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Sarah Perez «TechCrunch»

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Wed, 20 Feb 2019 22:00:34 +0000
Sarah Perez – TechCrunch

Twitter today is opening up applications for its new testing program, first announced at CES in January. The program potentially can cover any and every aspect of the Twitter experience, but the first set of tests will focus on how interactions between people, and specifically replies, appear on Twitter.

They will include a new design for replies to make it easier to follow a conversation; rounded shapes on reply tweets; indents to follow responses; hiding engagement and sharing behind a tap to bring out the content of replies; and introducing colors to add more context.

We got an early look at these features when we saw the “beta” app in January (which is now referred to as a prototype rather than beta effort); read on for more on all the features.

Improving the look and feel of how Twitter works is a tall order, to say the least. Many have pointed out, and the company now admits, that back-and-forth tweets are too hard to follow. Given that Twitter’s core premise is that of a platform for conversations, that not only limits the product’s usefulness, but it potentially puts off newcomers as well.

These issues recently came to a head when Twitter’s own CEO Jack Dorsey attempted to participate in a tweet-based interview with journalist Kara Swisher. As their conversation continued, Twitter’s failings on this front were on clear display. Despite the use of a public hashtag, people were confused as to how to track the reporter’s questions and @jack’s answers.

“This thread was hard,” Dorsey tweeted at the end of the interview. “Need to make this feel a lot more cohesive and easier to follow.”

While interviews with major tech execs aren’t an everyday occurrence on Twitter (yet?), longer conversations with threaded replies are, and they’ve perhaps become even more prevalent after Twitter doubled its character count from 140 to 280 in late 2017. That change allowed people to share their expanded thoughts with more nuance, which in turn prompted more thoughtful replies.

Around the same time, Twitter turned “tweetstorms” into an official product, allowing people to tweet out a series of connected thoughts, each which invite their own related series of responses.

With all these changes, tracking the growing amount of back-and-forth has become overly complex, especially when a conversation has a lot of participants.

That’s the problem the new testing program aims to better understand and eventually solve.

“It’s kind of a new take on our thinking about product development,” Sara Haider, Twitter’s director of product management, said in an interview in January. “One of the reasons why this is so critical for this particular feature is because we know we’re making changes that are pretty significant.”

Within a separate, standalone app, the company will roll out experiments that allow the Twitter community to more directly participate in the early development process. At launch, that means fixing conversations. But over time, Twitter aims to use this platform to try out new ideas before they make their way to the public product.

Fixing conversations could be one of the biggest changes to Twitter to date, she noted, which is why it’s critical for the company to get it right.

“We need you to be part of this process, so that we know we’re building the right experience,” Haider said.

Above: the development build at CES; the new product will look different, we’re told

Like the build TechCrunch previewed in January, the soon-to-launch Twitter prototype will feature an entirely new design for Replies where the conversations themselves have a rounded, more chat-like shape and are indented so they’re easier to follow. It won’t be the first time it has tried this, but softer edges, it seems, are thought to look more human.

The company isn’t yet sharing images, but says you can imagine the Replies look more like the chats you see in Direct Messages — that is, they’re more rounded, but not exactly speech bubbles.

Engagements, sharing options and other tweet details, meanwhile, will also get hidden from view to further simplify things. You will have to tap on the tweets in order to view them, Twitter says. Again, the aim here will be to put the focus more on what’s being said, not to act on it. This is actually an interesting shift, since so much in social media has been focused around engagement. Now, Twitter’s going to see if taking away some of those engagement nudges will, essentially, keep people around longer.

Above: Engagements are hidden on the development build seen at CES

Making conversations color-coded to highlight the tweets from the original poster as well as those tweets from people you follow is a straight play at giving more visual cues to the reader of a conversation.

