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Podcast: In the AI of the Beholder

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Ideas about what constitutes “beauty” are complex, subjective, and by no means limited to physical appearances. Elusive though it is, everyone wants more of it. That means big business and increasingly, people harnessing algorithms to create their ideal selves in the digital and, sometimes, physical worlds. In this episode, we explore the popularity of beauty filters, and sit down with someone who’s convinced his software will show you just how to nip and tuck your way to a better life.

We meet:

  • Shafee Hassan, Qoves Studio founder 
  • Lauren Rhue, Assistant Professor of Information Systems at the Robert H. Smith School of Business

Credits

This episode was reported by Tate Ryan-Mosley, and produced by Jennifer Strong, Emma Cillekens, Karen Hao and Anthony Green. We’re edited by Michael Reilly and Bobbie Johnson.

Transcript

[TR ID]

[Montage of songs about beauty]

Strong: Beauty has always been one of society’s greatest obsessions. And for as long as we’ve worshipped it… we’ve also found ways to change and enhance it. From makeup and clothes… to airbrushing photos… or a surgical nip and tuck. And now? AI.

[Montage of news coverage about beauty filters] 

[Sound from an Apple keynote featuring photo augmentation where women are made to smile more. Audience cheers]

Strong: You may not realize it…but this technology is right at your fingertips. In the beauty filters on your phone and social media. The tech has gotten so good at detecting where your eyes, nose, and jawline are, it’s easier than ever to adjust those features. With a simple swipe, you can tweak the arch of your eyebrow, or tune the curve of your lips and construct your ‘ideal image’.

It’s possible there’ll be 45-billion cameras in the world by next year… along with ever more ways to use AI to parse, tag, edit and prioritize those images. Companies like Microsoft, NVIDIA and Face++… have all publicly released products meant to gauge beauty in some way. There’s even AI-driven systems that promise to look at images of your face to tell you how beautiful you are—(or aren’t)—and what you can do about it.

Hassan: So we’re showing you what the algorithm is looking for. And if you so wish to change it, you can, you know, using these, these surgeries.

Strong: But can anyone, or any thing, be truly objective about beauty?

Rhue: Let’s just say I’ve never seen a culturally sensitive beauty AI.

Strong: And will this new wave of beauty enhancement leave our next generation with more insecurities than ever? 

Veronica: There’s like a way that the filters are kind of like detrimental to people’s like mental health and can be really crippling for some people because they’re comparing themselves to that. 

Strong: I’m Jennifer Strong and this episode we look at the role of machines in shaping our standards of beauty and how those standards shape us.

[SHOW ID]

Veronica: When I’m going to use a face filter it’s because there are certain things that I want to look differently. So if I’m not wearing makeup or if I think I don’t necessarily look my best, the beauty filter sort of changes certain things about your appearance. 

Veronica: Hi, I’m Veronica. I am 19 years old and I’m from Minnesota.

Sophia: I’m Sophia, I’m 15. And I’m also from Minnesota.

Strong: They’re sisters… and avid users of social media. They use beauty filters to enhance how they look in photos. They’re showing my producer Tate Ryan-Mosley some of their favorites. 

Sophia: Do I look like that? No. Not one bit.

Tate: Describe what makes you look different in that picture?

Sophia: It has these massive lashes that make my eyes look beautiful. My lips triple the size and my nose tinier.

Veronica: My ideal filter. It is called the Naomi filter on Snapchat. It clears your skin and then makes your eyes huge. 

Tate: When did you start using them? Do you remember?

Veronica: Fifth grade? I dunno. It was more like funny at first. Like it was kind of like a joke, like people weren’t trying to look good when they use the filters

Sophia: I definitely was. Like 12 year old girls, like having access to something that makes you not look like you’re 12. Like that’s like the coolest thing ever. 

Strong: Filters are explosively popular. Some are funny… like the one that put puppy ears and a fake nose on your face. Others are branded, geotagged, and there’s artsy ones too. But hands down the most common kind are beauty filters, which change the appearance of someone in a photo in an effort to make them more attractive—often by reshaping and recoloring their features.

And the biggest fans are young girls.

For years now… these sisters have used filters almost everyday… But they still aren’t sure how they feel about them.

Veronica: With social media in general. It’s impossible not to compare yourself to people. But I think that when people do use filters like that and they don’t disclose it. I feel like that can cause people to become more insecure or more affected by it than they would on just a regular photo, because you’re less appreciating, like, their natural beauty compared to the beauty that was like kind of formulated to make them look perfect.

Sophia: That’s not normal. That’s not a normal body. // We feel so pretty in them. And it’s like, why.. 

Veronica: There’s this somewhat of a validation when you’re meeting that standard? Even if it’s only for like a picture…

[Sound from TEDx talk: Epidemic of Beauty Sickness] 

Engeln: About 15 years ago, I was an eager young graduate student. And I spent a lot of time teaching.  

Strong: This is Renee Engeln, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, giving a TEDx talk.

Engeln: And the more I listened to my female students, the more I picked up on something troubling. These bright, talented young women were spending alarming amounts of time thinking about talking about trying to modify their physical appearance. 

Now our perceptions of beauty are complicated. They have deep evolutionary roots. From a scientific perspective, beauty is not just desirable, but also rare. 

