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The original Pixel Buds weren’t very good. No way around it. Here’s a thing I wrote about them in a review titled “A disappointing debut for Google’s Pixel Buds“: As recently as a couple of years ago, they would have been a contender for the most compelling Bluetooth headphones on the market. But given the strides much of the competition has made, they mostly land with a dull thud.”

And we weren’t alone. Google’s first attempt at wireless earbuds were met with a pretty resounding “meh,” when they arrived in 2017. It’s probably an understatement to suggest that the company went back to the drawing board on this one. The line required a rethink from the ground up.

Google teases fully wireless Pixel Buds, arriving Spring 2020

It took another two and a half years to deliver their successor. And Google seemingly sought to wipe the slate clean entirely, even going so far as not listing a “2” in the name. The new Pixel Buds are simply Pixel Buds. Anything else you remember with that name was clearly a figment of your own imagination.

Those original Pixel Buds that definitely didn’t exist already felt outdated when they hit the market. And while a clean slate was certainly required, Google didn’t do itself any favors by waiting that long. The landscape for wireless earbuds has grown by leaps and bounds in that time. The market has been saturated and the products feel more of a necessity than a luxury.

Six months after their introduction at a Pixel event in New York, the Buds are finally available for purchase in the U.S. — in Clearly White, at least. The other, more fun colors — Oh So Orange, Almost Black and Quite Mint — are not yet on the market. A minor quibble for those who have waited this long for a decent pair of Google headphones.

Color issues aside, I’m pretty into the design language here. It feels fresh in a way most earbuds don’t — the case in particular. It would have been easy to knock-off Apple or Samsung or any number of competitors, but the new Pixel Buds manage to pull off a fresh aesthetic built on top of the same basic concept of charging case that’s essentially universal across the board, at this point.

A disappointing debut for Google’s Pixel Buds

I actually prefer the matte black to the AirPod gloss. It’s better to look at and feels nice to the touch. Jury’s still out on how easily it will scratch. Full disclosure, I haven’t really left my apartment since the Buds arrived — because, well, life. The case is ovular — a flattened egg, if you will. The top of the case opens with an easy flip. There’s a black accent running around the lid, easily showing where to stick your thumb.

The case is fairly long in relation to the Buds themselves, owing, one imagines, to the size of the battery. All told, the Buds should get 24 hours with the case. There’s a USB-C port on the bottom (they’re wirelessly chargable, too) and a pairing button on the rear. The charging light flips on when open — white for full, orange for low battery.

Flipping the case open with the Buds in will also trigger a pairing dialog box on Pixel phones and other handsets running Android 6.0 and up. It’s a super simple pairing process — one akin to what you’ll get with AirPods on iOS. And once the headphones are registered to you, the box will pop up with the info on your other devices.

The Buds themselves are also aesthetically distinct from most of the competition. They feature a round button surface sporting a small, engraved Google “G.” The surface gives you space for the touch controls, which are as follows:

  • Tap to play/pause media, answer calls
  • Double tap to skip track, end/reject call, stop the Assistant
  • Triple tap to rewind/go to previous track
  • Swipe forward to increase volume
  • Swipe backward to decrease volume

The Buds felt good in my ears with the default medium tips. There are a larger and smaller pair in the box, as well, so you can play around to get a better fit. They’ve been in for the better part of four hours and my ears feel fine — not something I can say with every pair of earbuds I’ve tested. They’re not too large or heavy, so they don’t pull on or press the ear. There’s also a small, removable silicone wing at the top to keep them in place.

The battery on the buds is a bit lacking. After the aforementioned amount of time, I just got a low battery notification on the right bud. Curiously, they’ve run down at different rates. The right is at 14%, the left at 34%. Time to stick them back in the case for a recharge.

