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May 26, 2019
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Google’s new look for mobile search results puts site owners and publishers first

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Google today unveiled a new look for its mobile search results which gives sites a way to showcase their own branding, instead of looking like every other blue link. Before, the search results were blue and the source — a publisher’s site, for example — would appear below in a smaller, green font. Now, it’s the publisher who gets top billing. With the refresh, the source for the search result appears on top and includes the site’s own icon.

The revamp is subtle, but one that will likely please publishers as it gives them a way to stand out. After all, web searchers who are already familiar with the publisher’s site may choose to click through (or rather, tap through) to their link out of a personal preference — even if it’s further down on the results page.

In addition, the website branding can help web searchers better understand where the information is coming from — like an official site or well-known news publication, for example.

The update also impacts how Google Search ads appear.

Before, the word “Ad” would display in a small green box ahead of the source link. Now, the word “Ad” appears in a bolded, black font where the website icon would otherwise be. It’s a bit less noticeable that the top search results link is an ad because your eyes are drawn to the blue link — and because the word “Ad” no longer has a box around it.

Google says the new design will help it prepare for the search changes ahead as it enables the company to add more action buttons and previews to the search result cards, while still retaining attribution back to the source.

The company recently announced some of its plans for new search features at Google I/O earlier this month, including AR in search results, as well as better news coverage and support for podcast search. The latter will offer links to listen right in the search results as well as tools to save the podcast to play later.

In the meantime, site owners and publishers who want to customize their icon for their organic search listings can do so here.

Google says this new design is rolling out first to mobile users over the next few days.

Leak reveals Uber’s $9.99 unlimited delivery Eats Pass

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What’s the cord-cutting equivalent to ditching your kitchen? Uber’s upcoming subscription to unlimited free food delivery. Uber is preparing to launch the $9.99 per month Uber Eats Pass, according to code hidden in Uber’s Android app.

The subscription would waive Uber’s service fee that’s typically 15 percent of your order cost. Given that’s often $5 or more, users stand to save a lot if they order in frequently. But Uber could still earn money on menu item markups, cover costs with a flat order fee that protects against someone ordering a single taco, and most importantly, build loyalty and scale at a time of intense food delivery competition.

The Uber Eats Pass was first spotted by Jane Manchun Wong, the notorious reverse engineering specialist who’s become a frequent TechCrunch tipster. She managed to generate screenshots from Uber’s Android app code the reveals a prototype of the feature. “Get free delivery, any restaurant, any time” is says, showing the amount of money you could have or already saved.

A Uber spokesperson did not dispute the legitimacy of the findings and told TechCrunch “We’re always thinking about new ways to enhance the Eats experience.” They declined to provide further details, which could hint that a launch is imminent but some details are still subject to change. For now we don’t know exactly what perks come with an Eats Pass or where it will be launching first.

At $9.99 per month, the Uber Eats Pass would cost the same and work similarly to Postmates Unlimited and DoorDash DashPass. If they all seem like good deals, you see why they’re less about immediate revenue and more about customer lock-in. You’re a lot less likely to order GrubHub or Caviar if you’ve already pre-paid to cover your Uber Eats delivery costs. And whichever apps emerge from this battle will have instituted the scale and steady behavior to raise prices or just enjoy large lifetime value from each subscriber.

Exploring new business opportunities could help perk up Uber’s share price which closed at $41.50 today two weeks after IPOing at an opening price of $42. There are fears that intense competition across both ride sharing and food delivery could make for an expensive road ahead for the newly public company. Any way it can gain an edge on its rivals keep users from straying to them is important. The logistics giant is already experimenting with allowing restaurants to offer discounts in exchange for promoted placement in the app, which is the first step to Uber becoming an ads company where businesses pay for extra exposure.

If Uber combined Eats Pass with its car service subscription Ride Passes, you have the foundation for a sort of Uber Prime experience — one where you pay an upfront subscription fee that scores you perks and discounts but also makes you likely to spend a lot more on Uber. That bundle could be even more central to Uber than Amazon, which has few direct rivals in the west. People will need to eat and get around for the foreseeable future. Subsidizing loyalty now could be costly in the short-term, but poise Uber for years of lucrative business down the line.

Instagram’s IGTV copies TikTok’s AI, Snapchat’s design

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Instagram conquered Stories, but it’s losing the battle for the next video formats. TikTok is blowing up with an algorithmically suggested vertical one-at-a-time feed featuring videos of users remixing each other’s clips. Snapchat Discover’s 2 x infinity grid has grown into a canvas for multi-media magazines, themed video collections, and premium mobile TV shows.