“Reader” might be the operative word here. One of Twitter’s big issues with conversations is that they can be too noisy when too many people get involved. One solution to that might also be to try to think of how that might get limited, either so that only certain replies are seen (which is something that Twitter is already doing to some extent, by putting replies from people you follow at the top), or perhaps so that not all people can reply — an idea that the CEO himself has teased as a possibility. Both position Twitter as a reading-first, not engagement-first, experience, which is why making those replies easier to read is so important.

In the development build we saw last month, those colors were overly saturated for testing purposes. In the prototype, they’ve been dialed down. Now, people you follow will be in blue and the responses from the original poster are gray.

The reply highlighting is now just a shadow line along the reply, as opposed to the entire reply being colored, Twitter tells us.

The company says it will only accept a couple of thousand testers into the program. But unlike many beta programs, which are closed, testers aren’t under NDA. Instead, they’re encouraged to tweet about the test and discuss the changes with the broader Twitter community so more people can weigh in with their thoughts.

In addition, testers will be able to submit feedback through a closed form or they can just tweet to Twitter’s teams.

The tweet-and-reply system has been a thorn in Twitter’s side for years. Because Twitter was originally designed as a short-form, SMS-like platform, it never anticipated how it would evolve into the discussion platform it has become today.

The company has tried in vain to figure out how to simplify things for users for years. For example, it added connecting lines between tweets and responses, made @usernames in replies a part of the tweet’s metadata and even changed the Reply icon itself. Recently, it added an “original tweeter” badge to conversation threads, too.

The company says it will mostly invite English and Japanese speakers to the testing program. Participants must follow the Twitter Rules to be invited. However, they don’t necessarily need to be longtime Twitter users. In fact, the company tells TechCrunch it aims to have a range of people involved, from those who don’t use Twitter often to those who use it consistently.

Those interested in applying to the program can do so from the tweet posted by the @TwitterSupport account or can use this link. If accepted, users will receive an email informing them of the next steps.

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Wed, 20 Feb 2019 19:28:00 +0000
Twitter opens applications for its ‘prototype’ program, first tests to focus on fixing conversations

Google Maps for iOS will now allow users to follow their favorite businesses right in the app, the company announced today. The feature, which positions the platform as a challenger to Facebook Pages, lets users keep track of a business’s news and updates — like their sales, promotions or events, for example — through a new “For You” tab in the mobile app.

The feature was previously available on Android.

This past fall, Google rolled out the “Follow” feature on Google Maps on Android with little fanfare, beyond a brief blog post about the launch. But the feature’s significance shouldn’t be understated. Google Maps is one of the most-used apps in the world with more than a billion users. Over the years, it has steadily expanded its feature set beyond just place search and navigation to become a tool to seek out new businesses, find restaurants and shops, read reviews, browse photos and much more.

Now, Google is giving businesses a way to directly communicate with their customers, much like Facebook does today.

Through a revamped My Business app, also launched last fall, business owners can post content updates to their business profile on Google. These are the same sort of updates that, previously, would have been published exclusively to social media — like the dates of a big sales event or a grand opening, for example.

Businesses can also use the My Business app to track their customer reviews and respond to messages from Google Maps users in a centralized fashion.

However, before today, the ability for Google Maps users to follow their favorite businesses’ updates was something that was only available on Android. Now, iOS users can join in, too.

Starting this week, Google is rolling out an update to the Google Maps app. Now, iOS users can search for a place — like a restaurant, store or anything else — then tap the “Follow” button to keep up with the place’s news within the “For You” tab.

And on the other end, businesses will now be able to see all their customers — not just those using Android devices.

The Follow button is rolling out today, but releases reaching this large of a user base take time. You may not see the changes immediately, but should soon.

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Wed, 20 Feb 2019 16:00:17 +0000
Watch out Facebook, Google Maps on iOS now lets users track their favorite businesses, too

Sports streaming service fuboTV and Viacom this morning announced a new carriage deal that will see fuboTV carry Viacom’s entertainment networks as a part of its TV packages. The deal includes channels like MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., BET, CMT, Comedy Central, VH1, Paramount Network, TeenNick and many others. A selection of these will be added to fuboTV’s base package, while an expanded group of channels will be made available to fuboTV’s premier package, “fubo Extra.”