The sound is decent. Not the best sounding pair I’ve tried and certainly not the worst. I’d say they’re pretty middle of the pack in terms of the price point. If audio is (understandably) you’re biggest concern, I’d recommend opting for a pricier model from Sony, Sennheiser or Apple’s AirPods Pro. There’s no active noise canceling here, either. The “Hey Google” microphone array works as advertised whether activated by voice or a long press with a finger. The connection was mostly solid. I was able to keep the music playing while walking into another room, though I did hit a few rough patches here and there.

At $179, the new Pixel Buds are priced close to the middle of the pack. That feels about right. The models are a big upgrade over their disappointing predecessors, but are still a pretty middle of the road choice for Android users.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2020/04/27/googles-much-improved-pixel-buds-are-finally-here/

Microsoft today announced a slew of new products, but at the core of the release is a major change to how the company is marketing its tools and services to consumers.

Office 365, which has long been the brand for the company’s subscription service for its productivity tools like Word, Excel and Outlook, is going away. On April 21, it’ll be replaced by new Microsoft 365 plans, including new personal and family plans (for up to six people) at $6.99 and $9.99 respectively. That’s the same price as the existing Office 365 Personal and Home plans.

“We are basically evolving our subscription from — in our minds — a set of tools to solutions that help you manage across your work and life,” Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s CVP of Modern Life, Search and Devices, told me ahead of today’s announcement.

Microsoft is making similar branding changes to its business plans for Office 365. They are a bit more convoluted, with Office 365 Business Premium now called Microsoft 365 Business Standard and Microsoft 365 Business now becoming Microsoft 365 Business Premium, but for the most part, this is about branding while prices stay the same.

These new Microsoft 365 Personal and Family plans will include access to Outlook and the Office desktop apps for Windows and macOS, 1 terabyte of OneDrive storage per person (including unlimited access to the more secure OneDrive Personal Vault service) and 50 gigabytes of Outlook.com email storage, Skype call recording and 60 minutes of Skype landline and mobile phone calls.

And since this is now Microsoft 365 and not Office 365, you can also get Windows 10 technical support with the subscription, as well as additional security features to protect you from phishing and malware attacks.

More than 37 million people currently have personal Office 365 subscriptions and chances are these lower prices will bring more users to the platform in the long run. As Mehdi stressed, Microsoft’s free offerings aren’t going away.

But with today’s release, Microsoft isn’t just changing the branding and launching these new plans, it’s also highlighting quite a few new capabilities in its various applications that are either launching today or in the coming months.

Microsoft Teams gets a personal edition

The highlight of this launch, especially given the current situation around COVID-19, is likely the announcement of Teams for consumers. Teams is already one of Microsoft’s fastest growing products for businesses with 44 million people using it. But in its efforts to help people bridge their work and personal lives, it will now launch a new Teams edition for consumers, as well.

Just like you can switch between work and personal accounts in Outlook, you will soon be able to do the same in Teams. The personal teams view will look a little bit different, with shared calendars for the family, access to OneDrive vaults, photo sharing, etc., but it sits on the same codebase as the business version. You’ll also be able to do video calls and shared to-do lists.

Microsoft Teams is coming to consumers — but Skype is here to stay

Better writing through AI

About a year ago, Microsoft announced that Word Online would get a new AI-powered editor that would help you write better. You can think of it as a smarter grammar checker that can fix all of your standard grammar mistakes but can also help you avoid overly complex sentences and bias in your word choices.

This editor is now the Microsoft Editor, and the company is expanding it well beyond Word. The new AI-powered service is now available in 20 languages in Word and Outlook.com — and maybe most importantly, it’ll be available as a Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome plug-in, too.

Free users will get basic spelling and grammar features, while Microsoft 365 subscribers will get a number of more advanced features like the ability to ask the editor to suggest a rewrite of a mangled sentence, a plagiarism checker, style analysis to see if your writing is unclear or too formal and access to an inclusive language critique to help you avoid unintentional bias.

If you’ve used Grammarly in the past, then a lot of this will sound familiar. Both services now offer a similar set of capabilities, but Microsoft may have an edge with its ability to rewrite sentences.

