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This Week in Apps: Apple’s big event, lidar comes to iPhone, Android gets a new IDE

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Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

Top Story

Apple introduces four new iPhones (and more)

Apple hosted its iPhone event this week, where it introduced the new iPhone 12… and the iPhone 12 mini, the iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro Max — effectively plugging all the holes in the market. With the release of the four new iPhones, app developers will have a range of devices to build for, from small to very large — the 12 Pro Max, for example, introduces the iPhone’s biggest-ever screen and the highest resolution, at nearly 3.5M pixels.

It also, of course, includes serious camera improvements, from a redesign of the three-lens system to including a new deeper telephoto camera, now a 65 mm-equivalent instead of 52 mm, as on previous models. There’s also an improved wide-angle lens, larger sensor, the addition of sensor-level image stabilization and a revamped Night Mode. Photographers will appreciate the new Apple ProRAW format, as well. (More on that here).

The iPhone 12 mini, meanwhile, aims to serve the customer base that prefers a smaller phone, like the iPhone SE, but without sacrificing functionality.

All the devices share some key features, including 5G connectivity, the new MagSafe connector for wireless charging and snap-on magnetic accessories, OLED displays and the A14 chip. They also have a more classic look, with straight edges that allow for additional antennas, providing next-gen wireless connectivity.

One of the bigger differences, however, between the Pro models and the regular iPhone 12 is the addition of the LiDAR Scanner, which is also found in the latest iPad Pro. The scanner measures how long it takes for light to reach an object and reflect back. The new depth-sensing technology has big implications for AR, as it allows augmented reality objects to interact with objects in the real world. AR apps will be more user-friendly, too, as they won’t need to first scan the room to place the AR object in the real world. It can be placed instantly.

Apple is leveraging the sensor for the iPhone 12 Pro camera to offer up to 6x faster focus in low-light conditions. Developers, meanwhile, can leverage lidar for use cases like AR-enabled games that work in the real world, social media (like Snapchat’s new lidar-powered Lens), home design and improvement apps involving room scans, spatial layout planning (like JigSpace), better AR shopping experiences and more.

The company also announced an affordable version of its HomePod smart speaker, the $99 HomePod Mini. The item works best for those fully locked inside the Apple universe, as it will stream a handful of music services, but not one of the most popular — Spotify. However, Apple also introduced a nifty feature for the HomePod devices, Intercom, which lets you send announcements across the speakers. While Apple and Google have offered a similar feature for their smart speakers, Intercom also works across other Apple devices, including iPhone, iPod, AirPods and even CarPlay. (What, no Mac?)

If Apple isn’t too late to capture smart speaker market share, the new speaker could see more users adopting smart home devices they can voice control through the HomePod Mini.

During the event, Apple also subtly snubbed its nose at Epic’s Fortnite with the announcement that
League of Legends: Wild Rift would be coming to iPhone 12 to take advantage of its new 5G capabilities and A14 Bionic chip.

Weekly News Round-Up

Platforms

  • Lidar comes to iPhone 12 Pro. Developers can now build AR experiences that interact with real-world objects, and AR apps can now instantly place AR objects in the real world without scanning the room. The update will mean a huge increase in the usability of AR apps but is limited to the Pro model of iPhone for now. Snapchat is already using it.
  • Apple developers can now make their apps available for pre-order even earlier — up to 180 days before release on the App Store.
  • Android Studio 4.1 launches. The new, stable version of the IDE for building Android apps introduces better TensorFlow Lite support and a new database inspector. The team also fixed a whopping 2,370 bugs during this release cycle and closed 275 public issues.
  • Google introduces the Android for Cars library. The library, now in open beta, gives developers tools to design, develop and test new navigation, parking or charging apps for Android Auto. The Google Play Store will be enabled for publishing beta apps in the “coming months.”
  • Google stops selling music. The company no longer sells tracks and albums on its Play Store, shifting all its focus to YouTube Music. The latter also just launched on Apple Watch this week.

Trends

  • Shopping apps forecast. U.S. consumers were expected to spend 60M hours in Android shopping apps during Prime Day week, (which just wrapped) according to one forecast from App Annie.
  • Prime Day downloads grow. Sensor Tower estimates global installs of the Amazon app grew 23% year-over-year, to 684K, as Prime Day neared. Installs on Wednesday were up 33% to 750K. However, U.S. installs were down by 22% 10/13-10/14. Apptopia noted that app sessions, however, were up 27% year-over-year.
  • Shopping, Food & Drink app launches up more than 50% year-over-year. Shopping apps grew 52% while Food & Drink apps grew 60%, due to COVID-19 impacts, according to Sensor Tower.
  • Subscriptions. U.S. consumers spend $20.78 per month on app subscriptions, Adjust study says.
  • TikTok sale impact on ad industry. 73% of marketers said a TikTok sale in the U.S. would impact their 2021 advertising plans. 41% also believed the deal could allow Walmart to overtake Amazon in e-commerce.
  • Amazon expands AR experimentation to its boxes. The retailer launched a new AR application that works with QR codes on the company’s shipping boxes to create “interactive, shareable” AR experiences, like a pumpkin that comes to life.