FuboTV originally began as a soccer-focused streaming service, but the company has been steadily expanding its lineup beyond sports channels in recent months. Today, it’s carrying networks like CBS, AMC, NBC and FX, for example, and now describes itself as a “sports-first streaming service.”

That is to say, fuboTV is positioning itself to cord cutters as the service to choose if you’re ditching traditional pay TV, but mostly care about access to sports — with a little entertainment mixed in for variety.

As of last fall, fuboTV had grown to nearly 250,000 subscribers.

The new deal with Viacom will make fuboTV even more of a competitor to rival live TV streaming services like Sling TV, DirecTV Now and Philo — all of which also carry Viacom’s channels.

Viacom says it’s making its nine core media networks — BET, CMT, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., Paramount Network, TV Land and VH1 — available to fuboTV’s base package, “fubo.” Those included in the “fubo Extra” package will include BET Her, BET Jams, BET Soul, Logo, MTV2, MTV Classic, MTV Live, mtvU, Nick Music, Nicktoons and TeenNick.

Meanwhile, fuboTV’s Spanish-language package, “fubo Latino,” will receive Viacom’s Telefe and MTV Tr3s networks.

The deal will bring some of Viacom’s top shows to the sports streaming service, like Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” MTV’s “Jersey Shore: Family Vacation,” Nickelodeon’s “Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and others.

“FuboTV is quickly evolving as a major force in the streaming television space, and the addition of Viacom’s media networks as a cornerstone of fuboTV’s entertainment offering demonstrates the power and popularity of our global brands and programming,” said Tom Gorke, EVP, head of Distribution and Business Development, for Viacom, in a statement. “This is a great opportunity to continue to grow our reach and audiences across the OTT landscape and connect with our fans wherever they consume content,” he added.

The move to offer further entertainment comes at a time when fuboTV’s rivals — like Dish’s Sling TV and AT&T’s DirecTV Now — are seeing declining growth, as the streaming TV space becomes more competitive. Customers now have several choices in this market — and with the rising prices of over-the-top live TV, they expect to get a well-designed, stable and expansive selection of channels on whichever service to which they choose to subscribe.

FuboTV has been able to capitalize on this demand by targeting cord cutters with a service that has had to work well from day one in order to keep up with the demands of streaming live sports, while also rolling out more advanced features like recommendations and support for 4K HDR, for example.

With this significant expansion into entertainment programming through the Viacom deal, fuboTV may be able to pick up more subscribers who are frustrated with the more basic streaming services offered by Dish and AT&T. These customers may not have previously considered fuboTV because it didn’t have as many entertainment options as others.

The Viacom channels have not yet gone live on fuboTV, but will be available “soon,” the companies said, without providing an exact launch date.

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Tue, 19 Feb 2019 19:35:48 +0000
Sports streaming service fuboTV expands its lineup with Viacom’s entertainment channels

Over the past few years, Amazon -owned Audible has been expanded beyond audiobooks to include more original content, like the short-form audio programming offered through Audible Channels, for example. Today, the company announced a new partnership for original comedy projects, in collaboration with Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video. The first production from this effort is “Heads Will Roll,” a program created, produced by and starring Kate McKinnon and Emily Lynne.

The production itself is a workplace comedy about an evil queen in search of peace and quiet. It will also feature performances by Meryl Streep, Tim Gunn, Peter Dinklage, Andrea Martin, Carol Kane, Audra McDonald, Aidy Bryant, Alex Moffat, Heidi Gardner, Chris Redd, Steve Higgins, Bob the Drag Queen, Esther Perel and “Queer Eye’s” Fab Five.

Following “Heads Will Roll,” the next production will be “63rd Man,” from senior SNL writer Bryan Tucker and Zack Phillips. WWE Superstar John Cena will star as Billy Foster, a college football star who’s just barely not good enough to play in the pros.