Strong: She went on to study this problem, interviewing women on how they were affected by constantly seeing images of unrealistic beauty standards… and what she found was… unexpected.

Engeln: Women know that the women they see in these images, aren’t representative of the general population of women. They are very aware that in the real world, nobody, nobody actually looks like this…It doesn’t seem to matter. Knowing better isn’t enough. The same woman who said this, for example, this body type is unrealistic skinny and her ribs are showing and you’re kind of like, yeah, right on. She followed it up with, I feel like I want to be like that.

Strong: Engeln gave her talk in 2013…well before AI beauty filters. And these days we’re not just seeing Photoshopped models in magazinesbut photos of ourselves and our friends that have been retouched by algorithms.

And… it’s fueling an entirely new industry… 

Hassan: We realized that there’s a demand for learning how to correctly edit faces. And from that we realized there’s also a demand in assessing faces to understand what makes a face attractive or to better understand what changes will make a face look better, essentially.

Strong: Shafee Hassan is the founder of Qoves Studio. It’s just one of a number of new companies using neural networks to recognize things in people’s faces that could be deemed unattractive. He’s a structural engineer by training… which he says informs his work.  

Hassan: And these flaws show up time and time again. And they’re very common in certain ethnicities and less common in others and a computer can detect that really accurately because the pixel values, the color values are very similar regardless of where you’re looking at it or what section of the face it’s from.

Strong: Researchers believe social media giants like Facebook, Instagram and Tik Tok all use algorithms that measure the attractiveness of a face.

Hassan: …determine or predetermine if a piece of content is going to be successful or not, and then further push that content to a greater population of users.

Strong: To date, none have confirmed this. What we do know (from reporting by The Intercept) is that TikTok asked its content moderators to suppress videos with people they deemed unattractive, poor, or to have a disability. A TikTok spokesperson said those rules were a “early, blunt attempt at preventing bullying and no longer in place.”

And this is where companies like Hassan’s come in. From his perspective, arguing about whether it’s right or wrong to promote and suppress images of people based on their looks?… is kind of beside the point. He says this system is the reality and facial features impact social status, professional prospects and income. But he thinks his company can make that process more transparent.

Hassan: So we’re showing you what the algorithm is looking for. And if you so wish to change it, you can, you know, using these, these surgeries. And that’s also something we provide as well. We provide ways, solutions, and it doesn’t even have to be cosmetic. Sleep can improve your under eye contours, which a beauty algorithm may penalize you by like 0.5 of a mark.

Strong: Uh-huh. You heard that right. Surgeries to help people embody what they think machines are looking for. His YouTube channel focuses on just that—with videos that get more than a million views. Like this one:

[Sound from YouTube Video featuring Hassan]

Hassan: Welcome to the first episode of defining beauty… Where I attempt to explore what makes a face attractive in the most objective way possible.

Strong: And they offer detailed reports about these perceived flaws.

Hassan: Ideally human eyes should be one eye width apart… here’s an article written about a 2008 experiment on specifically interpupillary distance between the eyes and how they influence attractiveness.

Strong:  He sees surgery as a bigger part of our future, especially as the importance of our online image grows.

Hassan: The whole point is we want to clear how people see surgery into being a more positive tool of social mobility, because your looks influence the way you’re treated, the amount of money you earn, how your socioeconomic status can move up or down. If you have a deformed jaw, I’m not going to tell you that you’re beautiful, just the way you are. And I think you should get correction on that because research has shown that a Jaw cervical angle deformity of like say 130 degrees or greater is very stringently rated as very unattractive by like the mass majority of lay-person raters. So, so like the, the idea of this political correct way of beauty, beauty is something that I kind of want to take on, even though it’s controversial. I feel like a lot of people do agree with what I’m saying. And that’s obviously why I have a platform.

Strong: I asked Hassan if he’s received much criticism for this work.  

Hassan: Funnily enough, the most harsh criticism I received were from my friends and family when I started off and never criticism from anywhere in the greater internet, uh, people were very curious as to the technology. It does raise some concerns about privacy, but obviously we do our best to keep everything as secure as possible. It does raise some concerns about, um, I suppose, an overarching sense of control, you know, telling people this is wrong with your face, blah, blah, blah 

Strong:  But beauty algorithms have come under severe criticism for perpetuating racism and ageism. For example, in 2016, Microsoft and NVIDIA hosted a beauty pageant with an AI judge. And out of 6-thousand entries, almost all of the 44 winners were white.

Hassan: Well, one of the big issues with beauty algorithms is that they typically trend with Caucasian faces. And so they penalize, uh, faces with non-Eurocentric features very harshly because they’re not trained with that kind of feature. Now, one of the things, when we were developing our algorithm is train it with as many different faces as possible.  I’ve always believed that attractive people are a race of their own. And so their attractive features kind of transcend a Eurocentric or a Caucasian or an Afro-centric or whatever centric you want to look at. Sharp jaws, sharp cheekbones, lean, facial fat, like this isn’t a Eurocentric thing. This is just a biology thing.  

Strong:  And Hassan takes his, ‘inspiration’, from the deeply dystopian 90s film Gattaca.   

