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Apple search crawler activity could signal a Google competitor, or a bid to make Siri a one-stop-shop

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Encouraged by the spate of antitrust activity brewing in both the Justice Department and on Capitol Hill, Apple may be developing a search competitor to Google, according to a report in the Financial Times.

That would be a move ripe with irony as the push for an end to anti-competitive practices is seemingly creating greater competition among the largest companies which already dominate the technology industry rather than between those established companies and more nimble upstarts.

Signs of Apple’s resurgent interest in search technologies can be found in both a subtle but significant change to the latest version of the iOS 14 iPhone operating system and increasing activity from Apple’s spidering tools that are used to scour the web and refine search functionality, the Financial Times reported.

Apple is now showing its own search results and linking directly to websites when users type queries from its home screen in iOS 14. For context, this is a behavior that has been known for a while as people have seen the feature pop up in beta versions of iOS. And the search volume being up on Apple’s crawler is something that Jon Henshaw of Coywolf had noted back in August.

Sources cited by the Financial Times said that the change marked a significant step-change in Apple’s in-house search development and could be the basis for a broader push into search.

The Cupertino, Calif.-based company certainly has the expertise. A little less than three years ago it nabbed Google’s head of search, John Giannandrea in what was widely seen as an attempt to shore up Apple’s foundations in artificial intelligence and voice search via Siri. Because of the way that Apple is organized internally, it’s unlikely that Giannandrea will be devoting full-time effort to both a potential “search product” and Siri . But it’s within the realm of possibility that he could be lending his expertise to a team working on a separate feature.

Any development of a search tool would be a third way for Apple, which now uses Google as its default search service thanks to a lucrative contract between the two (one that’s also at the heart of a Justice Department inquiry into Google’s purported anti-competitive activities around search). The only other major search services on the market rely on Microsoft’s Bing to power their results.

While the signs do point to an actual uptick in activity, there could be an explanation for Apple’s crawler activity that’s less heavy on corporate skunkworks skulduggery and more in line with goals that Apple’s stated pretty clearly.

While the story about Apple getting into direct competition with Google on search makes for a great headline, the uptick in activity could be explained equally as rationally by Siri getting more search queries and being more of an interlocutor between Apple and search services like Google or Microsoft’s Bing. This disintermediation is something that Google began years ago and has even modified and expanded over the years to combat the same kind of behavior from Siri.

Some of this comes down to semantics. By “search engine” do we mean “a web site that people type queries into” or do we mean a voice assistant that steps in to white-label web results with its own sourcing. Cutting down on the brand presence of a monster like Google on your own platform is a powerful motivator for any competitor, no matter the space.

Making Siri a one-stop-shop could inoculate Apple in the scenario where they are forced to enable a search provider choice in the iOS onboarding flow by regulation. It won’t do anything to help Google though, who pays Apple billions because iOS users are worth way more than any other mobile web users to its business. Google, for its part, says that when people have a choice they still pick Google anyway. Perhaps another reason why making Siri the search equivalent of an overtalker is the strong play for Apple.

TechCrunch has reached out to Apple for comment and will update when we hear back.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Thanksgiving on track for a record $6B in US online sales, says Adobe

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As people prepare and eat their Thanksgiving meals, or just “work” on relaxing for the day, some consumers are going online to get a jump on holiday shopping deals. Adobe, which is following online sales in real time at 80 of the top 100 retailers in the US, covering some 100 million SKUs, says that initial figures indicate that we are on track to break $6 billion in e-commerce sales for Thanksgiving Day. Overall, it believes consumers will spend $189.1 billion shopping online this year.

To put that figure into some context, the overall holiday sales season represents a 33.1% jump on 2019. And last year Adobe said shoppers spent $4.2 billion online on Thanksgiving: this years’s numbers represent a jump of 42.3%. And leading up to today, each day this week had sales of more than $3 billion.

What’s going on? The figures are a hopefully encouraging sign that despite some of the economic declines of 2020 caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, retailers will at least be able to make up for some of their losses in the next couple of months, traditionally the most important period for sales.

As we have been reporting over the last several months, overall, 2020 has been a high watermark year for e-commerce, with the bigger trend of more browsing and shopping online — which has been growing for years — getting a notable boost from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The push for more social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus has driven many to stay away from crowded places like stores, and it has forced us to stay at home, where we have turned to the internet to get things done.

These trends are not only seeing those already familiar with online shopping spending more. It’s also introducing a new category of shoppers to that platform. Adobe said that so far this week, 9% of all sales have been “generated by net new customers as traditional brick-and-mortar shoppers turn online to complete transactions in light of shop closures and efforts to avoid virus transmission through in-person contact.”

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, has traditionally been marked as the start of holiday shopping, but the growth of e-commerce has given more prominence to Thanksgiving Day, when physical stores are closed and many of us are milling about the house possibly with not much to do. This year seems to be following through on that trend.