Better presentations through technology

In a similar vein, Microsoft also launched a presentation coach for PowerPoint as a limited test last September. This AI-driven feature helps you avoid filler words and other presentation no-nos.

This feature first launched in the online version of PowerPoint, with a basic set of features. Now, Microsoft 365 subscribers will get two new advanced features, too, that can help you avoid a monotone pitch that puts your audience to sleep and avoid grammar mistakes in your spoken sentences.

Currently, these are still available as a free preview to all but will become Microsoft 365-only features soon.

PowerPoint is also getting an updated Designer to help you create better presentations. It can now easily turn text into a timeline, for example, and when you add an image, it can present you with a set of potential slide layouts.

Microsoft 365 subscribers now also get access to over 8,000 images and 175 looping videos from Getty Images, as well as 300 new fonts and 2,800 new icons.

Excel + Plaid

For you spreadsheet jockeys out there, Microsoft also has some good news, especially if you want to use Excel to manage your personal budgets.

In partnership with Plaid, you can now link your bank accounts to Excel and import all of your expenses into your spreadsheets. With that, you can then categorize your spend and build your own personal Mint. This feature, dubbed “Money in Excel,” will launch in the U.S. in the coming months.

In addition, Excel is getting a lot more cloud- and AI-driven data types that now cover over 100 topics, including nutrition, movies, places, chemistry and — because why not — Pokémon. Like some of the previous features, this is an extension of the work Microsoft did on Excel in the last few years, starting with the ability to pull in stock market and geographical data.

And just like with the previous set of features, you’ll need a Microsoft 365 subscription to get access to these additional data types. Otherwise, you’ll remain restricted to the stock market and geography data types, which will become available to Office Insiders in the spring and then Personal and Family subscribers in the U.S. in the coming months.

Outlook gets more personal

Even though you may want to forget about Outlook and ignore your inbox for a while, Microsoft doesn’t. In Outlook on the web, you can now link your personal and work calendars to ensure you don’t end up with a work meeting in the middle of a personal appointment, because Chris from marketing really needs another sync meeting during your gym time even though a short email would suffice.

Outlook for Android can now summarize and read your emails aloud for you, too. This feature will roll out in the coming months.

Family Safety

While most of the new features here focus on existing applications, Microsoft is also launching one completely new app: Microsoft Family Safety. This app is coming to Microsoft 365 subscribers on iOS and Android and will bring together a set of tools that can help families manage their online activities and track the location of family members.

The app lets families manage the screen time of their kids (and maybe parents, too) across Windows, Android and Xbox, for example. Parents can also set content filters that only allow kids to download age-appropriate apps. But it also allows parents to track their kids in the real world through location tracking and even driving reports. This, as Mehdi stressed, is a feature that kids can turn off, but they’ll probably have to explain themselves to their parents then. Indeed, he stressed that a lot of what the app does is give parents a chance to have a dialog with their kids. What makes the service unique is that it works across platforms, with iOS support coming in the future.

This app is launching as a limited preview now and will be available in the coming months (I think you can spot a trend here).

Partner benefits

Mehdi noted that Microsoft is also partnering with companies like Adobe, Bark, Blinkist, Creative Live, Experian, Headspace and TeamSnap to provide Microsoft 365 subscribers with additional benefits like limited-time access to their products and services. Subscribers will get three months of free access to Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography plan, for example.

At the core of today’s updates, though, is a mission to bring a lot of the productivity tools that people know from their work life to their personal life, too, with the personal edition of Teams being the core example.

“We’re very much excited to bring this type of value — not increase the price of Office 365 — take a big step forward, and then move to this,” Mehdi said. “We think now more than ever, it is valuable for people to have the subscription service for their life that helps them make the most of their time, protects their family, lets them develop and grow. And our goal or aspiration is: Can we give you the most valuable subscription for your life? I know people value their video subscriptions and music subscriptions. Our aspiration is to provide the most valuable subscription for your life via Microsoft 365 Personal and Family.”