[Sounds from the theatrical trailer for Gattaca]

Hassan: So Gattaca is very impactful because a lot of people aren’t born the most genetically gifted. And this goes back to the idea of the celebrities at the top, the, the good-looking attractive people at the top being there just because they’re genetically gifted. I don’t entirely believe that’s how they got there. I think a lot of it has to do with a bit of help from surgery, a bit of help from diet, a bit of help from world-class trainers. These are things that they will never speak about, but it’s, it’s part of the illusion of being unreachable and being exalted from the everyday man. So Gattaca is the best epitome, the best representation of basically what our company is about.

Strong: While reporting this story… my producer Tate decided to try out his facial assessment tool. And watching what unfolds next makes me extremely uncomfortable. 

I had this experience at a trade show a few years back… and though I knew it was a gimmick… it still planted fears in my head. And now on this zoom screen?  It goes beyond scare tactics and overpriced face cream… this tool recommends needles and knives…  

Hassan: So, we’re on the website And so far so good, we scroll down. So this is your, um, image. We can upload it. I’m not a robot… Here. Here. Right  Uh, and these are the flaws that the computer detects.

Hassan: Deepened nasolabial folds. These are these lines here, and that’s because you’re smiling…Under eye contour depression, which is definitely here…the region just instantly sinks. And then it goes back up as it comes towards the cheekbones. So generally for attractive faces, the contour is inline. It’s flush with the eyes, So slight, slight dark circles. puffy lower eyelid, which I do agree  This eyelid is definitely really puffy for whatever reason, but this one is not. So that’s what it’s picked up instead of 0.5 or 0.58, which, which is decently strong. a nasal Jugal fat pad, uh, that’s this pad here, it’s very minor. And so at this 0.3, which is, I think accurate, it’s not something I worry in highly about the computer thinks that you have an Epicanthic fold which is an Asian monolid as they call it… and that’s probably because your upper eyelid fat covers up a lot of your upper eyelid. So it basically sees it as the whole thing, being one eyelid.  

Strong: Let’s hit the pause button here for some context… however weird it is for me to describe my friend and colleague this way…. you can’t see Tate. So, with her permission… here we go: she’s tall, blond, has these big blue eyes, strong cheekbones, and a giant smile… she’s young too, as in double digits younger than I am… and as far as those genetics go? She’s the daughter of a pro athlete. 

But we’re hearing recommendations on what she can do to fix her supposed flaws… including different types of plastic surgery… and I can’t help but think how harshly this tool might judge the rest of us… especially someone who isn’t young and white.

Strong: We’re going to take a short break, but first…  Our friends over at the Financial Times have relaunched their podcast, Tech Tonic. Find out how a device like your fitbit might be the first to know you’ve got covid… or what antitrust laws mean for a smoked fish specialist… innovation editor John Thornhill takes us into emergency rooms, cruise ships and classrooms to explore how tech has reshaped our world… and what that means for us. 

All five episodes are available now wherever you get your podcasts… just search tech tonic. 

We’ll be back … right after this.

[MIDROLL]

Strong: What does it mean to take already flawed standards of beauty… largely imposed upon us by ourselves… and instead? Hand this mess off to algorithms that are even more flawed, littered with bias, and that further reinforce eurocentric features as the definition of what’s beautiful…

Whether that’s an Instagram filter making eyes larger… skin smoother and jawlines sharper… Or software pointing out how your features miss the standardized mark…  

…and so we called up a researcher who investigates how technology impacts the choices we make.

Rhue: And I was looking at the facial recognition tools that were out there to try to better understand the pictures. And that’s when I realized that there were scoring algorithms for beauty.   

Strong: Lauren Rhue is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Business.

Rhue: And I thought that seems impossible. Beauty is completely in the eye of the beholder. There’s all these different cultural standards that have to do with beauty. How can you train an algorithm to determine whether or not someone is beautiful? 

Strong: This type of scoring is different from what Hassan does… but both apply the same technology.

Rhue: Well, you upload a picture and they, on a score of zero to 100, it’ll tell you how beautiful this person is. They actually, the paper that I’m writing, it’s looking at Face Plus Plus, and they divide it into a male score and a female score. So women think this person is beautiful, 85 out of a hundred, whereas men think maybe she’s 90 out of a hundred.

Strong: It’s mostly unclear which companies use beauty scoring algorithms… but for those that want to, they’re easily up for sale. For example, one of the largest players in this – Face Plus Plus, owned by Chinese tech unicorn, Megvii — Their beauty scoring feature is available as part of their face recognition system. Instagram and Facebook have denied using such algorithms. TikTok and Snapchat declined to comment… but Rhue says, just the recommendation algorithms themselves often end up gauging attractiveness… regardless of whether they’re intended to. 

Rhue: Well, if you look at what Instagram wants it’s going to be essentially models, right? You’re not going to see a lot of different types of facial features and expressions. And, and that’s going to perpetuate this idea of, of beauty because, um, because of the lack of diversity in what you see in Instagram, and what’s extremely popular on Instagram

Strong: In other words, the pictures judged to be most beautiful by users get the most likes… and that’s what gets recommended to others… 

Rhue: We’re narrowing the type of pictures that are available to everybody.

