Kyle S. Gibson is a writer and videographer in Boston, currently focused on robotics and industrial internet of things. Kyle has worked for publishers AmericanInno and MIT Technology Review, sales automation developer Pegasystems, and blockchain strategy group New Alchemy. He is currently writing for MIT Horizon, an emerging technology education platform. His work is supported by a regional awareness initiative of the New England Venture Capital Association.
As humans get used to working at a distance from each other, a startup in Massachusetts is providing sensors that bring industrial robots in close — centimeters away, in fact. The same technology may support future social distancing efforts on commutes, in a pilot application to allow more subway trains to run on a single track.
Humatics, an MIT spinout backed by Lockheed Martin and Airbus, makes sensors that enable fast-moving and powerful robots to work alongside humans without accidents. If daily work and personal travel to work ever go back to normal, the company believes the same precision can improve aging and crowded infrastructure, enabling trains and buses to run closer together, even as we all may have to get used to working further apart.
This is the emerging field of microlocation robotics — devices and software that help people and machines navigate collaboratively. Humatics has been testing its technology with New York’s MTA since 2018, and today is tracking five miles of a New York subway, showing the transportation authority where six of its trains are, down to the centimeter.
“A good example of a harsh environment is a subway tunnel,” said David Mindell, co-founder of Humatics and professor of engineering and aerospace at MIT. “They are full of dust, the temperatures can range from subzero to 100 degrees, and there is the risk of animals or people tampering with devices. Working inside these tunnels is difficult and potentially dangerous for crews, also.”
Humatics has sold more than 10,000 UWB radio beacons, the base unit for their real-time tracking system, to manufacturers of sensor systems, the company says. They pinpoint the location of hundreds of RFID tags at a range of 500 meters, using multiple tags on an object to measure orientation.
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 and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.
In this 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’re continuing to look at how the coronavirus outbreak is impacting the world of mobile applications, with fresh data from App Annie about trends playing out across app categories benefiting from the pandemic, lockdowns and societal changes. We’re also keeping up with the COVID-19 contact-tracing apps making headlines, and delving into the week’s other news.
We saw a few notable new apps launch this week, including HBO’s new streaming service HBO Max, plus three new app experiments from Facebook’s R&D group. Android Studio 4.0 also launched this week. Instagram is getting better AR tools and IGTV is getting ads. TikTok got spammed in India.
Meanwhile, what is going on with app review? A shady app rises to the top of the iPhone App Store. Google cracks down on conspiracy theory-spreading apps. And a TikTok clone uses a pyramid scheme-powered invite system to rise up the charts.
COVID-19 contact-tracing apps in the news
Latvia: Reuters this week reported that Latvia aims to become one of the first countries to launch a smartphone app, Stop Covid, using the new toolkit created by Apple and Alphabet’s Google to help trace coronavirus infections.
Australia: The role of the country’s Covidsafe app in the recovery appears to be marginal, The Guardian reports. In the month since its launch, only one person has been reported to have been identified using data from it. A survey even found that Australians were more supportive of using telecommunications metadata to track close contacts (79%) than they were of downloading an app (69.8%). In a second survey, their support for the app dropped to 64%. The app has been maligned by the public debate over it and technical issues.
Qatar: Serious security vulnerabilities in Qatar’s mandatory contact-tracing app were uncovered by Amnesty International. An investigation by Amnesty’s Security Lab discovered a critical weakness in the configuration of Qatar’s EHTERAZ contact-tracing app. Now fixed, the vulnerability would have allowed cyberattackers to access highly sensitive personal information, including the name, national ID, health status and location data of more than one million users.
India: India’s contact-tracing app, Aarogya Setu, is going open-source, according to Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology Secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney on Tuesday. The code is being published on GitHub. Nearly 98% of the app’s more than 114 million users are on Android. The government will also offer a cash bounty of $1,325 to security experts who find bugs or vulnerabilities.
