What Pixel 3a tells us about the state of the smartphone — and Google – TechCrunch
Announced yesterday at Google’s opening I/O keynote, the Pixel 3a arrives at a tenuous time for the smartphone industry. Sales figures have stagnated for most of the major players in the industry — a phenomenon from which Google certainly isn’t immune.
CEO Sundar Pichai discussed exactly that on the company’s Q1 earnings call last week. “While the first quarter results reflect pressure in the premium smartphone industry,” he explained, “we are pleased with the ongoing momentum of Assistant-enabled Home devices, particularly the Home Hub and Mini devices, and look forward to our May 7 announcement at I/O from our hardware team.”
That last bit was a clear reference to the arrival of the new budget tier of Google’s flagship offering. The 3a is a clear push to address one of the biggest drivers of slowing smartphone sales. With a starting price of $399, it’s a fraction of the price of top handsets from competitors like Apple and Samsung.
There’s been a fairly rapid creep in flagship prices in recent years. Handsets starting at north of $1,000 hardly warrant a second glance anymore, while many forthcoming foldables are hovering around double that.
As Google VP of Product Management Mario Queiroz told me ahead of launch, “The smartphone market has started to flatten. We think one of the reasons is because, you know, the premium segment of the market is a very large segment, but premium phones have gotten more and more expensive, you know, three, four years ago, you could buy a premium phone for $500.”
Inflated prices have certainly made device purchases more burdensome for buyers. That, coupled with a relative lack of compelling new features has gone a ways toward slowing down upgrade cycles, hurting sales in the process.
I’ve enjoyed my early hands-on time with the 3a — more to come on that later. It’s important to note the different factors that have allowed Google to get to this stage. A key driver is, of course, Google’s purchase of massive R&D resources from HTC. That result of HTC’s dip into sub-replacement level hardware manufacturer has resulted in the ability to develop hardware in house, on the relatively cheap at a new campus in Taipei.
Also important is Google’s ongoing quest to further uncouple the importance of hardware from smartphone upgrades. The company’s big investments in machine learning and artificial intelligence particularly are driving many of the innovations best demonstrated on the imaging side of things. Devin captured this sentiment in this piece written in the wake of the iPhone XS announcement.
Notably, the Pixel 3a has essentially the same camera hardware as the pricier 3. Google cut some corners here, but that wasn’t one. There are still and will continue to be some limitations to what the 3a is able to do, based on processing power, but the line between what the two devices can do is already pretty blurry when it comes to taking photos.
There’s another factor that’s been looming over Pixel sales in all of this — but for several reasons, Pichai wasn’t ready to discuss it on the call. For years, the line has been hampered by carrier exclusivity, something that feels like it ought to be relegated to the smartphone past.
Certainly that sort of arrangement makes sense for young companies like OnePlus or Palm, which are looking for a way into a market, while seeking to maintain manageable growth. But Google certainly has the resources to grow outside of a single carrier deal. And the fact of the matter (as Huawei has discovered the hard way) is that carrier distribution and contracts as still key drivers of smartphone distribution here in the States, even as most manufacturers also offer unlocked devices. I suspect those upfront costs are enough to make many consumers do a double take — even though we all know in our hearts the contract is ultimately where they get you.
Thankfully, Google announced that it will be making the Pixel 3 and 3a available on a lot more carriers, starting this week. That move ought to have a marked impact on the Pixel’s sales figures going forward. The addition of Sprint and T-Mobile among others means a lot more retail shelf space and ad dollars across the U.S. Devices are a harder sell when your average consumer has to go out of their way to find them — not to mention the difficulty of convincing users to switch carriers for a new device.
I’d caution against using Q2 results as a direct measure of the 3a’s appeal and Google’s move toward a six-month device release cycle. At this early stage it’s too early to uncouple that from new customers who are coming on board courtesy of those carrier additions. Even so, the device is an interesting litmus test for the current state of the smartphone, right down to the return of the headphone jack.
