Uber introduces a bunch of new safety features

In a post today, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi announced a slew of new features for the app, designed to address growing concerns over rider safety. A majority of the additions are contained within a handy Safety Center landing page inside the app.

The section features a bunch of insight into the company’s process for screening its drivers, Uber’s on-going partnerships with law enforcement and the company’s insurance policies. There’s also a new Emergency button that connects riders directly to a 911 operator from inside the app.

That feature also displays real-time location from the moving car, including addresses, so riders can share that information directly with the emergency operator. Khosrowshahi says a version of the feature is also arriving for the driver side of things in the near future.

In Denver, Uber will also be testing a pilot partnership with emergency call startup RapidSOS capable of automatically sending location information to 911. Another partnership with National Emergency Number Association — though that one’s a bit more of a long term payoff, designed to help improve emergency call routing.

An update to the Share My Ride feature lets riders choice up to five contacts who will receive information on their trips, letting them arrive at their destination. They can also opt to only have the feature kick in during night-time rides.

Khosrowshahi also promises to beef up Uber’s screening process. “In the past, Uber conducted background check reruns in jurisdictions where required,” he writes. “Going forward, we’ll proactively rerun criminal and motor vehicle checks each year, regardless of whether there is a legal obligation to do so.”

The company is also utilizing a new system aimed at notifying the company when drivers in the system are involved in a criminal offense.

Zuckerberg’s boring testimony is a big win for Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg ran his apology scripts, trotted out his lists of policy fixes and generally dulled the Senate into submission. And that constitutes success for Facebook.

Zuckerberg testified before the joint Senate judiciary and commerce committee today, capitalizing on the lack of knowledge of the politicians and their surface-level questions. Half the time, Zuckerberg got to simply paraphrase blog posts and statements he’d already released. Much of the other half, he merely explained how basic Facebook functionality works.

The senators hadn’t done their homework, but he had. All that training with D.C. image consultants paid off.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Sidestepping any gotcha questions or meme-worthy sound bites, Zuckerberg’s repetitive answers gave the impression that there’s little left to uncover, whether or not that’s true. He made a convincing argument that Facebook is atoning for its sins, is cognizant of its responsibility and has a concrete plan in place to improve data privacy.

With just five minutes per senator, and them each with a queue of questions to get through, few focused on the tougher queries, and even fewer had time for follow-ups to dig for real answers.

Did Facebook cover up the Cambridge Analytica scandal or decide against adding privacy protections earlier to protect its developer platform? Is it a breach of trust for Zuckerberg and other executives to have deleted their Facebook messages out of recipients’ inboxes? How has Facebook used a lack of data portability to inhibit the rise of competitors? Why doesn’t Instagram let users export their data the way they can from Facebook?

The public didn’t get answers to any of those questions today. Just Mark’s steady voice regurgitating Facebook’s talking points. Investors rewarded Facebook for its monotony with a 4.5 percent share price boost.

That’s not to say today’s hearing wasn’t effective. It’s just that the impact was felt before Zuckerberg waded through a hundred photographers to take his seat in the Senate office.

Facebook knew this day was coming, and worked to build Zuckerberg a fortress of facts he could point to no matter what he got asked:

  • Was Facebook asleep at the wheel during the 2016 election? Yesterday it revealed it had deleted the accounts of Russian GRU intelligence operatives in June 2016.
  • How will Facebook prevent this from happening again? Last week it announced plans to require identity and location verification for any political advertiser or popular Facebook Page, and significantly restricted its developer platform.
  • Is Facebook taking this seriously? Zuckerberg wrote in his prepared testimony for today that Facebook is doubling its security and content moderation team from 10,000 to 20,000, and that “protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits.”
  • Is Facebook sorry? “We didn’t take a broad enough view of what our responsibility is and that was a huge mistake. That was my mistake,” Zuckerberg has said, over and over.

Facebook may never have made such sweeping changes and apologies had it not had today and tomorrow’s testimony on the horizon. But this defensive strategy also led to few meaningful disclosures, to the detriment of the understanding of the public and the Senate — and to the benefit of Facebook.

WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 10: Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg, 33, was called to testify after it was reported that 87 million Facebook users had their personal information harvested by Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm linked to the Trump campaign. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

We did learn that Facebook is working with Special Counsel Robert Mueller on his investigation into election interference. We learned that Zuckerberg thinks it was a mistake not to suspend the advertising account of Cambridge Analytica when Facebook learned it had bought user data from Dr. Aleksandr Kogan. And we learned that the senate will “haul in” Cambridge Analytica for a future hearing about data privacy.

None of those are earth-shaking.

Perhaps the only fireworks during the testimony came when Senator Ted Cruz laid into Zuckerberg over the Gizmodo report citing that Facebook’s trending topics curators suppressed conservative news trends. Cruz badgered Zuckerberg about whether he believes Facebook is politically neutral, whether Facebook has ever taken down Pages from liberal groups like Planned Parenthood or MoveOn.org, if he knows the political leanings of Facebook’s content moderators and whether Facebook fired Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey over his [radical conservative] political views.