The two new shows will join Audible’s collection of original content which today includes programming in areas like journalism, literature, theater, romance, sci-fi and fantasy and kids. Last year, Audible announced plans to partner with Reese Witherspoon’s media empire, Hello Sunshine, on original content in addition to the Reese Book Club on Audible, but those originals haven’t yet arrived, it seems.

Though its operates as a separate business unit from Amazon, the retailer leverages Audible’s programming to serve as another perk for Amazon Prime subscribers. Audible Channels, for example, are available to Prime members for free.

In addition, Audible content now ties into Amazon’s Alexa business, too. In addition to offering Audible’s audiobooks and originals on its Amazon Echo devices, the company recently launched choose-your-own-adventure stories on Alexa.

The launch dates for the new comedy series have not yet been announced.

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Tue, 19 Feb 2019 17:42:30 +0000
Amazon’s Audible expands its original programming with new comedy series

YouTube today announced a significant change to its strike system — the penalty system used when YouTube’s reviewers identify a video has violated the site’s Community Guidelines. These strikes could be issued against videos containing nudity or sexual content, violent or graphic content, harmful or dangerous content, hateful content, threats, spam, scams or misleading metadata. In the past, YouTube’s penalties have been criticized for being unevenly applied and for being less than transparent — something YouTube now wants to change.

Before, YouTube had a “three strikes and you’re out” policy, but each strike had a different penalty. The first strike had resulted in a 90-day live-streaming freeze, while the second would result in a two-week freeze on video uploads.

Creators complained that these penalties didn’t match the source of the strikes.

With today’s changes, all strikes will now carry the same punishment: a temporary ban from YouTube activity, with the length of time increasing with the strikes.

Now, the first strike will result in a one-week freeze from YouTube activity, including the ability to upload video, live stream and other channel activities. The strike will expire in 90 days.

A second strike in that 90-day period will now result in a two-week freeze on the ability to upload videos. And the third strike in any 90-day period will result in the channel being terminated.

While these strikes are a bit tougher — they begin with bans on uploads, instead of just on live streaming — YouTube says getting to that first strike will be harder, as it’s also adding a warning system.

Before, the first violation resulted in a strike. Now creators will get a one-time warning with no penalty.

“We want to give you even more opportunities to learn about our policies, so starting February 25, all channels will receive a one-time warning the first time they post content that crosses the line, with no penalties to their channel except for the removal of that content,” the company explained in a blog post announcing the changes.

YouTube says the warning allows the creator the time to learn about its Community Guidelines so they can make content that complies with its rules.

The company will also offer more documentation and resources to help educate creators about its policies. It’s expanding the documentation in its Help Center to provide more details on what sort of things will result in strikes, including specific examples of common mistakes.

YouTube says it wants to be more transparent about its strikes, too. Before, creators may not have even been sure why their video was penalized. Now, YouTube will make it clear why the strike occurred, what it means for the channel and what next steps are available — including appealing the decision, if the creator believes the strike was issued in error.

To help with this, YouTube says it will make its email and desktop notifications clearer and they’ll include more details. It’s adding new mobile and in-product notifications, as well.

Only a small percentage of videos break the Community Guidelines, says YouTube — just 2 percent do.

But those that do are often high-profile examples of everything that’s wrong with YouTube and its platform — a platform which today incentivizes outrageous content over quality, at times.

YouTube has recently faced a number of controversies related to the videos posted to its site, including Logan Paul’s suicide forest debacle; PewDiePie’s anti-Semitic and racist content; videos involving child endangerment and exploitation; and other issues that have led to advertiser pull-outs and brand freezes.

This week YouTube came under fire for enabling a pedophilia ring to surface in videos’ comments, too. That goes to show that YouTube has to do better with policing not just the content of the videos themselves, but also the broader community.

The new system will go into effect on February 25, 2019.