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2020/03/30/office-365-becomes-microsoft-365-and-gets-new-personal-and-family-plans/

With the next version of Windows 10, coming this spring, Microsoft’s Cortana digital assistant will lose a number of consumer skills around music and connected homes, as well as some third-party skills. That’s very much in line with Microsoft’s new focus for Cortana, but it may still come as a surprise to the dozens of loyal Cortana fans.

Microsoft is also turning off Cortana support in its Microsoft Launcher on Android by the end of April and on older versions of Windows that have reached their end-of-service date, which usually comes about 36 months after the original release.

cortana

As the company explained last year, it now mostly thinks of Cortana as a service for business users. The new Cortana is all about productivity, with deep integrations into Microsoft’s suite of Office tools, for example. In this context, consumer services are only a distraction, and Microsoft is leaving that market to the likes of Amazon and Google .

Because the new Cortana experience is all about Microsoft 365, the subscription service that includes access to the Office tools, email, online storage and more, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the assistant’s new feature will give you access to data from these tools, including your calendar, Microsoft To Do notes and more.

And while some consumer features are going away, Microsoft stresses that Cortana will still be able to tell you a joke, set alarms and timers, and give you answers from Bing.

For now, all of this only applies to English-speaking users in the U.S. Outside of the U.S., most of the productivity features will launch in the future.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2020/02/28/microsofts-cortana-drops-consumer-skills-as-it-refocuses-on-business-users/

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch 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 in 2019 and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019, according to App Annie’s recently released “State of Mobile” annual report. People are now spending 3 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 Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week, we look at YouTube TV’s decision to stop revenue-sharing with Apple, another mobile voting app with serious flaws, new Apple launches in coding and AR, Microsoft’s game-streaming service Project xCloud arrival on iOS and other notable app news and trends, including WhatsApp’s big 2 billion user milestone, and more.

Headlines

YouTube TV fights back against Apple’s cut of in-app subscription revenue

This week, YouTube emailed customers subscribed to its YouTube TV service by way of Apple’s in-app purchases to let them know that this subscription offering will be discontinued starting on March 13, 2020. Current subscribers will have their subscription canceled automatically on their billing date after March 13, the letter said.

This is a pretty severe way for Google to end its subscription revenue-sharing with Apple, however. Most companies that decide to shut off in-app subscriptions still continue to honor those from existing subscribers — they just stop selling to new customers. In YouTube TV’s case, it’s actually ending its relationship with all its customers on Apple devices with the hope they’ll return and resubscribe. That’s quite a risk, given that YouTube TV is not the only streaming TV service out there, and customers getting their subscription canceled may take this opportunity to shop around. The timing is also poorly thought-out, given that YouTube TV just picked up new subs following Sony’s PlayStation Vue shutdown — and now it’s kicking them out.

The move makes Google the latest company to rebel against Apple’s 30% cut of all in-app payments (which drops to 15% in year two). A growing number of app publishers are refusing to share a cut of their revenue with Apple — even saying that Apple’s decision to charge this fee is anti-competitive. For example, Spotify believes Apple’s fee makes it more difficult to compete with Apple’s built-in music service, and has raised the issue repeatedly to regulators. Netflix also stopped paying the “Apple tax” over a year ago.

Mobile voting app Voatz, used by several states, was filled with security flaws

Above: Voatz, via The NYT

Last week, we looked at how a smartphone app meant to tabulate votes from the caucuses really screwed things up in Iowa. This week, MIT researchers took a look at mobile voting app Voatz, which has been used to tally votes for federal elections in parts of West Virginia, Oregon, Utah and Washington as part of various mobile voting pilot programs. The researchers found the app was riddled with security flaws that would let attackers monitor votes or even change ballots or block them without users’ knowledge. Attackers could also create a tainted paper trail, making a reliable audit impossible — despite Voatz’s promise of using blockchain technology to increase security. One security expert, speaking to VICE, called the app “sloppy” and filled with “elementary” mistakes.