“Families have many traditions during the holidays. Travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders and fear of spreading the virus are, however, preventing Americans from enjoying so many of them. Shopping online is one festive habit that can be maintained online and sales figures are showcasing that gifting remains a much beloved tradition this year,” said Taylor Schreiner, Director, Adobe Digital Insights, in a statement.

(That’s not to say that Black Friday won’t be big: Adobe predicts that it will break $10.3 billion in sales online this year.)

Some drilling down into what is selling:

Adobe said that board games and other categories that “bring the focus on family” are seeing a strong surge, with sales up five times over last year.

Similarly — in keeping with how much we are all shopping for groceries online now — grocery sales in the last week were up a whopping 596% compared to October, as people stocked up for the long weekend (whether or not, it seems, it was being spent with family).

Other top items include Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, Just Dance 2021, as well as vTech toys and Rainbow High Dolls.

Amazon’s announcement this week that it would be offering more options for delivery this season speaks to how e-commerce is growing beyond simple home delivery, and how this has become a key part of how retailers are differentiating their businesses from each other. Curbside pickup has grown by 116% over last year this week, and expedited shipping is up 49%. 

Smartphones are going to figure strong once more too. Adobe said $25.5 billion has been spent via smartphones in November to date (up 48% over 2019), accounting for 38.6% of all e-commerce sales.

In the US big retailers continue to dominate how people shop, with the likes of Walmart, Target Amazon and others pulling in more than $1 billion in revenue annually collectively seeing their sales go up 147% since October. Part of the reason: more sophisticated websites, with conversion rates 100% higher than those of smaller businesses. (That leaves a big opening for companies that can build tools to help smaller businesses compete better on this front.)

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AstraZeneca says it will likely do another study of COVID-19 vaccine after accidental lower dose shows higher efficacy

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AstraZeneca’s CEO told Bloomberg that the pharmaceutical company will likely conduct another global trial of the effectiveness of its COVID-19 vaccine trial, following the disclosure that the more effective dosage in the existing Phase 3 clinical trial was actually administered by accident. AstraZeneca and its partner the University of Oxford reported interim results that showed 62% efficacy for a full two-dose regimen, and a 90% efficacy rate for a half-dose followed by a full dose – which the scientists developing the drug later acknowledged was actually just an accidental administration of what was supposed to be two full doses.

To be clear, this shouldn’t dampen anyone’s optimism about the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. The results are still very promising, and an additional trial is being done only to ensure that what was seen as a result of the accidental half-dosage is actually borne out when the vaccine is administered that way intentionally. That said, this could extend the amount of time that it takes for the Oxford vaccine to be approved in the U.S., since this will proceed ahead of a planned U.S. trial that would be required for the FDA to approve it for use domestically.

The Oxford vaccine’s rollout to the rest of the world likely won’t be affected, according to AstraZeneca’s CEO, since the studies that have been conducted, including safety data, are already in place from participants around the world outside of the U.S.

While vaccine candidates from Moderna and Pfizer have also shown very strong efficacy in early Phase 3 data, hopes are riding high on the AstraZeneca version because it relies on a different technology, can be stored and transported at standard refrigerator temperatures rather than frozen, and costs just a fraction per dose compared to the other two leading vaccines in development.

That makes it an incredibly valuable resource for global inoculation programs, including distribution where cost and transportation infrastructures are major concerns.

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The apps keeping Rio’s residents safe from stray bullets

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Julia Borges was at her cousin’s 12th birthday party when she was shot. The 17-year-old had been standing on a third-floor balcony when a stray bullet hit her in the back, lodging in the muscle between her lungs and aorta.

That was November 8. Luckily, Borges was taken to hospital and has since recovered. Many are not so fortunate. At least 106 people have been killed by stray bullets in Rio this year so far.

Among the most dangerous areas are the narrow streets of the city’s favelas, where more than a million people currently live. Here, the houses are piled up on each other, and the alleys that wind between them are dotted with small squares. These same streets regularly echo with the sounds of gunfire: shooutouts between police and drug traffickers, rival groups of traffickers, or even police-backed militias take place on a daily basis.

Innocent victims are often caught in the crossfire. In many cases residents must lie on the floor or create barricades to hide from stray bullets as they wait for a truce. In 2019, Rio saw an average of 26 shootings a day. Things have cooled slightly since the pandemic began, but there was still an average of 14 shootings every day up until the end of June. Around 1,500 people are shot dead in Rio’s metropolitan area every year.