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Tue, 19 Feb 2019 15:57:21 +0000
YouTube revamps its strike system to include a one-time warning, consistent penalties

Last year, Spotify took a stake in music distribution service DistroKid. Apple acquired Platoon. And today, SoundCloud announced it’s adding its own music distribution tools to its premium accounts aimed at artists, SoundCloud Pro and SoundCloud Pro Unlimited. With SoundCloud Premier distribution, artists can upload their tracks to all major music services, including Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify, Tencent, YouTube Music and even Instagram, directly from SoundCloud.

The service, which is now launching into beta, is available at no extra cost to existing premium account holders.

The company notes this is the first distribution tool built directly into a streaming platform, but that’s not likely to remain the case for long. When Spotify invested in DistroKid in October 2018, it said that it would soon roll out a tool that would allow musicians to upload their tracks to the service through the Spotify for Artists platform. And Apple’s acquisition of Platoon seems to indicate the company wants to go in a similar direction in terms of offering more tools and services to artists.

However, SoundCloud touts the benefits of its own Premier distribution service as a means of centralizing artist payouts, from all music services — itself included. Via SoundCloud Premier, artists can monetize their music through a revenue-sharing program. With the distribution service, artists can now publish their tracks more broadly — and SoundCloud says it doesn’t take a cut of the payouts from the other services.

In addition, the company highlights the tool’s feature set, noting how it allows artists to make changes and correct mistakes on the fly, rather than having to go through customer service as on some other distribution services. It even offers to help artists currently using alternatives like DistroKid or TuneCore to switch over, so they don’t lose their stats.

The new distribution tool is rolling out to eligible Pro ($6/mo) and Pro Unlimited ($12/mo) subscribers who are 18 years of age or older, creators of original music and have zero copyright strikes and at least 1,000 monetizable track plays, the company says.

Creators will be notified by email and in-product notifications when the tool becomes available to them.

SoundCloud had once aimed to compete on the same playing field as streaming music giants like Apple Music and Spotify, but may be waking up to the fact that it can offer more value by investing in tools that artists need.

It wouldn’t be the first company to make this sort of shift either. In the video space, Vimeo once aimed to compete with YouTube, before changing its focus entirely to become a hub for tools for video creators. That pivot has paid off for Vimeo — this month, parent company IAC noted Vimeo saw a 28 percent increase in revenue during the past quarter.

SoundCloud, however, has progressed slowly, including on monetization and other changes — allowing competitors to catch up or surpass its own offerings. That could be the case with music distribution, too, as Spotify’s soon-to-launch tools could outdo SoundCloud’s in the near future.

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Tue, 19 Feb 2019 14:58:40 +0000
SoundCloud adds a music distribution service to its premium subscriptions

Walmart this morning posted strong holiday sales growth for its holiday quarter, with U.S. sales up 4.2 percent over the same time last year, and a 43 percent rise in Walmart’s U.S. e-commerce sales. The retailer topped analyst expectations, with $138.8 billion in revenue for the quarter, just ahead of the forecasted $138.76 billion; and earnings per share of $1.41, ahead of analysts’ estimates of $1.33.

Most notably, Walmart attributed the strong e-commerce growth to the expansion of its grocery pickup and delivery businesses, and a broader assortment on Walmart.com.

The company has been challenging Amazon, Instacart, Target’s Shipt and others on grocery. It had toyed with the idea for years, before figuring out a model that made sense and didn’t lose money. With grocery pickup, Walmart offers an alternative to the higher cost of using grocery delivery services, while still allowing for convenience, as its customers can skip shopping the aisles and instead remain in their cars while groceries are loaded into the trunk.

More recently, the company began working with a network of partners to offer grocery delivery to customers’ homes. It has ended relationships with Uber, Lyft and Deliv while adding new partners like Point Pickup, Skipcart, AxleHire and Roadie, and shifting business to partners like Postmates and DoorDash.

Today, Walmart’s grocery pickup service is available at more than 2,100 Walmart locations and delivery is offered at nearly 800. It expects to offer pickup at 3,100 locations and delivery at 1,600 locations by the end of fiscal year 2020, it says.