Strong: When you combine that with people pervasively applying those beauty filters to their photos… it’s led to something termed “the instagram face”… which is a particular aesthetic that’s prioritized and rewarded on social media. And it’s created a new idealized look that dominates the platform.

Rhue: I understand it’s more of an entertainment value as to why we have beauty filters, but our choice of beauty filters is definitely informed by the culture, right? Informed by what the beauty standards are. And a lot of times there are Eurocentric beauty standards, and you can see that with some of the facial recognition issues that have continued to crop up. So the fact that on zoom people with very dark skin can, literally, their skin gets lost. For Asian faces that their eyes weren’t originally seen by cameras. Right? And so at the fact that a lot of the beauty filters are there to make your eyes look larger. And part of it’s that that’s what people want. And that’s where I think the chicken and the egg comes in. Is it, how are you going to expand this, the idea of beauty away from just Eurocentric standards of beauty if we see these beauty filters that perpetuate certain characteristics as more attractive than others.

Strong: Social media is well-known to be exclusionary, as is the beauty industry. But so is AI.

Rhue: I became interested of course, to see if you could see these cultural biases in the algorithms. And of course you can. Let’s just say I’ve never seen a culturally sensitive beauty AI.

Strong: Rhue’s research found that women with lighter skin and hair were consistently rated as more attractive than women with darker skin and hair. And filters too, which use facial detection, are likely to have some racial bias built in. And the consequences go well beyond the digital world.

Rhue: I think we should be very careful when we think about choice in the digital space. I mean, there have been extensive studies that have shown the order in which you recommend something to somebody changes their actual preferences. So as we have all of these, uh, recommendation algorithms and these decision support tools that are helping us figure out what to buy or how to position ourselves in social media it’s changing what we think we want.

Strong: And she believes the applications of A-I in beauty are largely being overlooked by the tech community.

Rhue: It’s just not something that we’re really talking about. And I think that speaks to the importance of diversity in this space. A lot of people say, Oh, well, beauty is just not important because we’re tech people and we’re objective. But of course, I mean, beauty is this huge industry… it has such an impact on people. And the idea that there isn’t more research is, is really interesting to me.

Strong: Next episode… we look to the future of digital payments.

Omar Farooq: We believe that there’s a path forward where money can be smarter itself. So you can actually program the coin and it can control who it goes to. So, that is not really possible in today’s centralized systems. That can only be done in a decentralized, smart money enabled system.  

Strong: This episode was reported by Tate Ryan-Mosley, and produced by me, Emma Cillekens, Karen Hao and Anthony Green. We’re edited by Michael Reilly and Bobbie Johnson.

Thanks for listening, I’m Jennifer Strong. 

[TR ID]

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

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How one founder identified a huge healthcare gap and acquired the skills necessary to address it

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Our new podcast Found is now available, and the first episode features guest Iman Abuzeid, co-founder and CEO of Incredible Health. Abuzeid’s story of founding and building Incredible Health, a career platform for healthcare professionals focusing specifically on nurses, is all about a focused entrepreneur building a unique skill set, and acquiring the experience necessary to create a world-leading solution.

Abuzeid went to medical school and acquired her MD, but decided before residency to instead go get an MBA from Wharton, in order to pursue her dream of entrepreneurship, inspired by two generations of entrepreneurs in the family that preceded her. After eventually making her way to Silicon Valley and working in a couple of other startups in the healthcare space, Abuzeid took important lessons away from those experiences about what not to do when running your own company, and embarked on building her own with co-founder Rome Portlock, now the company’s CTO.

Incredible Health is tackling a huge challenge — the shortfall of availability of skilled nurses, and the lack of mature, sophisticated career resources to help those nurses in their professional life. COVID-19 threw those issues into stark relief, and Incredible Health adjusted its game plan to adapt to its users’ needs. Abuzeid tells us all about how she made those calls, and also how she convinced venture investors to come along for the ride.

We hope you enjoy this episode, and don’t forget to subscribe in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your podcast app of choice. We’d love to hear your feed back, too — either on Twitter or via email, and tune in weekly for more episodes.

Found is hosted by Darrell Etherington and Jordan Crook, and is produced, mixed and edited by Yashad Kulkarni. TechCrunch’s audio products are managed by Henry Pickavet, and Bryce Durbin created the show’s artwork. Found published weekly on Friday afternoons, and you can find past episodes on TechCrunch here.

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This Week in Apps: Facebook’s other Clubhouse rival, Apple details ATT, App Store trial nears

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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 is as hot as ever, 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 soon be a newsletter! Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

This week we’re looking into the upcoming Apple lawsuit with Epic Games over App Store fees, the soon-to-launch game changer that is App Tracking Transparency and Facebook’s latest attempt to take on Clubhouse, among other things.

Top Stories

Epic vs Apple trial nears

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

The Epic Games versus Apple trial is nearing launch. The trial, which begins May 3 and is expected to drag on for weeks, will see the Fortnite maker attempting to argue that Apple’s control over the App Store — and the 30% commission it requires on in-app purchases — represents anti-competitive behavior from a monopoly that requires regulation under antitrust law. Apple, meanwhile, feels confident that it can demonstrate its not a monopoly as it faces competition across the market, not just in its App Store. It will also likely point to the commission decreases it recently made in the wake of the increased regulatory scrutiny. Apple now takes a smaller 15% cut from developers making less than $1 million in revenues.