Security

  • Robinhood said a “limited number” of its users’ accounts were hacked. The service itself was not hacked, but around 2,000 customers had accounts compromised by cybercriminals who first compromised users’ personal emails outside the trading app.

Other News

  • Zoom’s new events platform brings apps to video conferencing calls.
  • Messenger update brings new features, including cross-app communication with Instagram. The app gets fun features like chat themes, custom reactions and, soon, selfie stickers and vanish mode. But the bigger news is the (potentially anti-competitive) merging of Facebook’s chat platforms.
  • Life360 leverages TikTok teens’ complaints to start a dialogue and invent a new feature, “Bubbles,” which allows teens (or anyone) to share a generalized location instead of an exact one. The feature gives teens a bit more freedom to roam and make choices without so much parental oversight. Parents, meanwhile, can still be sure their teen is OK, as features like emergency SOS and crash alerts remain functional.
  • Must-read: The MacStories iOS and iPadOS 14 Review. Federico Viticci offers a 23-page deep dive into the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system.

Funding and M&A

    • Future raises $24M Series B for its $150/mo workout coaching app amid at-home fitness boom. The app pairs users with real-life fitness coaching for personal training at home. The round was led by Trustbridge Partners with Caffeinated Capital and Series A investors Kleiner Perkins participating.
    • River raises $10.4M for its app offering news, events and other happenings from around the web, ranging from news stories from top publishers to sports to even notable tweets. The app presents the information in a real-time stream, browsed vertically. There’s also a “For You” page, similar to TikTok.
    • Roblox confidentially filed with the SEC to go public. This cross-platform gaming platform has boomed during coronavirus lockdowns. According to reports, the listing could double Robox’s $4B valuation.
    • Robo Adviser Wealthsimple raises $87M. The funding for the investing app with comparisons to Robinhood was led by Menlo Park-based Technology Crossover Ventures (TCV), valuing the business at $1B.
    • Fitness platform Playbook raises $9.3M. The company offers tools for personal trainers who want to make their own videos, which consumers then browse in Playbook’s mobile app. Backers include E.ventures, Michael Ovitz, Abstract, Algae Ventures, Porsche Ventures and FJ Labs.
    • Live streaming app Moment House raises $1.5M seed. The startup aims to recreate live events in a digital format. LA area investors invested, including Scooter Braun, Troy Carter, Kygo’s Palm Tree Crew and Jared Leto. Patreon chief executive Jack Conte and Sequoia Capital partner Jess Lee also participated.
    • Twilio acquires Segment for $3.2B to help developers build data-fueled apps.
    • E-learning platform Kahoot raises $215M from SoftBank. The Norwegian startup claims to have hosted 1.3 billion “participating players” in the last 12 months. The company’s gamified e-learning platform is used both in schools and in enterprise environments.

Downloads

Mycons

Mycons is a new app that makes it easier for users, including non-designers, to create and buy custom icons for their iOS home screen makeovers. In the app’s “Icon Studio,” users can create icons by swapping out the background, choosing a symbol and placing it on the icon accordingly. You can also create a whole set of icons in a batch export. If you don’t feel like designing your own, you can opt to purchase premade packs instead.

The app is a free download with a one-time, in-app purchase to unlock the fully functionality of the icon designer. The icon packs, which include different variations and matching wallpaper, range from $7.99-$9.99.

Spotify’s new iOS 14 widget

Image Credits: TechCrunch screenshot of Spotify widget

It’s here! The widget a number of people have waited for since the launch of the new version of iOS has arrived. 

The widget, which arrives in the latest version of the Spotify iOS app, comes in two sizes. The smaller widget will display just your most recently listened to item, while the medium-sized widget will instead show the five most recent items — four in a horizontal row and the most recent at the top. In that case, you can actually tap on the small thumbnail for which of the five you want to now stream to be taken directly to that page in the Spotify app. The widget also automatically updates its background color to match the thumbnail photo.

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

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Review: iPad Air, smooth criminal

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The 2020 iPad Air comes at an interesting time in Apple’s release cycle. The iPad Pro is still strong from a specs perspective but is now technically a half generation or so behind in CPU. The new pro models won’t arrive for (theoretical) months. 

So what you end up with is a device that shares the design philosophy of the iPad Pro and inherits some of its best features while simultaneously leaping ahead of it in raw compute power. This makes the Air one of the better overall values in any computing device from Apple in some time. In fact, it’s become obvious that this is my top choice to recommend as a casual, portable computer from Apple’s entire lineup including the MacBooks. 