Meanwhile, Walmart has been working to expand its assortment online and offer more types of shopping experiences. For example, in fiscal year 2018, the retailer launched the high-end Lord & Taylor shop on the site; added 3D virtual shopping in its Home category; launched a sports fan-focused Fanatics shop; introduced a new Nursery destination on Walmart.com; began adding merchandise from its acquired brands to the main website; and launched Walmart eBooks in partnership with Kobo; among other things.

Walmart has also made shipping to your home more affordable. In 2017, Walmart introduced an alternative to Amazon’s pricier Prime membership with free, two-day shipping on orders of $35 or more. This past year, it expanded free, two-day shipping to its marketplace items by working with hundreds of its top sellers and third-party fulfillment providers, like Deliverr.

The company last year also launched a new, more personalized website, which included a revamped Home section, as well as a cleaner, more modern design and sections that showcased items trending in the shoppers’ local area. The redesigned website made it easier to order groceries and reorder favorites, too.

In November, eMarketer noted Walmart had overtaken Apple to become the No. 3 online retailer in the U.S., with Walmart (including its Jet and Sam’s Club brands) poised to capture 4 percent of all online retail by year-end. Amazon, of course, remained No. 1, followed by eBay.

“Progress on initiatives to accelerate growth, along with a favorable economic environment, helped us deliver strong comp sales and gain market share,” said Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, in a statement. “We’re excited about the work we’re doing to reach customers in a more digitally-connected way. Our commitment to the customer is clear – we’ll be there when, where and how they want to shop and deliver new, convenient experiences that are uniquely Walmart.”

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Mon, 18 Feb 2019 22:30:23 +0000
Walmart’s US e-commerce sales up 43% in Q4, thanks to growing online grocery business

HiHello, the latest startup to take aim at business cards with its own digital alternative, has raised a $2.5 million seed round to continue its efforts in building a better contact management solution designed for the mobile era. The new financing was led by August Capital, K9 Ventures and TenOneTen Ventures, and will see Villi Iltchev from August Capital joining the HiHello board as a result.

The round closed last year, but hadn’t been announced.

The now six-month-old startup was dreamed up by K9 Ventures founder Manu Kumar, along with co-founder and Caltech and Columbia alum Hari Ravi. Notably, Kumar has been trying to solve the problem of contact management for years, having co-founded and sold his startup CardMunch to LinkedIn — a decision he later regretted, saying last year he was “still peeved” at LinkedIn for ruining and eventually killing the product. (LinkedIn later pawned off its ashes to Evernote.)

With HiHello, Kumar is giving contact management and business networking another shot. Version 1 of the app offered a simple solution that lets users exchange contact information by way of scanning a QR code with their phone’s native camera app, or by sharing information using SMS or email. The mobile app lets you create custom profiles in order to share with another person either your work contact information, personal details or any other custom profiles you want.

As HiHello enters its next phase, the company aims to pick up some of the better ideas from past apps in this space — like Plaxo, Bump and even CardMunch — while also overcoming their limitations.

For example, Bump had once required that both people have the app installed in order to work. HiHello today already works if only one person has the app. But it will roll out a more elegant solution for when two HiHello users are present. A “Nearby” screen in the app will allow people to share contact information with one another based on a dual opt-in system.

From Plaxo, HiHello will adopt the idea of automatically updating contact information for everyone who has the user in their address book when information is changed.

The startup is taking a different approach to privacy than Plaxo did, saying it won’t spam or sell user data, nor will it ask permission to access your contacts. Instead, HiHello will act as an address book provider whose database of contacts you can add to your device. This keeps it isolated and separate from other address sources, and ensures it won’t “mess up” your own contacts in the process.

“There will be a base level of features that are available for free, but our goal is to build a sustainable (and profitable) company that delivers value to customers,” says Kumar. “The full functionality will come with paid subscription to HiHello. We’re never going to sell users data or rely on advertising and such. We’re not ready to talk about pricing and other details just yet, as we’re still in build mode.”