New filings this week detail Epic’s long-term program “Project Liberty,” which describes how Epic planned its antitrust battle by forcing app stores to reject Fortnite for circumventing their payment mechanisms. A filing from Epic also references comments by Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and Services Eddie Cue, senior vice president of software engineering Craig Federighi and Apple Fellow Phil Schiller that talk about how Apple locks users into its ecosystem with its services, including iMessage. Epic also argues that Apple uses security as a “pretext” for its commissions — even as a recent series of allegations (and threat of a lawsuit) from app developer Kosta Eleftheriou have demonstrated that Apple’s vetting process is failing to stop massive scams. Epic also says that allowing Apple to serve customers’ refund requests leads to fraud because it doesn’t have the same visibility into the developer’s content that the developer itself does.

Apple shares more ATT details

LONDON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 03: The Apple logo is displayed on the back of an iPhone on August 3, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

With the public release of iOS 14.5, which is expected soon, Apple will be shaking up the app economy with the launch of its App Tracking Transparency framework, or ATT. This requires iOS apps to begin prompting users for permission to track their users’ activity, instead of just quietly doing so — generally without the user’s informed consent. Apple has said developers can explain in this prompt why they’re asking for this permission — for example, because they want to serve more personalized ads, perhaps. Tech giants like Facebook and Google, as well as many other ad-supported apps (and particularly social media apps), will be impacted by the change. Some have even gone so far as to try to find workarounds using non-IDFA methods, it’s been reported (IDFA being the current system that assigns a unique advertising ID to each device that is then tracked across the apps and websites a user visits). It was revealed last week that Snapchat had investigated an IDFA alternative known as probabilistic matching, but claims it was just a “test.” Meanwhile, China’s largest tech companies — including Baidu, Tencent and ByteDance — have been exploring a state-backed IDFA alternative CAID.

This week, Apple made it clear that “no tracking” without permission means just that. It says that if a user opts out of any IDFA-tracking via the pop-up, that means the developer doesn’t have permission to track using any other sort of identifiers either — like hashed email addresses or whatever other workaround developers come up with.

Facebook tries another Clubhouse rival

Image Credits: Hotline

Facebook’s internal R&D group, NPE Team, this week launched its latest experiment, Hotline, into public beta testing. The web-based application could be described as a mashup of Instagram Live and Clubhouse, as it allows creators to speak to an audience who can then ask questions through either text or audio. However, unlike Clubhouse, creators can opt to turn their cameras on for the event, instead of being audio-only. Currently, users sign in with Twitter and then verify their phone number to authenticate with the app. They can then type in their question to submit it to the speaker, who pulls them “on stage” to discuss. For now, the participants were audio-only and represented by a profile icon, but settings suggest that Hotline will test video for users in the future.

As the questions are asked, users can react with emoji, including clapping hands, fire, heart, laughter, surprise and thumbs up. And most importantly, unlike Clubhouse, Hotline events are recorded. Creators get both an audio and video recording that they could edit and upload elsewhere, including on other social networks. Because of its use of video, upvoted questions and recording, the app has a different vibe than Clubhouse — it feels more like a virtual event than a more casual space. Facebook is catering to this audience, too, by seeking out creators who are focused on doling out professional advice, it says.

Of note, Hotline is being led by Eric Hazzard, who joined Facebook when it acquired his app tbh, a positivity-focused Q&A app.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Still more betas. Apple this week released its seventh betas for iOS 14.5, iPadOS 14.5 and other platforms, including Apple TV and Apple Watch — iOS 14.5 brings the rollout of App Tracking Transparency, which is why Apple is probably taking its time with this one.

iOS 14 adoption has now surpassed 90% according to data from Mixpanel. In December, 81% of phones were running iOS 14, now 90.45% are. Another 5.07% of users are running iOS 13, while 4.48% are running iOS 12 or older versions.

Apple has been spotted testing tags in the App Store that will help guide users to more precise search results. The test, first reported by MacRumors, had users encounter tags at the top of App Store search results when searching for popular terms like “photos” or “wallpaper,” that could help narrow results. Some users were running the iOS 14.5 beta when they saw tags, but others were not. It’s unclear if or when tags will launch to the wider public.

Apple opens up its Find My app to third-party products and launches a new app to test them. The company has still not launched its own AirTags, a lost-item finder similar to Tile. Instead, it’s smartly positioning the Find My app as a platform anyone can plug into, in order to assuage anti-competitive concerns. The first items that will plug into Find My include VanMoof’s S3 and X3 e-bikes, Belkin’s SoundForm Freedom True Wireless Earbuds and the Chipolo ONE Spot tracker (a Tile rival).

However, one big name is notably missing from the lineup, and that’s AirTags’ biggest competitor, Tile itself. Tile doesn’t want to hand over the direct customer relationship it has by way of its Tile app just to be included in Find My. And some have suggested Apple is propping up the Chipolo tracker to counter any arguments from Tile that it’s being anti-competitive with the launch of AirTags when they finally arrive.

Image Credits: Apple

Apple updated its App Store Connect and Apple Music for Artists app icons to look more like the design choices used on macOS Big Sur. That’s leading to speculation that iOS 15 could also adopt the look of Big Sur when it comes to design.