The clean new design has a thin, pleasantly colored simplicity to it. It matches the new iPhone 12 aesthetic quite well. The smoothly bullnosed corners and dusty blue peened finish make this one of the better looking iPads since the original. For years, Apple moved to try to “pull” the casing of the iPads around the back, making it disappear. This new design is a nice balance between the original’s frank simplicity and the new iPad Pro direction. A bit less sharp-edged and a bit more ‘friendly’ while still crisp.

One thing that I love a lot about the Air is that it lives up to its name and clocks in at the lightest weight of any of Apple’s portables at 1.0lb flat. This plus the Magic Keyboard is just such a killer portable writing machine it’s wild. 

Apple didn’t fix the camera position on this, something that still stinks about the iPad Pro because you have to use Face ID to unlock it and your hand is always in the way in landscape mode. Instead, they straight up ditched the entire True Depth camera and Face ID altogether and tucked Touch ID into the power button.

The initial scanning process to set up a finger seemed ever so slightly more reluctant to grab my fingerprint here than it used to on the home button. My guess is that it’s to do with the oblong shape of the sensor or its housing. But once it was scanned and input, I’m happy to report that it works exactly as well if not better than any iPhone home button version. I set a finger on my left hand here because I only use iPads in horizontal mode. But if you aren’t a keyboard person and are doing a lot of reading, the right hand would be appropriate. 

I actually found this to be a more natural feeling activation gesture than swiping up only to remember that my hand is in the way and having to move it and look at the camera. If the camera was placed along the horizontal edge of the iPad Pro or even in the corner I might feel differently. But as a compromise so that Apple doesn’t have to ship a True Depth camera in this unit, it works plenty fine. 

The surface of the Touch ID button is covered by an opaque sapphire crystal cover that blends well with the casing but allows the print to be read through it. 

Once you have the iPad Air unlocked, it falls right into the ‘X’ style navigation system. Swipes to open and navigate and move around. This is great because it brings near parity of navigation across Apple’s device lineup (minus the iPhone SE.)

The camera is fine. Do you shoot pictures on an iPad? Really you do? Wow, interesting, ok. Maybe buy the iPad Pro which has a full LiDAR array, a Wide and an Ultra Wide lens. Great for artists, scanning, reference work etc. On the iPad Air the camera is just fine but is really a formality. It can be used in all of those ways and the quality is on par, but it’s there because it has to be there. 

Those of you that travel with an iPad and an iPhone will be happy to know that you can charge an iPhone from the USB-C port on the iPad Air. And yep, it works fine with USB-C hubs and card readers too.

The iPad Air has 4GB of RAM where the iPad Pro 2020 has 6GB. It has a Liquid Retina display, but no ProMotion 120hz refresh. The lack of ProMotion is unfortunate but understandable. It requires another whole layer of display technology that is quite a bit more expensive. Having gotten used to it now I would say that on a larger screen like this it’s easily the best excuse for spending the extra $150-200 to bump up to the 11” Pro model. It’s just really damn nice. If you’ve never had one, you’ll be a lot less likely to miss this obviously.

But it also has an A14 Bionic chip where the iPad Pro 2020 models are still on the A12Z. Because that ‘Z’ is related to the fact that it has an extended number of graphics cores (8-core CPU/8-core GPU), the performance gap isn’t as big as you’d think.

Though the iPad Air edges out the iPad Pro in single-core performance, the multi-core numbers are essentially on parity. This speaks to the iPad Pro being tuned to handle multiple processes in simultaneous threads for processing images and video. If you’re running Photoshop or Premiere Rush or LumaFusion on an iPad, you want the Pro. For most other uses, you’re gonna be just fine with the Air.

I do really wish that the Air started at 128GB instead of 64GB for the base $599 price. Apple has finally gotten the iPhone to a great place for minimum storage across the lineup, and I wish that the iPad Air matched that. If a ton of space is important to you, it’s important to note that you cannot get anything over 256GB in this unit, unlike the iPad Pro that is offered up to 1TB. 

The two speaker system in the iPad Air is arranged in the much better horizontal array but it’s half the amount that are in the iPad Pro and it shows. It’s a bit less loud overall but honestly the top volume is still way more than you need for typical iPad viewing distance.

Much of what I wrote about using Apple’s iPad Pro over the course of 10,000 miles of travel applies directly here. I still find it to be a great experience that, once you’ve adjusted for workflows, is just as powerful as any laptop. The additional features that have shipped in iOS 14 since that review have only made the iPad a better platform for legitimate work. 

And now you get the Gen 2 pencil and the fantastic Magic Keyboard in an iPad outside of the Pro lineup and it honestly adds a ton of the utility. 