Kumar says he doesn’t want to make the same mistake he did with CardMunch. Instead, he wants the company to be sustainable, “so that we never have to sell HiHello to an acquirer who will then proceed to ruin the service and kill it.”

Yep, that LinkedIn deal still stings, it seems… Hopefully HiHello will meet a better fate.

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Mon, 18 Feb 2019 20:15:57 +0000
HiHello raises $2.5 million to finally fix contact management

In addition to competing for smart speaker market share, Google and Amazon are also competing for developer mindshare in the voice app ecosystem. On this front, Amazon has soared ahead — the number of available voice skills for Alexa devices has grown to top 80,000 the company recently announced. According to a new third-party analysis from Voicebot, Google is trailing that by a wide margin with its own voice apps, called Google Assistant Actions, which total 4,253 in the U.S. as of January 2019.

For comparison, 56,750 of Amazon Alexa’s total 80,000 skills are offered in the U.S.

The report notes that the number of Google Assistant Actions have grown 2.5 times over the past year — which is slightly faster growth than seen on Amazon Alexa, whose skill count grew 2.2 times during the same period. But the total is a much smaller number, so growth percentages may not be as relevant here.

In January 2018, there were 1,719 total Google Assistant Actions in the U.S., the report said. In 2017, the number was in the low hundreds in the beginning of the year, and reached 724 by October 2017.

Voicebot also examined which categories of voice apps were popular on Google Assistant platforms.

It found that three of the 18 categories accounted for more than one-third of all Google Assistant Actions: Education & Reference; Games & Fun; and Kids & Family.

The Education category topped the list with more than 15 percent of all Actions, while Games & Fun was 11.07 percent and Kids & Family was 9.29 percent.

Local and Weather were the least popular.

On Alexa, the top categories differ slightly. Though Games & Fun is popular on Google, its Alexa equivalent — Games & Trivia — is the No. 1 most popular category, accounting for 21 percent of all skills. Education was second most popular at around 14 percent.

It’s interesting that these two top drivers for voice apps are reversed on the two platforms.

That could indicate that Alexa is seen to be the more “fun” platform, or one that’s more oriented toward use by families and gaming. Amazon certainly became aware of the trend toward voice gaming, and fanned the flames by making games the first category it paid developers to work on by way of direct payments. That likely encouraged more developers to enter the space, and subsequently helped boost the number of games — and types of gaming experiences — available for Alexa.

Voicebot’s report rightly raises the question as to whether or not the raw skill count even matters, though.

After all, many of the Alexa skills offered today are of low quality, or more experimental attempts from developers testing out the platform. Others are just fairly basic — the voice app equivalent of third-party flashlight apps for iPhone before Apple built that feature into iOS. For example, there now are a handful of skills that turn on the light on Echo speakers so you can have a nightlight by way of the speaker’s blue ring.

But even if these early efforts sometimes fall short, it does matter that Alexa is the platform developers are thinking about, as it’s an indication of platform commitment and an investment on developers’ part. Google, on the other hand, is powering a lot of its Assistant’s capabilities itself, leaning heavily on its Knowledge Base to answer users’ questions, while also leveraging its ability to integrate with Google’s larger suite of apps and services, as well as its other platforms, like Android.

In time, Google Assistant may challenge Alexa further by capitalizing on geographic expansions, but for the time being, Alexa is ahead on smart speakers as well as, it now seems, on content.

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Mon, 18 Feb 2019 16:54:46 +0000
Google Assistant Actions up 2.5x in 2018 to reach 4,253 in the US

Perhaps hoping to distract from Greenpeace’s latest report on its “dirty cloud,” Amazon this morning announced a new environmental commitment, focused on reducing its carbon footprint. The company says it aims to reach 50 percent of all Amazon shipments with net zero carbon by 2030.