Coming on the heels of the Iowa caucus mobile voting disaster, this latest news delivers another huge blow to the promise of mobile voting in the U.S.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2020/02/15/this-week-in-apps-youtube-tv-cancels-apples-rev-share-more-bad-news-for-mobile-voting-whatsapp-hits-2b-users/

In early December, Spotify launched its annual personalized Wrapped playlist with its users’ most-streamed sounds of 2019. That has become a bit of a tradition and isn’t necessarily anything new, but for 2019, it also gave users a look back at how they used Spotify over the last decade. Because this was quite a large job, Spotify gave us a bit of a look under the covers of how it generated these lists for its ever-growing number of free and paid subscribers.

It’s no secret that Spotify is a big Google Cloud Platform user. Back in 2016, the music streaming service publicly said that it was going to move to Google Cloud, after all, and in 2018, it disclosed that it would spend at least $450 million on its Google Cloud infrastructure in the following three years.

It was also back in 2018, for that year’s Wrapped, that Spotify ran the largest Google Cloud Dataflow job ever run on the platform, a service the company started experimenting with a few years earlier. “Back in 2015, we built and open-sourced a big data processing Scala API for Apache Beam and Google Cloud Dataflow called Scio,” Spotify’s VP of Engineering Tyson Singer told me. “We chose Dataflow over Dataproc because it scales with less operational overhead and Dataflow fit with our expected needs for streaming processing. Now we have a great open-source toolset designed and optimized for Dataflow, which in addition to being used by most internal teams, is also used outside of Spotify.”

For Wrapped 2019, which includes the annual and decadal lists, Spotify ran a job that was five times larger than in 2018 — but it did so at three-quarters of the cost. Singer attributes this to his team’s familiarity with the platform. “With this type of global scale, complexity is a natural consequence. By working closely with Google Cloud’s engineering teams and specialists and drawing learnings from previous years, we were able to run one of the most sophisticated Dataflow jobs ever written.”

Still, even with this expertise, the team couldn’t just iterate on the full data set as it figured out how to best analyze the data and use it to tell the most interesting stories to its users. “Our jobs to process this would be large and complex; we needed to decouple the complexity and processing in order to not overwhelm Google Cloud Dataflow,” Singer said. “This meant that we had to get more creative when it came to going from idea, to data analysis, to producing unique stories per user, and we would have to scale this in time and at or below cost. If we weren’t careful, we risked being wasteful with resources and slowing down downstream teams.”

To handle this workload, Spotify not only split its internal teams into three groups (data processing, client-facing and design, and backend systems), but also split the data processing jobs into smaller pieces. That marked a very different approach for the team. “Last year Spotify had one huge job that used a specific feature within Dataflow called “Shuffle.” The idea here was that having a lot of data, we needed to sort through it, in order to understand who did what. While this is quite powerful, it can be costly if you have large amounts of data.”

This year, the company’s engineers minimized the use of Shuffle by using Google Cloud’s Bigtable as an intermediate storage layer. “Bigtable was used as a remediation tool between Dataflow jobs in order for them to process and store more data in a parallel way, rather than the need to always regroup the data,” said Singer. “By breaking down our Dataflow jobs into smaller components — and reusing core functionality — we were able to speed up our jobs and make them more resilient.”

Singer attributes at least a part of the cost savings to this technique of using Bigtable, but he also noted that the team decomposed the problem into data collection, aggregation and data transformation jobs, which it then split into multiple separate jobs. “This way, we were not only able to process more data in parallel, but be more selective about which jobs to rerun, keeping our costs down.”

Many of the techniques the engineers on Singer’s teams developed are currently in use across Spotify. “The great thing about how Wrapped works is that we are able to build out more tools to understand a user, while building a great product for them,” he said. “Our specialized techniques and expertise of Scio, Dataflow and big data processing, in general, is widely used to power Spotify’s portfolio of products.”