Apple details its App Store takedowns in new transparency report. Apple’s latest transparency report offers information about app takedowns due to requests from government authorities due to suspected violations of local laws. Apple says it complies with these requests where it’s legally required to do so. These requests, however, are not focused on Apple’s own editorial guidelines, which prohibit content that Apple itself chooses not to host.

Platforms: Google

The new Google Play Store design arrives, killing off the hamburger menu for good. The design is rolling out to Android devices. An in-app message tells you that those menu items have been moved to your profile icon, which, when tapped, brings up a condensed menu. The Settings menu was also updated. Some have complained the changes are making menu items and options harder to find. The Play Store hadn’t been updated significantly since 2019.

Google announced a new app review process across AdMob and Ad Manager which will evaluate a mobile app’s inventory quality before allowing unrestricted ad serving. The process will give publishers feedback on their apps’ approval status so they can resolve issues that could lead to policy violations. Google says the new app reviews are being rolled out gradually in 2021 with two features: app readiness and app claiming. The former will require publishers to link apps they want to monetize with one supported app store, so their app can then be reviewed. The process will check the app source, publisher’s ownership and policy compliance. App Claiming will provide a list of apps that are being monetized with their ad code but aren’t yet on their AdMob or Ad Manager account.

Image Credits: Google

Android Auto apps can now be launched into production, Google announced this week, following months of testing. That means developers can now publish apps for navigation, parking and charging to Google Play without needing to sign up for a beta program.

Image Credits: Google

Android 12 may make it easier for third-party launchers to operate, as it will allow them access to perform universal device searches. The change was spotted in a new API (AppSearchManager API) by the developer of the Niagara Launcher.

All of Google’s flagship iOS apps have now adopted Apple’s new privacy nutrition labels, as Google Photos was finally updated on Tuesday.

Trends

Image Credits: App Annie

Consumers now average 4.2 hours per day in apps, up 30% from 2019. In the first quarter of 2021, the daily time spent in apps surpassed four hours in the U.S., Turkey, Mexico and India for the first time, the report notes. Of those, India saw the biggest jump as consumers there spent 80% more time in smartphone apps in the Q1 2021 versus the first quarter of 2019.

45% of apps used in Q1 2021 were games and 36% of gamers said they were now playing more mobile games compared to before the pandemic, AdColony said. In the first two weeks of 2021, the top 10 casual games saw 80 million downloads.

E-commerce

WhatsApp now allows business owners to manage their catalogs through the web and on desktop. The catalog feature was introduced in the messaging app in 2019 to allow businesses to better manage their inventory. To date, more than 8 million business catalogs are now live on the platform.

Fintech

Free trading app Robinhood says crypto trading has spiked to 9.5 million customers in the first quarter. That’s up from the 1.7 million customers who traded crypto in the 2020 fourth quarter.

Private messaging app Signal began testing payments in the U.K. using the cryptocurrency MobileCoin (MOB). The beta program will allow users to access a new Signal Payments feature in the app where they can then link a MobileCoin wallet after buying the cryptocurrency on the exchange FTX. Once set up, you can then send MOB to anyone else on the app who also has a linked wallet.

Social

Twitter is said to have discussed a $4 billion acquisition of hot new audio app Clubhouse, Bloomberg reported. TechCrunch also confirmed the talks, but understands they’re no longer taking place. Bloomberg had earlier reported Clubhouse is now looking to raise a round, also at a $4 billion valuation.

TikTok announces six new interactive music effects to keep its audience engaged as competition heats up, with tech giants Facebook, YouTube and Snap all releasing TikTok clones. The first effect is Music Visualizer, which runs real-time beat tracking to animate a retro greenscreen landscape. In less than a day since its debut, over 28,000 videos had used the effect.

TikTok rolls out a new feature, auto captions, to make its short-form videos more accessible to hard of hearing and deaf. Creators can enable the feature during editing, which could also be useful for times when you want to listen to TikTok privately but don’t have your headphones.

Image Credits: TikTok

A group of lawmakers wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to press the company for information about its plan to create a curated version of Instagram for children under 13. Facebook already offers an under-13 app, Messenger Kids, and its rival TikTok offers an age-gated experience as well for under-13 users. Lawmakers expressed skepticism that Facebook would keep children’s data private.

Reddit drops support for iOS 12 and lower, given that iOS adoption for later versions now reaches the vast majority of users.

Tim Cook talked about the banned right-wing app Parler in a wide-ranging interview on The NYT’s “Sway” podcast. He made a straightforward case as to why the app needed to be removed, but also said he hoped they’d try to return. “I hope that they come back on. Because we work hard to get people on the store, not to keep people off the store,” Cook said. “And so, I’m hoping that they put in the moderation that’s required to be on the store and come back, because I think having more social networks out there is better than having less,” he added.

Messaging

WhatsApp was spotted testing a feature that would allow users to migrate their chat history between devices (iOS and Android, that is).

Group chat app Discord said it banned over 2,000 extremist communities in the second half of last year — nearly double the number it banned during the first half of the year, when the Capitol riot took place. Around 1,500 of the communities were first detected by the company. Discord had reportedly been talking to Microsoft about an acquisition.