China: China’s health-tracking QR codes, embedded in popular WeChat and Alipay smartphone apps, are raising privacy concerns, Reuters reports. To walk around freely, people must have a green rating. They also now have to present their health QR codes to gain entry into restaurants, parks and other venues. These efforts have been met with little resistance. But the eastern city of Hangzhou has since proposed that users are given a color-coded health badge based on their medical records and lifestyle habits, including how much they exercised, their eating and drinking habits, whether they smoked and how much they slept the night before. This suggestion set off a storm of criticism on China’s Weibo, a Twitter-like platform.
A renowned iPhone hacking team has released a new “jailbreak” tool that unlocks every iPhone, even the most recent models running the latest iOS 13.5.
For as long as Apple has kept up its “walled garden” approach to iPhones by only allowing apps and customizations that it approves, hackers have tried to break free from what they call the “jail,” hence the name “jailbreak.” Hackers do this by finding a previously undisclosed vulnerability in iOS that break through some of the many restrictions that Apple puts in place to prevent access to the underlying software. Apple says it does this for security. But jailbreakers say breaking through those restrictions allows them to customize their iPhones more than they would otherwise, in a way that most Android users are already accustomed to.
Details of the vulnerability that the hackers used to build the jailbreak aren’t known, but it’s not expected to last forever. Just as jailbreakers work to find a way in, Apple works fast to patch the flaws and close the jailbreak.
Security experts typically advise iPhone users against jailbreaking, because breaking out of the “walled garden” vastly increases the surface area for new vulnerabilities to exist and to be found.
The jailbreak comes at a time where the shine is wearing off of Apple’s typically strong security image. Last week, Zerodium, a broker for exploits, said it would no longer buy certain iPhone vulnerabilities because there were too many of them. Motherboard reported this week that hackers got their hands on a pre-release version of the upcoming iOS 14 release several months ago.
The debate over encryption continues to drag on without end.
In recent months, the discourse has largely swung away from encrypted smartphones to focus instead on end-to-end encrypted messaging. But a recent press conference by the heads of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) showed that the debate over device encryption isn’t dead, it was merely resting. And it just won’t go away.
At the presser, Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Chris Wray announced that after months of work, FBI technicians had succeeded in unlocking the two iPhones used by the Saudi military officer who carried out a terrorist shooting at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida in December 2019. The shooter died in the attack, which was quickly claimed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Early this year — a solid month after the shooting — Barr had asked Apple to help unlock the phones (one of which was damaged by a bullet), which were older iPhone 5 and 7 models. Apple provided “gigabytes of information” to investigators, including “iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts,” but drew the line at assisting with the devices. The situation threatened to revive the 2016 “Apple versus FBI” showdown over another locked iPhone following the San Bernardino terror attack.
After the government went to federal court to try to dragoon Apple into doing investigators’ job for them, the dispute ended anticlimactically when the government got into the phone itself after purchasing an exploit from an outside vendor the government refused to identify. The Pensacola case culminated much the same way, except that the FBI apparently used an in-house solution instead of a third party’s exploit.
You’d think the FBI’s success at a tricky task (remember, one of the phones had been shot) would be good news for the Bureau. Yet an unmistakable note of bitterness tinged the laudatory remarks at the press conference for the technicians who made it happen. Despite the Bureau’s impressive achievement, and despite the gobs of data Apple had provided, Barr and Wray devoted much of their remarks to maligning Apple, with Wray going so far as to say the government “received effectively no help” from the company.
This diversion tactic worked: in news stories covering the press conference, headline after headline after headline highlighted the FBI’s slam against Apple instead of focusing on what the press conference was nominally about: the fact that federal law enforcement agencies can get into locked iPhones without Apple’s assistance.
That should be the headline news, because it’s important. That inconvenient truth undercuts the agencies’ longstanding claim that they’re helpless in the face of Apple’s encryption and thus the company should be legally forced to weaken its device encryption for law enforcement access. No wonder Wray and Barr are so mad that their employees keep being good at their jobs.