Here’s my advice: Buy this if you want a portable iPad Pro to use alongside a MacBook or desktop computer for those times you don’t want to carry or can’t carry it. If you want an iPad Pro as your only computer, get the big iPad Pro but probably wait until they update that one in a few months.

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Adobe’s Project Sharp Shots uses AI to deblur your videos with one click

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Every year at its MAX user conference, Adobe shows off a number of research projects that may or may not end up in its Creative Cloud apps over time. One new project that I hope we’ll soon see in its video apps is Project Sharp Shots, which will make its debut later today during the MAX Sneaks event. Powered by Adobe’s Sensei AI platform, Sharp Shots is a research project that uses AI to deblur videos.

Shubhi Gupta, the Adobe engineer behind the project, told me the idea here is to deblur a video — no matter whether it was blurred because of a shaky camera or fast movement — with a single click. In the demos she showed me, the effect was sometimes relatively subtle, as in a video of her playing ukulele, or quite dramatic, as in the example of a fast-moving motorcycle below.

With Project Sharp Shots, there’s no parameter tuning and adjustment like we used to do in our traditional methods,” she told me. “This one is just a one-click thing. It’s not magic. This is simple deep learning and AI working in the background, extracting each frame, deblurring it and producing high-quality deblurred photos and videos.”

Image Credits: AdobeGupta tells me the team looked at existing research on deblurring images and then optimized that process for moving images — and then optimized that for lower-memory usage and speed.

It’s worth noting that After Effects already offers some of these capabilities for deblurring and removing camera shake, but that’s a very different algorithm with its own set of limitations.

This new system works best when the algorithm has access to multiple related frames before and after, but it can do its job with just a handful of frames in a video.

Image Credits: Adobe

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Syte, an e-commerce visual search platform, gets $30 million Series C to expand in the U.S. and Asia

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Syte’s cofounders, chief executive Ofer Freyman, chief revenue officer Lihi Pinto-Fryman and chief operating officer Idan Pinto

Syte’s cofounders, chief executive Ofer Freyman, chief revenue officer Lihi Pinto-Fryman and chief operating officer Idan Pinto

Tel Aviv-based visual search and product discovery platform Syte, already used by brands like Farfetch and Fashion Nova, plans to expand in the United States and Asia-Pacific region after its latest funding. The startup announced today it has raised a $30 million Series C, with an additional $10 million in debt.

The round was led by Viola Ventures, with participation from LG Tech Ventures, La Maison, MizMaa Ventures, Kreos Capital, and returning investors Magma, Naver Corporation, Commerce Ventures, Storm Ventures, Axess Ventures, Remagine Media Ventures and KDS Media Fund. Syte’s last round of funding, a $21.5 million Series B, was announced in September 2019. The startup has now raised a total of $71 million.

Launched in 2015 to focus on visual search for clothing, Syte’s technology now covers other verticals like jewelry and home decor, and is used by brands including Farfetch, Fashion Nova, Castorama and Signet Jewelers. Syte says that its solutions can increase conversion by 177% on average.

The company’s platform includes three main products: Visual Discovery to let brands add camera search, recommendation engines and discovery buttons; “Searchendising,” which automatically generates tags based on visual AI to improve search and recommendation results; and a Discovery Marketplace used by publishers, smart devices manufacturers and social platforms to increase the reach of product advertisements.

Since the beginning of 2020, Syte says its customer base has grown 38%, partly because of the increase in e-commerce traffic caused by COVID-19 movement restrictions.

In the company’s press announcement, chief executive officer and co-founder Ofer Fryman said Syte will focus on developing or acquiring product discovery technology “spanning the full range of our senses—visual, text, voice, and more” to create types of personalized recommendations.

A lot of Syte’s current customers are in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, so its new funding is also earmarked to increase its presence in the U.S. and Asia-Pacific markets.

More social media platforms and e-commerce platforms, including Amazon, Target, IKEA, Walmart, eBay, Snap, and Pinterest, are using visual search and recognition technology to give users an alternative to keyword searches. By simplifying the search process or automatically generating tags, visual recognition technology can help improve search results and product recommendations, resulting in more conversions.

There is a roster of other companies that are also working on AI-based visual recognition and search technology for e-commerce. Other startups in the same space that have raised venture capital funding include Donde Search, ViSenze and Slyce.

Gal Fontyn, Syte’s vice president of marketing, told TechCrunch that it differentiates with visual AI algorithms developed by co-founder and chief technology officer Helge Voss, who previously worked as a physicist at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research).

Voss’ background in neural networks and machine learning allowed Syte to build a visual search solution that can produce results with over 95% accuracy in object-matching within less than a second, Fontyn said. Its algorithms have also been trained on millions of products from vendors around the world, which Syte claims gives it the “largest vertical-specific lexicon in the industry.” This is what allows it to recognize several objects within an image, and assign them detailed tags.

Brands that use Syte see a 423% increase on average on ROI, Fontyn added.

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