Zuckerberg maintained that he and Facebook are neutral, but that last question was the only one of the day that seemed to visibly perturb him. “That is a specific personnel matter than seems like it would be inappropriate…” Zuckerberg said before Cruz interrupted, pushing the CEO to exasperatedly respond, “Well then I can confirm that it was not because of a political view.” It should be noted that Cruz has received numerous campaign donations from Luckey.

This was the only time Zuckerberg seemed flapped, because he knows the stakes of the public perception of Facebook’s political leanings. Zuckerberg, many Facebook employees and Facebook’s home state of California are all known to lean left. But if the company itself is seen that way, conservative users could flee, shattering Facebook’s network effect. Yet again, Zuckerberg nimbly avoided getting cornered here, and was aided by the bell signaling the end of Cruz’s time. He never noticeably raised his voice, lashed back at the senators or got off message.

By the conclusion of the five hours of questioning, the senators themselves were admitting they hadn’t watched the day’s full testimony. Viewers at home had likely returned to their lives. Even the press corps’ eyes were glazing over. But Zuckerberg was prepared for the marathon. He maintained pace through the finish line. And he made it clear why marathons aren’t TV spectator sports.

The question is no longer what revelations would come from Mr. Zuckerberg going to Washington. Tomorrow’s testimony is likely to go similarly. It’s whether Facebook can coherently execute on the data privacy promises it made leading up to today. This will be a “never-ending battle” as Zuckerberg said, dragging out over many years. And again, that’s in Facebook’s interest. Because in the meantime, everyone’s going back to scrolling their feeds.

Stringify relaunches to automate the Comcast smart home

Stringify, an IFTTT-like app that lets consumers control and automate their smart home devices, was quietly snatched up by Comcast last fall to join the company’s larger efforts involving the smart home and the Internet of Things. Today, in its first major update post-acquisition, Stringify is relaunching its app with a new look-and-feel, deeper integrations with Comcast’s services, as well as support for new hardware devices.

Comcast had wanted its own entry point into smart home management that would not only allow the company to compete with popular voice platforms like Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple’s HomePod, but also help better position its own services – like TV and internet – as essential pieces to the smart home experience.

Stringify is helping with that. You can think of the app as something like IFTTT – the automation service that lets you create automatic routines that are triggered by various events. But in Stringify’s case, there’s a bigger focus on automating the smart home.

With today’s relaunch of Stringify, the app is now integrated with Comcast’s TV platform, X1, as well as its newer personalized home Wi-Fi offering, xFi.

That means Comcast users can connect their smart home devices – and their notifications – to their TVs, and create their own automated routines that run when certain events trigger them.

For example, you could schedule family movie nights and have the TV channel changed automatically while dimming the lights, Comcast suggests. You could automate pausing the home’s Wi-Fi at dinnertime, or get an alert on your TV when a connected camera detects motion outside. And even without smart home devices, you can do things like get a reminder to close the garage door when it gets windy, or display your commute time at 7 AM, the company also says.

In addition to the Comcast integrations, Stringify also now works with Lutron Caseta dimmers and switches, Serena shades, and Carrier’s line of Cor WiFi thermostats. At the time of the acquisition, Stringify was already working with over 500 products, so this just adds a few more.

Comcast had announced at CES 2018 that it would soon bring the Stringify technology to its own services, like X1 TV and xFi Wi-Fi. Also launching today is Stringify’s first Android Wear watch app that lets you activate your scenes – like “coming home” or “going to bed” with a tap on your watch screen.

Stringify’s releaunch comes at a time when smart home automation is becoming more advanced. Both Google Home and Amazon Alexa now support “routines” that will kick off a series of actions when you speak a voice command. However, Stringify is not yet integrated with the X1 voice remote for kicking off its own routines (called “flows”) through voice commands. That means it’s not a replacement for voice platforms like Alexa or Google Assistant in terms of managing the smart home.

“What we love about the Stringify app is that it has a tremendous community of smart, devoted users who are on the leading edge of automation technology,” said Sri Solur, Senior Vice President, Xfinity Home and IoT Products, Comcast Cable. “So, the development we do here plays a big role in our broader effort to create powerful new home automation experiences for our Xfinity customers.”

Stringify, which is now sporting a more Xfinity-like interface, is available for download on iOS and Android.

Tribe combines arcade games with group video chat

Sick of chatting but want to stay connected? Tribe‘s app lets you play clones of Space Invaders, Flappy Bird, Fruit Ninja, Name That Tune and more while video chatting with up to seven friends or strangers. Originally a video messaging app, Tribe failed to gain traction in the face of Snapchat and Facebook Messenger. But thanks to a $3 million funding round led by Kleiner Perkins in June, Tribe had the runway to pivot into video chat gaming that could prove popular, even if not in its app.

“As we all know, Messaging is a super-crowded area,” says Tribe co-founder Cyril Paglino. “If you look closely, very few communication products have been blowing up in the past three years.” Now, he says “we’re building a ‘Social Game Boy.’”