By reviving the old blame-Apple routine, the two officials managed to evade a number of questions that their press conference left unanswered. What exactly are the FBI’s capabilities when it comes to accessing locked, encrypted smartphones? Wray claimed the technique developed by FBI technicians is “of pretty limited application” beyond the Pensacola iPhones. How limited? What other phone-cracking techniques does the FBI have, and which handset models and which mobile OS versions do those techniques reliably work on? In what kinds of cases, for what kinds of crimes, are these tools being used?
We also don’t know what’s changed internally at the Bureau since that damning 2018 Inspector General postmortem on the San Bernardino affair. Whatever happened with the FBI’s plans, announced in the IG report, to lower the barrier within the agency to using national security tools and techniques in criminal cases? Did that change come to pass, and did it play a role in the Pensacola success? Is the FBI cracking into criminal suspects’ phones using classified techniques from the national security context that might not pass muster in a court proceeding (were their use to be acknowledged at all)?
Finally, who else besides the FBI will be the beneficiary of the technique that worked on the Pensacola phones? Does the FBI share the vendor tools it purchases, or its own home-rolled ones, with other agencies (federal, state, tribal or local)? Which tools, which agencies and for what kinds of cases? Even if it doesn’t share the techniques directly, will it use them to unlock phones for other agencies, as it did for a state prosecutor soon after purchasing the exploit for the San Bernardino iPhone?
We have little idea of the answers to any of these questions, because the FBI’s capabilities are a closely held secret. What advances and breakthroughs it has achieved, and which vendors it has paid, we (who provide the taxpayer dollars to fund this work) aren’t allowed to know. And the agency refuses to answer questions about encryption’s impact on its investigations even from members of Congress, who can be privy to confidential information denied to the general public.
The only public information coming out of the FBI’s phone-hacking black box is nothingburgers like the recent press conference. At an event all about the FBI’s phone-hacking capabilities, Director Wray and AG Barr cunningly managed to deflect the press’s attention onto Apple, dodging any difficult questions, such as what the FBI’s abilities mean for Americans’ privacy, civil liberties and data security, or even basic questions like how much the Pensacola phone-cracking operation cost.
As the recent PR spectacle demonstrated, a press conference isn’t oversight. And instead of exerting its oversight power, mandating more transparency, or requiring an accounting and cost/benefit analysis of the FBI’s phone-hacking expenditures — instead of demanding a straight and conclusive answer to the eternal question of whether, in light of the agency’s continually-evolving capabilities, there’s really any need to force smartphone makers to weaken their device encryption — Congress is instead coming up with dangerous legislation such as the EARN IT Act, which risks undermining encryption right when a population forced by COVID-19 to do everything online from home can least afford it.
The worst-case scenario would be that, between in-house and third-party tools, pretty much any law enforcement agency can now reliably crack into everybody’s phones, and yet nevertheless this turns out to be the year they finally get their legislative victory over encryption anyway. I can’t wait to see what else 2020 has in store.
Apple has released iOS 13.5, which includes support for the Exposure Notification API that it co-created with Google to support public health authorities in their contact tracing efforts to combat COVID-19. The API requires third-party apps developed by public health authorities for use, and none have yet been released, but iOS device users already have access to COVID-19 Exposure Logging global settings.
As previewed in the beta release, you can access the Exposure Logging settings under the Settings app, then navigating to the ‘Privacy’ subsection. From there, you can select the ‘Health’ submenu and find the COVID-19 Exposure Logging setting, which will be off be default. It can’t be turned on at all until you actually get an authorized app to enable them, at which point you’ll receive a pop-up asking you to authorize Exposure Notifications access. Once you do, you can return here to toggle notifications off, and also manually delete your device’s exposure log should you choose to opt out.
Apple and Google both have emphasized that they want as much user control and visibility into the Exposure Notification API as possible. They’re using randomized, temporary identifiers that are not centrally stored to do the exposure notification, and are also forbidding the simultaneous use of geolocation services and the Exposure Notification API within the same app. This manual control is another step to ensure that users have full control over what info they share to participate in the system, and when.