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2020/02/18/how-spotify-ran-the-largest-google-dataflow-job-ever-for-wrapped-2019/

Here is a small but useful new feature in Google Chrome: global media controls that allow you to control from a single widget all of the audio and video sources in your current tabs. With this, you can switch to the next song from your favorite web-based music streaming service, start and stop a YouTube video that’s playing in the background or switch back and forth between what’s playing in multiple tabs without having to hunt around your browser for the right tab. It’s not going to rock your world, but it’s a useful new feature.

Google started these media controls last year when it enabled it for Chromebook users, but it’s now live in the stable channel for all Chrome users across desktop platforms.

This seems to work with as many media tabs as you can handle, though from what I have seen, Google’s own services like YouTube and YouTube Music tend to get more extensive control options with thumbnails while Spotify only showed three controls to go back, skip to the next song and pause.

To give it a try, simply play media in any of your tabs and look for the new media control icon to pop up to the right of the URL field.

It’s worth noting that the new Chromium-based Microsoft Edge, which came out of preview yesterday, features the exact same media controls (down to the icon) in its pre-release channels, though they haven’t made it into the stable release yet. Firefox does not currently have a similar built-in feature.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2020/01/16/chrome-gets-global-media-controls/

Program developed by Google Health was tested on mammograms of UK and US women

An artificial intelligence program has been developed that is better at spotting breast cancer in mammograms than expert radiologists.

The AI outperformed the specialists by detecting cancers that the radiologists missed in the images, while ignoring features they falsely flagged as possible tumours.

If the program proves its worth in clinical trials, the software, developed by Google Health, could make breast screening more effective and ease the burden on health services such as the NHS where radiologists are in short supply.

This is a great demonstration of how these technologies can enable and augment the human expert, said Dominic King, the UK lead at Google Health. The AI system is saying I think there may be an issue here, do you want to check?

About one in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Screening programmes catch more than 18,000 cases each year in England alone, but tumours are still missed, giving false negative results, and some women are wrongly suspected of having cancer, in false positives that lead to unnecessary anxiety and invasive biopsies.

Googles AI program analyses mammograms in three different ways before combing the results to produce an overall risk score. The scientists trained the program on mammograms from more than 76,000 women in the UK and 15,000 women in the US. To see how well it worked, they then asked it to assess nearly 30,000 new mammograms from UK and US women who either had biopsy-confirmed cancer, or no signs of cancer during follow-up at least a year later.

In the US, women who go for breast cancer screening tend to be seen every one or two years and their mammograms are examined by a single radiologist. When compared with the US system, the AI produced 5.7% fewer false positives and 9.4% fewer false negatives.

In the UK, women are screened less often, typically once every three years, but their mammograms are reviewed by two radiologists, and sometimes a third in case of disagreement. The AI performed only marginally better than the UK system, reducing false positives by 1.2% and false negatives by 2.7%.

The results suggest the AI could boost the quality of breast cancer screening in the US and maintain the same level in the UK, with the AI assisting or replacing the second radiologist.

Breast cancer screening in the UK is under particular strain. The Royal College of Radiologists has identified a shortfall of at least 1,104 radiologists. In breast radiology specifically, 8% of hospital posts are unfilled, with much of the shortage due to older radiologists retiring from the NHS faster than new ones join.

Q&A

What is AI?

Artificial Intelligence has various definitions, but in general it means a program that uses data to build a model of some aspect of the world. This model is then used to make informed decisions and predictions about future events. The technology is used widely, to provide speech and face recognition, language translation, and personal recommendations on music, film and shopping sites. In the future, it could deliver driverless cars, smart personal assistants, and intelligent energy grids. AI has the potential to make organisations more effective and efficient, but the technology raises serious issues of ethics, governance, privacy and law.

Chris Kelly, a clinician scientist at Google Health, said the next major step would be a trial to assess the AI in real-world conditions. Its performance could slip when it is fed images from different mammogram systems. In the latest study, reported in Nature, nearly all of the images came from machines provided by one manufacturer.