Streaming & Entertainment

Spotify launched (but didn’t initially announce…until a slew of media reports forced their hand) a voice command feature, “Hey Spotify.” The feature lets you call up artists, songs, albums and playlists by name after first opting in and enabling the microphone permission. This will allow Spotify to listen and record your voice data once it hears the wake words, “Hey Spotify.” The company wouldn’t answer questions about the feature, which seems to indicate the rumors that Spotify is readying the launch of its in-car hardware, Car Thing, may actually be true.

Image Credits: Spotify screenshot iOS

Clubhouse launches payments so creators can make money from their shows. Users will be able to send money to favorite creators, which Clubhouse says it’s not taking a cut from — hoping to avoid the Apple tax on in-app purchases through the donations carve-out Apple agreed to for Tencent in 2018. Creators will have to enable the new virtual tip jar feature in order to accept payments.

YouTube Music’s mobile app is getting a design refresh. The app has begun testing new iconography that matches the update the YouTube mobile app received last year, when it dropped the gray icons for the more visually distinct ones.

The YouTube Kids app has rolled out to 11 new markets, including Bolivia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay and Uruguay.

As rumors about Spotify’s launch of “Car Thing” swirl, Amazon Music debuts a “Car Mode” that makes its music app easier to use while driving, with features like bigger text, bigger buttons and even Alexa built in — the latter countering Spotify’s launch of “Hey Spotify” voice commands.

Gaming

Image Credits: Epic Games/Houseparty

Fortnite users can now livestream gameplay to Houseparty’s social app, which Epic Games (Fortnite’s maker) also owns. To use the new feature, the Fortnite player will need to have enabled Fortnite Mode Streaming and be connected to Houseparty. When they begin to stream their gameplay, their friends on Houseparty will be notified that their game feeds are now available to watch. The addition follows Houseparty’s launch of a “Fortnite Mode” last November, which added a video chat feature to Fortnite where players could see live feeds from their friends while gaming, powered by Houseparty.

Google opened up applications for its 2021 Change The Game Design Challenge, which will again be virtual. Participants who are chosen will be invited to an online game development workshop hosted by Google’s partner, Girls Make Games. The workshop will offer four sessions, kicking off in June and running through the end of the summer. At the end of the workshop, participants will have learned skills needed to create a playable game, no coding experience required.

Apple was hit with a class action lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, which claims that Apple runs an “unlicensed casino” due to its hosting of free-to-play casino games. Though the games use virtual currency, the lawsuit notes that users can buy more coins with real money. The suit says this violates the anti-gambling laws of at least 25 U.S. states.

Health & Fitness

French startup Nabla launched its new app focused on women’s health, allowing women to chat with practitioners, access community content, centralize all their medical data and, soon, schedule telemedicine appointments. The startup has raised $20.2 million for its app and has a team of doctors on board to answer user questions.

Government & Policy

Apple must now show a set of Russian-made apps during iPhone setup, according to a new law that went into effect in early April. Apps getting a boost from the suggestions include Mail.ru, OK Live, VK and others. The apps are not being pre-installed as it turns out, but are being offered for download during the final step of the setup process.

Security & Privacy

Facebook is facing questions from the EU’s data protection regulator over the 2019 data breach that exposed, among other things, the emails and phone numbers of more than 500 million Facebook users. The breach was reported last weekend by Business Insider, leading to concerns. Facebook says the data dump was related to a vulnerability it had fixed back in August 2019. It later explained that the data was scraped from user profiles using a contact importer feature before Facebook made changes to the tool to prevent abuse.

Funding and M&A (and IPOs)

💰 Plaid competitor TrueLayer, which works with fintech apps like Revolut and Freetrade, raised $70 million to expand its service internationally.

💰 Indian investment app Groww raised $83 million at an over $1 billion valuation for its app aimed at millennial investors. Tiger Global led the round, and existing investors Sequoia Capital India, Ribbit Capital, YC Continuity and Propel Venture Partners participated. The app has over 15 million users, two-thirds who are investing for the first time.

🤝 Quiq acquires Snaps to create a combined customer messaging platform. Both startups help businesses communicate with businesses through text messaging and other messaging apps. But despite similarities, the two didn’t overlap much as Quiq had focused on customer service messaging and Snaps on marketing communications. Deal terms were not revealed, but Snaps had raised $13 million.

💰 Note-taking mobile app Mem raised $5.6 million from Andreessen Horowitz and emerged from stealth. Its app lets users quickly jot down thoughts without worrying about organizing them. The app allows for tagging users and topics, setting reminders and more.

💰 Indian social network ShareChat raised $502 million in Series E funding led by Tiger Global, valuing its business at $2.1 billion — up from $650 million last year. Snap and existing investors Twitter and Lightspeed Venture Partners also participated. The six-year-old startup has raised $765 million to date and claims to reach over 160 million users.

📈 Mobile game unicorn AppLovin is targeting a $30 billion valuation in its IPO. The Palo Alto-based business sold a majority stake to private equity firm KKR & Co. Inc, and is now hoping to raise as much as $2.13 billion in its IPO by selling 25 million shares for between $75 and $85 per share.