Instagram’s IGTV…feels like a flop in comparison. Launched a year ago, it’s full of crudely cropped & imported viral trash from around the web. The long-form video hub that lives inside both a homescreen button in Instagram as well as a standalone app has failed to host lengthier must-see original vertical content. Sensor Tower estimates that the IGTV app has just 4.2 million installs worldwide with just 7,700 new ones per day — implying less than half a percent of Instagram’s billion-plus users have downloaded it. IGTV doesn’t rank on the overall charts and hangs low at #191 on the US – Photo & Video app charts according to App Annie.

Now Instagram has quietly overhauled the design of IGTV’s space inside its main app to crib what’s working from its two top competitors. The new design showed up in last week’s announcements for Instagram Explore’s new Shopping and IGTV discovery experiences, but the company declined to answer questions about it.

IGTV has ditched its category-based navigation system’s tabs like “For You”, “Following”, “Popular”, and “Continue Watching” for just one central feed of algorithmically suggested videos — much like TikTok. This affords a more lean-back, ‘just show me something fun’ experience that relies on Instagram’s AI to analyze your behavior and recommend content instead of putting the burden of choice on the viewer.

IGTV has also ditched its awkward horizontal scrolling design that always kept a clip playing in the top half of the screen. Now you’ll scroll vertically through a 2 x infinity grid of recommended clips in a what looks just like Snapchat Discover feed. Once you get past a first video that auto-plays up top, you’ll find a full-screen grid of things to watch. You’ll only see the horizontal scroller in the standalone IGTV app, or if you tap into an IGTV video, and then tap the Browse button for finding a next clip while the last one plays up top.

Instagram seems to be trying to straddle the designs of its two competitors. The problem is that TikTok’s one-at-a-time feed works great for punchy, short videos that get right to the point. If you’re bored after 5 second you swipe to the next. IGTV’s focus on long-form means its videos might start too slowly to grab your attention if they were auto-played full-screen in the feed rather than being chosen by a viewer. But Snapchat makes the most of the two previews per row design IGTV has adopted because professional publishers take the time to make compelling cover thumbnail images promoting their content. IGTV’s focus on independent creators means fewer have labored to make great cover images, so viewers have to rely on a screenshot and caption.

Instagram is prototyping a number of other features to boost engagement across its app, as discovered by reverse engineering specialist and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. Those include options to blast a direct message to all your Close Friends at once but in individual message threads, see a divider between notifications and likes you have or haven’t seen, or post a Chat sticker to Stories that lets friends join a group message thread about that content. And to better compete with TikTok, it may let you add lyrics stickers to Stories that appear word-by-word in sync with Instagram’s licensed music soundtrack feature, and share Music Stories to Facebook.

When I spoke with Instagram co-founder and ex-CEO Kevin Systrom last year a few months after IGTV’s launch, he told me “It’s a new format. It’s different. We have to wait for people to adopt it and that takes time . . . Everything that is great starts small.”

But to grow large, IGTV needs to demonstrate how long-form portrait mode video can give us a deeper look at the nuances of the influencers and topics we care about. The company has rightfully prioritized other drives like safety and well-being with features that hide bullies and deter overuse. But my advice from August still stands despite all the ground Instagram has lost in the meantime. “Concentrate on teaching creators how to find what works on the format and incentivizing them with cash and traffic. Develop some must-see IGTV and stoke a viral blockbuster. Prove the gravity of extended, personality-driven vertical video.” Until the content is right, it won’t matter how IGTV surfaces it.

The state of the smartphone

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Earlier this month, Canalys used the word “freefall” to describe its latest reporting. Global shipments fell 6.8% year over year. At 313.9 million, they were at their lowest level in nearly half a decade.

Of the major players, Apple was easily the hardest hit, falling 23.2% year over year. The firm says that’s the “largest single-quarter decline in the history of the iPhone.” And it’s not an anomaly, either. It’s part of a continued slide for the company, seen most recently in its Q1 earnings, which found the handset once again missing Wall Street expectations. That came on the tale of a quarter in which Apple announced it would no longer be reporting sales figures.

Tim Cook has placed much of the iPhone’s slide at the feet of a disappointing Chinese market. It’s been a tough nut for the company to crack, in part due to a slowing national economy. But there’s more to it than that. Trade tensions and increasing tariffs have certainly played a role — and things look like they’ll be getting worse before they get better on that front, with a recent bump from a 10 to 25% tariff bump on $60 billion in U.S. goods.

It’s important to keep in mind here that many handsets, regardless of country of origin, contain both Chinese and American components. On the U.S. side of the equation, that includes nearly ubiquitous elements like Qualcomm processors and a Google-designed operating system. But the causes of a stagnating (and now declining) smartphone market date back well before the current administration began sowing the seeds of a trade war with China.

Image via Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty ImagesThe underlying factors are many. For one thing, smartphones simply may be too good. It’s an odd notion, but an intense battle between premium phone manufacturers may have resulted in handsets that are simply too good to warrant the long-standing two-year upgrade cycle. NPD Executive Director Brad Akyuz tells TechCrunch that the average smartphone flagship user tends to hold onto their phones for around 30 months — or exactly two-and-a-half years.

