now, Netflix will have access to even more EVs as part of its new alliance with GM.

“Entertainment has a huge impact on culture. We want to make EVs famous on streaming, small and silver screens to build an EV culture through storytelling that incorporates the experiences of driving and owning an EV,” said GM Global Chief Marketing Officer Deborah Wahl in a press release. “Netflix is a great partner because of the company’s compelling storytelling, commitment to sustainability and track record of sparking conversations that shape cultural trends. We are united in creating a better, more sustainable future for our world as we bring everybody in on EVs.”

Netflix says it’s also planning to become more sustainable behind the camera within its productions by optimizing energy use, then electrifying it, and decarbonizing the rest.

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