The company is calling this program “Shipment Zero.” Details on this long-term project weren’t yet available, but Amazon says it plans to share its company-wide carbon footprint “along with related goals and programs,” at a later date. That seems to indicate Amazon will offer an update on the progress of its other sustainability goals, as well.

It’s important for Amazon to be transparent on these plans, as the size of its business means its impact to the environment, energy consumption and, ultimately climate change, is significant.

The company today runs programs including Frustration-Free Packaging and Ship in Own Container, and has a network of solar and wind farms, solar on its fulfillment center rooftops and investments in the circular economy the company noted in the announcement. It said it employs more than 200 scientists, engineers and product designers who are dedicated to developing new ways to leverage Amazon’s scale for the “good of the customers and the planet.”

For example, Amazon has been able to pressure suppliers to reduce their environmental impact with the frustration-free packaging and ship in own container programs.

But Amazon doesn’t have the cleanest environmental record, according to Greenpeace.

The organization dinged the internet giant only days ago for failing to deliver on its commitment to shifting to renewable energy. Its new report said Amazon’s data centers in Virginia are powered by only 12 percent renewable energy, compared with Facebook’s 37 percent and Microsoft’s 34 percent.

In-between the lines of this morning’s news, Amazon briefly addressed the Greenpeace report.

“Amazon has a long-term goal to power our global infrastructure using 100 percent renewable energy, and we are making solid progress,” its corporate blog post read.

Amazon did, however, offer a longer statement to Windpower Engineering shortly after the report’s publication, claiming Greenpeace’s data was inaccurate. In particular, it pointed out that the report had failed to highlight AWS and Amazon’s investment in solar projects in Virginia.

Amazon says it will offer more details on Shipment Zero and its other programs later this year.

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Mon, 18 Feb 2019 16:04:47 +0000
Amazon aims to make half of its shipments carbon neutral by 2030

Apple this morning announced a new partnership designed to train more people to code using its own programming language, Swift. The company says it’s now working with the Oakland-based nonprofit organization Dream Corps on the initiative, which will see Apple providing technology along with curriculum guidance, professional support and advocacy to individuals in middle and high schools, college and beyond.

The nonprofit currently operates its own learn-to-code program called #YesWeCode, which has graduated 100 people to date and placed around 60 percent in tech jobs. Its long-term goal is to help 100,000 young people from underrepresented backgrounds to be able to train for jobs in tech.

“I see Dream Corps as a Peace Corps for the American Dream,” said CEO Vien Truong, in a statement. Truong joined the organization in 2015, and is herself the youngest of 11 children born to an immigrant couple who migrated from Vietnam in the 1970s, Apple also noted.

“It’s about making sure that we can help support people who lived or grew up in communities like mine. And this partnership with Apple will help unlock the untapped genius and talent within those communities, which will allow a new generation to achieve their dreams,” she added.

Dream Corps is now working with the Mayor’s Office and City of Oakland to find a location for a dedicated space to support the program with Apple and other workforce development initiatives. Apple says it’s expected to launch its program later this year in the Bay Area.

Apple’s investment in programming training and development is part of its larger Community Education Initiative. But partnerships like this aren’t the only way Apple is pushing people to learn to code with Swift.

Since the language’s introduction in 2014, Apple has rolled out several programs and tools aimed at helping introduce more people to Swift, including the 2016 launch of kids coding app Swift Playgrounds; expansions of its own “Everyone Can Code” program across the U.S. and elsewhere in the world; the addition of free coding sessions at its retail stores; and it has offered educational tools, software and curriculum for teachers.

For Apple, all of this is about ensuring there’s a new generation of developers learning its tools and Swift, in order to develop new apps for its platforms, iOS, macOS, watchOS and tvOS.

At last year’s WWDC event, Apple CEO Tim Cook said there were 20 million registered developers on iOS who collectively made about $100 billion in revenues, while the App Store saw some 500 million visitors per week.

As more of Apple’s business shifts to its growing Services business instead of just iPhone sales, it’s critical to ensure the developer pipeline remains open and accessible.

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