That’s a pretty dramatic change from the days when smartphone purchases were driven almost exclusively by contracts. Smartphone upgrades here in the States were driven by the standard 24-month contract cycle. When one lapsed, it seemed all but a given that the customer would purchase the latest version of the heavily subsidized contract.

But as smartphone build quality has increased, so too have prices, as manufacturers have raised margins in order to offset declining sales volume. “All of a sudden, these devices became more expensive, and you can see that average selling price trend going through the roof,” says Akyuz. “It’s been crazy, especially on the high end.”

Minecraft Earth makes the whole real world your very own blocky realm

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When your game tops a hundred million players, your thoughts naturally turn to doubling that number. That’s the case with the creators, or rather stewards, of Minecraft at Microsoft, where the game has become a product category unto itself. And now it is making its biggest leap yet — to a real-world augmented reality game in the vein of Pokemon GO, called Minecraft Earth.

Announced today but not playable until summer (on iOS and Android) or later, MCE (as I’ll call it) is full-on Minecraft, reimagined to be mobile and AR-first. So what is it? As executive producer Jesse Merriam put it succinctly: “Everywhere you go, you see Minecraft. And everywhere you go, you can play Minecraft.”

Yes, yes — but what is it? Less succinctly put, MCE is like other real-world based AR games in that it lets you travel around a virtual version of your area, collecting items and participating in mini-games. Where it’s unlike other such games is that it’s built on top of Minecraft: Bedrock Edition, meaning it’s not some offshoot or mobile cash-in; this is straight-up Minecraft, with all the blocks, monsters, and redstone switches you desire, but in AR format. You collect stuff so you can build with it and share your tiny, blocky worlds with friends.

That introduces some fun opportunities and a few non-trivial limitations. Let’s run down what MCE looks like — verbally, at least, since Microsoft is being exceedingly stingy with real in-game assets.

There’s a map, of course

Because it’s Minecraft Earth, you’ll inhabit a special Minecraftified version of the real world, just as Pokemon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite put a layer atop existing streets and landmarks.

The look is blocky to be sure but not so far off the normal look that you won’t recognize it. It uses OpenStreetMaps data, including annotated and inferred information about districts, private property, safe and unsafe places, and so on — which will be important later.

The fantasy map is filled with things to tap on, unsurprisingly called tappables. These can be a number of things: resources in the form of treasure chests, mobs, and adventures.

Chests are filled with blocks, naturally, adding to your reserves of cobblestone, brick, and so on, all the different varieties appearing with appropriate rarity.

Mobs are animals like those you might normally run across in the Minecraft wilderness: pigs, chickens, squid, and so on. You snag them like items, and they too have rarities, and not just cosmetic ones. The team highlighted a favorite of theirs, the muddy pig, which when placed down will stop at nothing to get to mud and never wants to leave, or a cave chicken that lays mushrooms instead of eggs. Yes, you can breed them.

Last are adventures, which are tiny AR instances that let you collect a resource, fight some monsters, and so on. For example you might find a crack in the ground that, when mined, vomits forth a volume of lava you’ll have to get away from, and then inside the resulting cave are some skeletons guarding a treasure chest. The team said they’re designing a huge number of these encounters.

Importantly, all these things, chests, mobs, and encounters, are shared between friends. If I see a chest, you see a chest — and the chest will have the same items. And in an AR encounter, all nearby players are brought in, and can contribute and collect the reward in shared fashion.

And it’s in these AR experiences and the “build plates” you’re doing it all for that the game really shines.

The AR part

“If you want to play Minecraft Earth without AR, you have to turn it off,” said Torfi Olafsson, the game’s director. This is not AR-optional, as with Niantic’s games. This is AR-native, and for good and ill the only way you can really play is by using your phone as a window into another world. Fortunately it works really well.

First, though, let me explain the whole build plate thing. You may have been wondering how these collectibles and mini-games amount to Minecraft. They don’t — they’re just the raw materials for it.

Whenever you feel like it, you can bring out what the team calls a build plate, which is a special item, a flat square that you virtually put down somewhere in the real world — on a surface like the table or floor, for instance — and it transforms into a small, but totally functional, Minecraft world.

In this little world you can build whatever you want, or dig into the ground, build an inverted palace for your cave chickens or create a paradise for your mud-loving pigs — whatever you want. Like Minecraft itself, each build plate is completely open-ended. Well, perhaps that’s the wrong phrase — they’re actually quite closely bounded, since the world only exists out to the edge of the plate. But they’re certainly yours to play with however you want.