Like the rest of the health service, breast imaging, and UK radiology more widely, is understaffed and desperate for help, said Dr Caroline Rubin, vice-president for clinical radiology at the Royal College of Radiologists. AI programs will not solve the human staffing crisis, as radiologists and imaging teams do far more than just look at scans, but they will undoubtedly help by acting as a second pair of eyes and a safety net.

It is a competitive market for developers and these programs will need to be rigorously tested and regulated first. The next step for promising products is for them to be used in clinical trials, evaluated in practice and used on patients screened in real-time, a process that will need to be overseen by the UK public health agencies that have overall responsibility for the breast screening programmes.

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UKs chief executive, said: Screening helps diagnose breast cancer at an early stage, when treatment is more likely to be successful, ensuring more people survive the disease. But it also has harms such as diagnosing cancers that would never have gone on to cause any problems and missing some cancers. This is still early stage research, but it shows how AI could improve breast cancer screening and ease pressure off the NHS.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/jan/01/ai-system-outperforms-experts-in-spotting-breast-cancer

Most in tech would agree that following the launch of Alexa and Google Home devices, the “Voice Era” is here. Voice assistant usage is at 3.3 billion right now; by 2020, half of all searches are expected to be done via voice. And with younger generations growing up on voice (55% of teens use voice search daily now), there’s no turning back.

As we’ve reported, the voice-based ad market will grow to $19 billion in the U.S. by 2022, growing the market share from the $17 billion audio ad market and the $57 billion programmatic ad market.

That means that voice shopping is also set to explode, with the volume of voice-based spending growing twenty-fold over the next few years due to voice-based virtual assistant penetration, as well as the rapid consumer adoption of home-based smart speakers, the expansion of smart homes and the growing integration of virtual assistants into cars.

That, combined with the popularity of digital media — streaming music, podcasts, etc. — has created greenfield opportunities for better brand engagement through audio. But brands have struggled to catch up, and there have not been many ways to capitalise on this.

So a team of people who co-founded and worked at Zvuk, a leading music streaming service in Eastern Europe, quickly understood why there is not a single profitable music streaming company in the world: subscription rates are low and advertisers are not excited about audio ads, due to the measurement challenges and intrusive ad experience.

So, they decided to create SF-based company Instreamatic, a startup which allows people to talk at adverts they see and get an AI-driven voice response, just as you might talk to an Alexa device.

Thus, the AI powering Instreamatic’s voice-driven ads can interpret and anticipate the intent of a user’s words (and do so in the user’s natural language, so robotic “yes” and “no” responses aren’t needed). That means Instreamatic enables brands which advertise through digital audio channels (streaming music apps, podcasts, etc.) to now have interactive (and continuous) voice dialogues with consumers.

Yes, it means you can talk to an advert like it was an Alexa.

Instead of an audio ad playing to a listener as a one-way communication (like every TV and radio ad before it), brands can now reach and engage with consumers by having voice-interactive conversations. Brands using Instreamatic can also continue conversations with consumers across channels and audio publishers — so fresh ad content is tailored to the full history of each listener’s past engagements and responses.

An advantage of the platform is that people can use their voice to set their advertising preferences. So, when a person says “I don’t want to hear about it ever again,” brands can optimize their marketing strategy either by stopping all remarketing campaigns across all digital media channels targeted to that person, or by optimizing the communication strategy to offer something else instead of the product that was rejected. If the listener expressed interest or no interest, Instreamatic would know that and tailor future ads to match past engagement — providing a continuous dialogue with the user.

Its competitor is AdsWizz, which allows users to shake their phones when they are interested in an ad. This effectively allows users to “click” when the audio ad is playing in the background. One of their recent case studies reported that shaking provided 3.95% interaction rates.

By contrast, Instreamatic’s voice dialogue marketing platform allows people to talk to audio advertising, skipping irrelevant ads and engaging in interesting ones. Their recent case study claimed a much higher 13.2% voice engagement rate this way.

The business model is thus: when advertisers buy voice dialogue ads on its ad exchange, it takes a commission from that ad spend. Publishers, brands and ad tech companies can license the technology and Instreamatic charges them a licensing fee based on usage.