Spotify is testing new card-style user profiles focused on discovery
At Spotify’s Stream On event this month, the company introduced a redesigned app with TikTok-like discovery feeds, an AI DJ and other tools for artists and podcasters. But the app’s changes may not be stopping there. The company confirmed it’s now testing a revamp of its user profiles, which includes a card-style layout that lets users establish more of a social identity on the platform in addition to providing easy access to Spotify’s unique features — like its personalized recommendations, Blend playlists, co-listening experiences and more.
The changes were first spotted by Chris Messina, who shared screenshots of the tests on Twitter. He noted the additional cards on profiles and how the new layout was directing users to tap a button to “discover more features.”
Some Spotify users, however, said they’ve had the updated profiles for some time. But that’s only because the feature has been in live testing in multiple markets. These profiles are not fully rolled out to all users.
Spotify did not commit it would make the feature available for everyone at any particular time. Often, the company’s new ideas are tested in public, then modified based on user engagement and feedback before a global rollout. Or, in some cases, they’re scrapped entirely. That said, it’s not as likely that this one would be dropped, given how well it fits with the new Spotify redesign which puts greater emphasis on discovery.
“We routinely conduct a number of tests,” a company spokesperson told TechCrunch when asked about the new profiles. “Some of those tests end up informing our user experience and others serve only as an important learning. We don’t have anything further to share at this time,” they added.
Among the notable changes in this version of the user profiles is the new heading at the top of the screen that looks more like something you’d see on a social network. Currently, Spotify user profiles are fairly bare-bones. The person’s name as well as their follower and following counts are displayed above lists of their playlists and recently played artists. The new profiles, by comparison, include other details about the person like which Spotify plan they’re subscribed to, how long they’ve been a Spotify member, their general location (like the U.S.), in addition to their follower and following counts, a button that lets you follow them and another for profile edits.
There’s also a fun feature that apparently lets you set a “vibe” above your name, to give your profile a little pizazz.
The new profiles still feature sections for your playlists and artists, but these now appear as cards and there are more interactive features available next to these options. For instance, you can now click a button to create a new playlist right from your profile, or use buttons beside each playlist to share them with others. Next to each artist’s name, there also are buttons that let you follow the artist on Spotify — before, you’d have to click into the artist profile to do so. This could be particularly useful if you had visited someone else’s profile and were discovering new artists through their activity.
Under the “Discover more features” section on the new profiles, users are pointed to other things they can do on Spotify — like find live events, “like” more songs to improve their recommendations, create Blends with friends, check out Spotify’s new audiobooks and more.
The profiles also include a message at the bottom that reads “View more cards,” which indicates there will be future additions coming to this space beyond the playlists and recently played artists. But this feature isn’t fully built out yet — Messina told us that, when clicked, the in-app message reads “there’s nothing to see here yet” and informs users that Spotify is “busy building more content for you — coming soon.”
(May we suggest incorporating podcast recommendations into this experience, please?)
These changes would make sense as part of Spotify’s broader focus on discovery that’s driving its most recent app updates. That is, instead of just showcasing a user’s basic information and activity, these redesigned profiles would allow people to explore more of what Spotify has to offer while also making it easier to find and enjoy new artists and music directly from someone else’s profile with fewer clicks.
Apple spotted developing a ‘multiview’ feature for watching sports on Apple TV
Earlier this month, YouTube TV launched a new “multiview” feature that allows viewers to watch up to four streams of sports content at once. Now it looks like Apple TV is working on a similar option. Though Apple’s streaming device already supports a picture-in-picture mode, new code discovered in the latest iOS beta points to a possible four-up multiview feature in the works.
The discovery was found in the iOS 16.5 beta 1 build by developer Steve Moser, which was first reported by the Apple news site 9to5Mac.
Like the YouTube TV feature, the focus for Apple’s multiview experience now in development seems to be targeting supporting sports content more specifically. That decision makes sense not only because of the broader competitive landscape — including multiview options on services like YouTube TV and Fubo — but also because of Apple’s more recent investments in streaming sports content.