Notably all the usual Minecraft rules are present — this isn’t Minecraft Lite, just a small game world. Water and lava flow how they should, blocks have all the qualities they should, and mobs all act as they normally would.

The magic part comes when you find that you can instantly convert your build plate from miniature to life-size. Now the castle you’ve been building on the table is three stories tall in the park. Your pigs regard you silently as you walk through the halls and admire the care and attention to detail with which you no doubt assembled them. It really is a trip.

It doesn’t really look like this but you get the idea.

In the demo, I played with a few other members of the press, we got to experience a couple build plates and adventures at life-size (technically actually 3/4 life size — the 1 block to 1 meter scale turned out to be a little daunting in testing). It was absolute chaos, really, everyone placing blocks and destroying them and flooding the area and putting down chickens. But it totally worked.

The system uses Microsoft’s new Azure Spatial Anchor system, which quickly and continuously fixed our locations in virtual space. It updated remarkably quickly, with no lag, showing the location and orientation of the other players in real time. Meanwhile the game world itself was rock-solid in space, smooth to enter and explore, and rarely bugging out (and that only in understandable circumstances). That’s great news considering how heavily the game leans on the multiplayer experience.

The team said they’d tested up to 10 players at once in an AR instance, and while there’s technically no limit, there’s sort of a physical limit in how many people can fit in the small space allocated to an adventure or around a tabletop. Don’t expect any giant 64-player raids, but do expect to take down hordes of spiders with three or four friends.

Pick(ax)ing their battles

In choosing to make the game the way they’ve made it, the team naturally created certain limitations and risks. You Wouldn’t want, for example, an adventure icon to pop up in the middle of the highway.

For exactly that reason the team spent a lot of work making the map metadata extremely robust. Adventures won’t spawn in areas like private residences or yards, though of course simple collectibles might. But because you’re able to reach things up to 70 meters away, it’s unlikely you’ll have to knock on someone’s door and say there’s a cave chicken in their pool and you’d like to touch it, please.

Furthermore adventures will not spawn in areas like streets or difficult to reach areas. The team said they worked very hard making it possible for the engine to recognize places that are not only publicly accessible, but safe and easy to access. Think sidewalks and parks.

Another limitation is that, as an AR game, you move around the real world. But in Minecraft verticality is an important part of the gameplay. Unfortunately the simple truth is that in the real world you can’t climb virtual stairs or descend into a virtual cave. You as a player exist on a 2D plane, and can interact with but not visit places above and below that plane. (An exception of course is on a build plate, where in miniature you can fly around it freely by moving your phone).

That’s a shame for people who can’t move around easily, though you can pick up and rotate the build plate to access different sides. Weapons and tools also have infinite range, eliminating a potential barrier to fun and accessibility.

What will keep people playing?

In Pokemon GO, there’s the drive to catch ’em all. In Wizards Unite, you’ll want to advance the story and your skills. What’s the draw with Minecraft Earth? Well, what’s the draw in Minecraft? You can build stuff. And now you can build stuff in AR on your phone.

The game isn’t narrative-driven, and although there is some (unspecified) character progression, for the most part the focus is on just having fun doing and making stuff in Minecraft. Like a set of LEGO blocks, a build plate and your persistent inventory simply make for a lively sandbox.

Admittedly that doesn’t sound like it carries the same addictive draw of Pokemon, but the truth is Minecraft kind of breaks the rules like that. Millions of people play this game all the time just to make stuff and show that stuff to other people. Although you’ll be limited in how you can share to start, there will surely be ways to explore popular builds in the future.

And how will it make money? The team basically punted on that question — they’re fortunately in a position where they don’t have to worry about that yet. Minecraft is one of the biggest games of all time and a big money-maker — it’s probably worth the cost just to keep people engaged with the world and community.

MCE seems to me like a delightful thing but one that must be appreciated on its own merits. A lack of screenshots and gameplay video isn’t doing a lot to help you here, I admit. Trust me when I say it looks great, plays well, and seems fundamentally like a good time for all ages.

A few other stray facts I picked up:

  • Regions will roll out gradually but it will be available in all the same languages as Vanilla at launch
  • Yes, there will be skins (and they’ll carry over from your existing account)
  • There will be different sizes and types of build plates
  • There’s crafting, but no 3×3 crafting grid (?!)
  • You can report griefers and so on, but the way the game is structured it should be an issue
  • The AR engine creates and uses a point cloud but doesn’t like take pictures of your bedroom
  • Content is added to the map dynamically, and there will be hot spots but emptier areas will fill up if you’re there
  • It leverages AR Core and AR Kit, naturally
  • The Hololens version of Minecraft we saw a while back is a predecessor “more spiritually than technically”
  • Adventures that could be scary to kids have a special sign
  • “Friends” can steal blocks from your build plate if you’re playing together (or donate them)

Sound fun? Sign up for the beta here.

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