🤝 Saving and investing app Acorns acquired AI-powered startup Pillar, which helps people manage their student loan debt. Pillar launched in 2019 with $5.5 million in seed funding led by Kleiner Perkins and grew its business to manage over $500 million worth of student loan debt across 15,000 borrowers. Acorns will add Pillar to one of its monthly subscription plans in time.

💰 Berlin-based Charles raised €6.4 million to bring “conversational commerce” to WhatsApp. The startup helps businesses sell on WhatsApp and other chat apps by connecting them with shop and CRM systems, including Shopify, SAP and HubSpot.

💰 Design startup Canva, which offers its service across both web and mobile, raised $71 million more in funding, valuing its business at $15 billion. The company had just raised $60 million at a $6 million valuation in 2020.The round was co-led by Christian Jensen, a partner at Dragoneer. Other investors included T. Rowe Price, Skip Capital and Blackbird Ventures.

🤝 Online lender Avant acquired fintech startup Zero Financial and its mobile neobank Level. Deal terms weren’t disclosed but were a mixture of cash and stock. Avant has raised more than $600 million in equity. The company plans to leverage the deal to deliver personalized options to help underbanked consumers gain financial freedom, it says.

💰 App Store optimization tool provider AppTweak raised $22 million in Series B funding from Groupe Rossel. The company now tracks 3 million keywords daily and grew revenues 950% between 2016-2019, it says. Its tools are used by companies including Amazon, Jam City, Zynga, HBO Max, Adobe and Yelp.

💰 London mobile game studio Tripledot Studios raised $78 million in its first institutional round from Eldridge, Access Industries and Lightspeed Venture Partners. The studio’s games, which include classic titles like Solitaire and Blackjack, have an active user base of 11 million, up from 6 million six months ago. Its team hails from Facebook, King, Peak Games and Product Madness.

💰 Indian conversational messaging platform Gupshup raised $100 million from Tiger Global, valuing its business at $1.4 billion. The company had experimented with other business models over the years, including a messaging app and enterprise messaging before landing on its current suite of solutions for building messaging bots, APIs, a scripting engine and other tools that need to message customers on mobile devices. Its tools support sending messages via text and RCS as well as WhatsApp, Messenger, Telegram, Signal, Twitter, Slack, Skype and its own messaging channel. Gupshup currently delivers 6+ billion messages per month.

Downloads

Halo AR

Image Credits: LightUp

This relatively new AR app lets you add AR to anything — a textbook, a magazine cover, a piece of paper, a photo or any other flat real-world object. To use Halo AR, you first select the object and snap a photo, then choose which photo, video or 3D model you want to overlay on top of it. Teachers can use the app to “tag” their course materials with AR links of sorts to immersive content or videos. Or you could use it for fun to create a scavenger hunt in the house for the kids. The app is a free download in the Education category on iOS and Android.

SmartGym

Image Credits: SmartGym

This popular gym app for Apple devices, and one of Apple’s favorite Apple Watch apps of the year, got a big update this week. The new version of SmartGym more than doubles the number of exercises, growing the database of 290 exercises with the addition of over 330 more — including for those who work out at home with bands, resistance loops, TRX and more. The app’s AI Smart Trainer can then use these new exercises to make its personalized recommendations for you. There are new pre-made workouts for boxing, martial arts and even ultimate frisbee in the updated app.

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China gets serious about antitrust, fines Alibaba $2.75B

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Chinese regulators have hit Alibaba with a record fine of 18 billion yuan (about $2.75 billion) for violating anti-monopoly rules as the country seeks to rein in the power of its largest internet conglomerates.

In November, China proposed sweeping antitrust regulations targeting its tech industry. In late December, the State Administration for Market Regulation said it had launched an antitrust probe into Alibaba. SAMR, the country’s top market regulator, said on Saturday it had determined that Alibaba had been “abusing market dominance” since 2015 by forcing its merchants to sell on one of the two main e-commerce sites in China instead of letting them choose freely.

Since late 2020, a clutch of internet giants including Tencent and Alibaba have been hit with fines for violating anti-competition practices. The meager sums of these punishments were symbolic at best compared to the benefits the tech firms reap from their market concentration. No companies have been told to break up their empires and users still have to hop between different super-apps that block each other off.

In recent weeks, however, there are signs that the antitrust campaign is getting more serious. The latest fine on Alibaba is equivalent to 4% of the company’s revenue generated in the calendar year of 2019 in China.

“Today, we received the Administrative Penalty Decision issued by the State Administration for Market Regulation of the People’s Republic of China,” Alibaba said in a statement. “We accept the penalty with sincerity and will ensure our compliance with determination. To serve our responsibility to society, we will operate in accordance with the law with utmost diligence, continue to strengthen our compliance systems and build on growth through innovation.”

The thick walls that tech companies build against each other are starting to break down, too. Alibaba has submitted an application to have its shopping deals app run on WeChat’s mini program platform, Wang Hai, an Alibaba executive, recently confirmed.

For years, Alibaba services have been absent from Tencent’s sprawling lite app ecosystem, which now features millions of third-party services. Vice versa, WeChat is notably missing from Alibaba’s online marketplaces as a payment method. If passed, the WeChat-powered Alibaba mini app would break with precedent of the pair’s long stand-off.

This is a developing story.

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