Last year, the Cupertino-based tech giant announced its first-ever live sports deal with Major League Baseball to bring a number of games exclusively to Apple TV+ in multiple countries, including the U.S. It then began streaming Friday Night Baseball during the 2022 season, which was offered to viewers without the need for an Apple TV+ subscription. This year, the free offering was dropped and the games now require an Apple TV+ subscription, but the service is now available to subscribers in 60 countries worldwide instead of the original 13.
The company also last year signed a 10-year streaming deal with Major League Soccer to stream every MLS match starting in 2023. However, Apple reportedly exited talks to secure the rights to the NFL Sunday Ticket over issues that had to do with the limitations on the package, including the ability to stream games worldwide, among other things.
Still, it’s clear that Apple sees sports content as an area of investment for its streaming service, which would make a feature like multiview more useful to Apple TV customers.
The new report noted that references to multiview had appeared in the iOS codebase previously, but the new beta saw more references than before which indicates the feature is now being more actively worked on. Moser told TechCrunch there was a reference to “Watch in Multiview” from four weeks ago, for instance.
The code also reveals more about what to expect from the offering, including how it appears to be tied to Apple’s TV app, as opposed to being a feature that would work across Apple TV devices. Plus, it seems that the end user may be prompted when browsing sports content in the app to try the option — for example by asking the viewer if they want to watch in fullscreen mode or in the “Multiview” mode.
Apple hasn’t announced the feature officially and would never confirm in-development plans, as a general rule. However, a recent Bloomberg report indicates that the company’s next big software release, iOS 17, will ship with several “nice to have” features. What those features may be is not yet clear, but multiview could possibly be among them.
Google’s new ad transparency center will keep track of a brand’s previous ads
Google is launching a new ad transparency center that will let users search for verified advertisers and their campaigns across all of the company’s platforms including Search, Display, and YouTube.
This new transparency center — which is accessible directly via this link and through the My Ad Center page — will let you search for ads from a brand, in what region those ads were shown, and the time they last ran a campaign along with the format. Users can like or block the ad or even report it for violation of Google ad policies if those ads show dangerous products or inappropriate content for instance. The Center is starting to roll out today and will be available to all users over the coming weeks.
Notably, Google launched the My Ad Center hub last year which lets users see information about ad topics, brands, and the recent ads they saw across Search, YouTube, and Discover. Users can tweak these settings by removing topics or brands or turning off personalized ads entirely. It’s important to remember that this doesn’t mean you won’t see any ads. It just won’t be based on your preferences and search data.
Google said that, after the launch, 20% of the 70 million visits to the My Ad Center page were to adjust ad preferences. Given that billions of people use Google’s platforms, this number doesn’t seem that impressive.
The Mountain View-based company said it is introducing this new transparency center so customers can know more about unknown brands and check if they have been verified by Google.
“We’re committed to protecting our users by creating a safer, more trustworthy, and accountable ad experience. With the Ads Transparency Center, you’re never in the dark about the ads you see on Google,” Alejandro Borgia, Director of product management for Ads Safety said in a statement.
Google has been trying to provide more data on brand advertising through the company’s platform.
Last September, Google started to give users access to an advertiser’s history. A month later, the tech giant updated its “Ad” tag to “Sponsored” on mobile search for better visibility. Plus, it moved the tag above the URL instead of showing it next to the link address.
The search giant also launched an Ad Safety Report highlighting its effort towards thwarting malicious ads. The company said it blocked or removed 5.2 billion ads, restricted over 4.3 billion ads, and suspended 6.7 million advertiser accounts.
Google noted that last year it expanded its financial service certification program to 11 countries including the U.K., Australia, and Singapore. This project, aimed at stopping financial fraud, requires advertisers to show that they have permission from local authorities to promote their products and services. Google mentioned that in the last year it updated or introduced 29 ad-related policies to protect consumers.
The company’s ad business, which is its biggest revenue driver is facing scrutiny in the U.S. In January, the Department of Justice accused Google of abusing its monopolist position in the ad market. Eight states including New York and California joined the DoJ in a complaint aiming to “halt Google’s anticompetitive scheme, unwind Google’s monopolistic grip on the market, and restore competition to digital advertising.” Earlier this week, Google’s parent Alphabet asked a Federal judge to dismiss the case.
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