Living in Rio is like “being a hostage to violence,” says Rafael César, who lives in the neighborhood of Cordovil, west of the city. 

screenshot of FogoCruzado app
A screenshot of Fogo Cruzado
FOGOCRUZADO VIA GOOGLE PLAY

Like many residents, César has started using apps to help keep himself safe. These crowdsourced apps help users keep track of dangerous zones on their way home and let residents warn others about which areas to avoid. 

One of the most popular apps, Fogo Cruzado, was started by a journalist named Cecilia Olliveira. She had planned to do a story about victims of stray bullets in the city, but the information she needed was not available. So in 2016 she set up a Google Docs spreadsheet to collect information about shootings, logging where and when they happened, how many victims there were, and more. In 2018, with the help of Amnesty International, the spreadsheet was turned into an app and a database to help those monitoring and reporting on armed violence. The app has been downloaded over 250,000 times and covers both Rio and Recife.

A user who hears gunshots can log it as an incident on the app. The information is verified and cross-checked by the Fogo Cruzado team with the support of a network of activists and volunteers and then uploaded to the platform, triggering a notification for users. Fogo Cruzado also has a team of trusted collaborators who can instantly upload information without such vetting. Users can subscribe to receive updates whenever they are heading toward a zone considered dangerous—such as a favela that’s known to have had recent shootings, or one that is currently contested by gangs. 

Fogo Cruzado is used by local residents who are planning on leaving home to work or need to check if it’s safe to return afterwards, says Olliveira. 

“I started using the Fogo Cruzado because there were frequent police operations in a region I was passing through every day,” says journalist Bruno de Blasi. He says that WhatsApp groups were full of rumors and false reports of shootings, so he decided to use the app as a way to “avoid unnecessary scares.”  

Like many in the city, he has had his own experience of being close to a shootout. He recalls one that began on the street where he lives. 

“The feeling was horrible, especially because that street was considered one of the safest and quietest in the neighborhood, which is also where the police battalion is,” he says. “Suddenly I had to stay away from the window of my own room because of the risk of a stray bullet. It was very tense.”

Fogo Cruzado has also worked with a number of other organizations to create a new map of armed groups in Rio de Janeiro. The map, which was launched in October, is designed to keep the city’s residents up to date about which areas are currently dominated by criminal factions or police militias and are therefore less likely to be safe.

Other apps also collect data on shootings, but Fogo Cruzado is one of the few to be updated by the public, says Renê Silva, editor of the website Voz das Comunidades (Voice of the Communities), which covers the Complexo do Alemão, a large group of favelas in Rio. “There are places where the app identifies shootings that don’t come out in the media,” he says.

The app Onde Tem Tiroteio (Where There’s Shooting) works in a similar way.  It was initially created in January 2016 by four friends as a Facebook page. While Fogo Cruzado focuses on the metropolitan region of Rio, Onde Tem Tiroteio(OTT) covers the entire state—and since 2018, it has covered the state of São Paulo too. It differs from Fogo Cruzada in that it lets the network of users double-check the veracity of shooting reports.

funeral of Matheus Lessa
Relatives and friends carry the coffin of 22-year-old Matheus Lessa who was shot dead when he tried to defend his mother during an assault at their family-owned store in Rio de Janeiro
AP PHOTO/LEO CORREA

Once you download the OTT app you can choose what you want to receive alerts about, whether it’s shootings, floods, or demonstrations. Each anonymous report is reviewed by a network of more than 7,000 volunteers on the ground and confirmed before being uploaded to the app. Weekly reports are also released to the press. More than 4.7 million people used the app last year, according to Dennis Coli, one of OTT’s cofounders.

“OTT-Brasil’s main mission is to remove all citizens from organized gang looting routes, false police blitzes, and stray bullets, with information that is collected, analysed, and disseminated in a very short period of time,” he says.

The apps have a political angle, too. As well as keeping Rio’s citizens out of danger, they can help researchers and public institutions understand patterns of violence—and help put pressure on politicians.

They “serve primarily to draw attention to the dimension of the problem,” says Pablo Ortellado, a professor of public policy management at the University of São Paulo. For him, such apps have “a specific but key function of increasing the pressure on the authorities.”

Indeed, Recife was chosen as the second city for the Fogo Cruzado app not only because of its high rates of violence but also because, Olliveira says, the state government had stopped releasing data and had started censoring journalists. “Before, there was excellent access to public security data, but the data gradually became scarce and the work of the press became more and more difficult,” she says.

In this way, data collection apps can help challenge the information provided by governments, says Yasodara Córdova, an MPA/Edward S. Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School in Massachusetts.

In the past, the state had a monopoly on official information, but today things have changed, she says. “It is healthy to maintain redundant databases, collected by active communities, so that data can be challenged in order to keep the civic space open and global.”

Felipe Luciano, an OTT user from São Gonçalo, a city near Rio, agrees. “The key is trust,” he says. “What motivated me to use OTT is the credibility of the information posted there. I feel safer using it.”

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