Instreamatic has now partnered with Gaana, India’s largest music and content streaming service, to integrate Instreamatic into Gaana’s platform. It has also partnered with Triton Digital, a service provider to the audio streaming and podcast industry.

This follows similar deals with Pandora, Jacapps, Airkast and SurferNETWORK.

All these partnerships means the company can now reach 120 million monthly active users in the United States, 30 million in Europe and 150 million in Asia.

The company is headquartered in San Francisco and London, with a development team in Moscow, and features Stas Tushinskiy as CEO and co-founder. Tushinskiy created the digital audio advertising market in Russia prior to relocating to the U.S. with Instreamatic. International Business Development head and co-founder Simon Dunlop previously founded Bookmate, a subscription-based reading and audiobook platform, DITelegraph Moscow Tech Hub and Zvuk.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/12/19/instreamatic-signs-deals-to-allow-people-to-talk-to-adverts-on-streaming-services-like-an-alexa/

YouTube Music is taking on Spotify, Apple Music and others with the launch of three personalized playlists, including its own version of Spotify’s Discover Weekly, called Discover Mix, as well as a New Release Mix and Your Mix. Discover Mix had been spotted in the wild during testing, but now all three are globally available to YouTube Music users.

The company’s plans to introduce these new mixes were announced this fall at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2019, where YouTube Chief Product Officer Neal Mohan spoke about the service’s plans to utilize a combination of machine learning and human curation to improve the music service’s offerings.

The Discover Mix is very much like Spotify’s Discover Weekly, as it will focus on helping users uncover new artists and music they like, including tracks you’ve never listened to before as well as lesser-known tracks from artists you already love. But unlike on competitor music services, this playlist can leverage historical listening data on both YouTube Music and on YouTube itself.

The mix, which updates every Wednesday, will give listeners 50 tracks per week.

The New Release Mix, as you can guess, focuses on all the recent releases by your favorite artists and others YouTube thinks you’ll like. This one drops every Friday, as most new releases do, but will add other tracks mid-week as needed.

Finally, Your Mix is a playlist that combines the music you love with songs you haven’t heard yet but will probably like, based on your listening habits. This one updates regularly to stay fresh.

Of course, the longer you listen on YouTube Music, the better the mixes will get. But YouTube says it can offer personalized mixes as soon as a user selects a couple of artists they like during the setup process or after they listen to a couple of songs.

The mixes arrive at a time when Google is more heavily investing in its streaming music service. Earlier this fall, it made YouTube Music the default music app that ships with new Android devices, instead of Google Play Music. And recently, reports indicate that YouTube Music is ahead of Spotify and JioSaavn in India, a key market for Spotify, despite its late entry.

The new mixes are live today on YouTube Music across iOS, Android, and the web.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/12/17/youtube-music-adds-three-new-personalized-playlists-including-its-spotify-discover-weekly-rival/

Google today announced a small but nifty feature for the Google Assistant and its smart home devices that makes it easier for you to take your music and videos with you as you wander about the different rooms in your home.

“Stream transfer,” as Google prosaically calls it, allows you to simply ask the Assistant to move your music to a different speaker, or — if you have the right speaker group set up — to all speakers and TVs in your home. All you have to say is “Hey Google, move the music to the bedroom speaker,” for example. In addition to your voice, you also can use the Google Home app or the touchscreen on your Google Nest Home Hub.

This will work with any source that can play to your Chromecast-enabled speakers and displays.

It’s all pretty straightforward — to the point where I’m surprised it took so long for Google to enable a feature like this. But maybe it just needed to have enough devices in peoples’ homes to make it worthwhile. “Now that millions of users have multiple TVs, smart speakers and smart displays (some in every room!) we wanted to make it easy for people to control their media as they moved from room to room,” Google itself explains in today’s announcement.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/10/08/google-makes-moving-music-and-videos-between-speakers-and-screens-easier/