A former breakdancer, Paglino formed his team in France before renting a “hacker house” and moving to San Francisco. They saw traction in late 2016, hitting 500,000 downloads. Tribe’s most innovative feature was speech recognition that could turn a mention of “coffee” into a pre-made calendar request, a celebrity’s name into a link to their social media accounts, locations into maps and even offer Spotify links to songs playing in the background.

The promise of being the next hit teen app secured Tribe a $500,000 pre-seed from Kima and Ludlow Ventures in 2015, a $2.5 million seed in 2016 led by prestigious fund Sequoia Capital and then the June 2017 $3 million bridge from KPCB and others. But that $6 million couldn’t change the fact that people didn’t want to sign up for a new chat app when their friends were already established on others.

Luckily, Tribe saw a new trend emerging. Between HQ Trivia’s rise, the Apple App Store adding a Gaming tab, celebrities like Drake streaming their gameplay and Snapchat acquiring 3D gaming engine PlayCanvas, the Tribe team believed there was demand for a new way to play.

Tribe’s rebuilt iOS and Android apps let you rally a crew of friends or join in with strangers to play one of its old-school games. You’ll hear their voices and see their faces in the corner of the screen as everyone in your squad vies for first place. It’s like Houseparty’s group video chat, but with something to do. Facebook Messenger has its own gaming platform, but the games are largely asynchronous. That means you play separately and merely compare scores. That’s a lot less fun than laughing it up together as one of your buddies runs their race car off the road or gets attacked by an alien.

The only problem is that since your friends probably aren’t on Tribe already, the app is vulnerable to cloning by its bigger competitors. Paglino cited technical challenges his team has overcome, its young demographic and lessons learned from 18 months of iterations as what could keep Tribe from being easily co-opted. But as even public companies like Snapchat have learned, it can be tough to stay ahead of tech giants like Facebook with huge development teams, plenty of cash and apps that are already popular.
Tribe’s games are legitimately fun, and the video chat makes them feel a lot more like hanging out with friends and less like a waste of time. Even if Tribe isn’t the one to make mobile group video chat gaming ubiquitous, it could see its idea entertain millions… just in someone else’s app.

First look at Instagram Nametags, its clone of Snapchat QR codes

Instagram is preparing to launch a feature called Nametags that lets you create a special image that people can scan with the Instagram Stories camera to follow you. TechCrunch broke the news of Nametags code in Instagram’s Android APK last month. But now thanks to reader Genady Okrain we have screenshots and more details of the Instagram Nametags feature.

Nametags could make it easier for people to visually promote their Instagram account. It could make it simple to follow a friend you just met by having them open their Nametag and then you scanning it. Meanwhile, businesses and social media stars could post their Nametag across other social media handles, print it onto posters or handbills or even make merchandise out of it.

An Instagram spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch that it is testing the Nametags feature. Instagram’s been spotted doing a flurry of feature development lately. TechCrunch has reported that code for an Instagram Video Calling feature was found in its Android APK. Meanwhile, it’s testing a Portrait mode feature called Focus.

Once users have access, they’ll be able to hit a QR scanner button on their profile to bring up the Nametag editor. They can then choose from a purple Instagram color gradient background, a pattern of one emoji they choose or a selfie they can jazz up with augmented reality face filters that then becomes an emoji pattern. The user’s Instagram username appears in the center. For now, users in the test group can’t share or scan Nametags. But the code we discovered explains that users can scan them to follow people.

Snapchat in January 2015 launched its own Snapcodes that work similarly, meaning Instagram took its time copying this feature. But with social media stars and businesses banished to Snapchat’s Discover channel, those accounts might be looking to prioritize promoting their Instagram accounts. If creators find it easier to build an audience on Instagram and get more engagement there, they could give the Facebook-owned app their first-run content. The eventual launch of Nametags could give them one more reason to use Snapchat copycat Instagram Stories instead of the original.

For more on upcoming Instagram features, check out our other stories on Focus and Video Calling

HQ Trivia finally gets social with ‘Friends on HQ’ update

The popular quiz startup HQ Trivia is beginning to roll out the first of many new social features to its app focused on leveraging competition with friends and family during game time.

HQ Trivia has managed to bring people together in real life to play the game on their phones, but the startup has done surprisingly little when it comes to bringing social interactions to the app itself. Today, HQ is launching a new feature called “Friends on HQ,” which will roll out to U.K. users for today’s game, with a U.S. launch to follow “soon after,” the company says.

The feature lets users search for and connect with friends and family inside the app. Once users connect, they’ll be able to keep track of how everyone is doing and which friends of theirs are playing in any given quiz match. It’s a very easy move for HQ that adds some familial familiarity to the game’s battle royale quiz format.

Building these connections will be important to strengthening its core group of players, which has grown to the millions. HQ Trivia has begun chasing sponsorship deals with companies like Warner Bros. and Nike. As the startup looks to experiment more with monetization, having a user base that is devoted enough to deal with some of these changes will be essential.

This update is far from a one-off and seems to signify a shift for the app. According to a spokesperson, “this update forms the basis of a variety of new features that HQ will be rolling out soon, leveraging friends’ connections.”