Contact tracing is a time-tested strategy for combating the spread of infectious disease, and has traditionally worked by attempting to trace potential exposure by interviewing infected individuals and leaning as much about their movements during their infectious period as possible. Modern connected devices mean that we can potentially make this far more efficient and accurate, but Google and Apple have worked with privacy experts to try to determine a way to make this happen without exposing users to privacy risks. Matching also happens locally on a user’s device, not in any centralized database.
Apple and Google are currently working with public health authorities who are building apps based on this API, and the companies also have noted that this is a temporary measure that has been designed from the beginning to be disabled once the threat of COVID-19 has passed.
In mid-March, Apple closed all of its stores outside of China “until further notice.” In a statement issued today under the title, “To our Customers,” Retail SVP Deirdre O’Brien offered insight into the company’s plans to reopen locations.
Nearly 100 stores have already resumed services, according to O’Brien. Face covers will be required for both employees and customers alike. In addition, temperature checks are now conducted at the store’s entrance, coupled with posted health questions. Apple has also instituted deeper cleaning on all surfaces, including display products.
Following the U.S. government’s announcement that it would further thwart Huawei’s chip-making capability, the Chinese telecoms equipment giant condemned the new ruling for being “arbitrary and pernicious.” Adding to its woes, the Nikkei Asian Review reported that Taiwanese Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. has stopped taking new orders from the company. (Huawei declined to comment, while TSMC said the report was “purely market rumor.”)
The company did not give a reason for the resignation, but over the past year, Ma has been pulling back from business roles to focus on philanthropy. Last September, he resigned as Alibaba’s chairman, and is also expected to step down from its board at its annual general shareholder’s meeting this year.
Facebook-owned Oculus released a new sales figure as the company reaches the one-year anniversary of the release of the Quest headset. We didn’t get unit sales, but the company did share that it has sold $100 million worth of Quest content in the device’s first year — a number that indicates that although the platform is still nascent, a handful of developers are definitely making it work for them.
Devin Coldewey talks about what’s going to change with coffee shops and co-working spaces, Alex Wilhelm discusses the future of the home office setup and Danny Crichton talks about the revitalization of urban and semi-urban neighborhoods. (Extra Crunch membership required.)
In an internal email, which the Bangalore-headquartered food delivery startup published on its blog, Swiggy co-founder and chief executive Sriharsha Majety said the company’s core food business had been “severely impacted.”
The latest full episode of Equity looks at a funding round for pizza delivery company Slice and the possibility of Uber acquiring Grubhub, while the Monday news roundup takes a deeper look at the financials of the food delivery business. Meanwhile, Original Content is back on a weekly schedule, and we review the new Netflix series “Never Have I Ever.”
The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.
In mid-March, Apple closed all of its stores outside of China “until further notice.” It was a sweeping — but necessary — move for a world facing down a growing pandemic. In a statement issued today until the title, “To our Customers,” Retail SVP Deirdre O’Brien offered insight into the company’s plans to reopen locations.
Nearly 100 stores have already resumed services, according to O’Brien — though the famously open retail spaces are taking on a new look in the face of the highly contagious novel coronavirus. “In every store, we’re focused on limiting occupancy and giving everybody lots of room, and renewing our focus on one‑on‑one, personalized service at the Genius Bar and throughout the store,” she writes.
A spokesperson for the company adds, “Next week we’ll continue our very gradual and thoughtful reopening of US stores, adding more than 25 locations in seven states. While we know many customers are eager for their local store to reopen, our commitment is to reopen our stores when we are confident the environment is safe. We miss our customers and look forward to seeing them again soon.”
As seen in the above image, face covers will be required for both employees and customers alike — already a legal requirement in many locales. More unusual for many retail establishments is the addition of temperature checks now conducted at the store’s entrance, coupled with posted health questions. Apple has also instituted deeper cleaning on all surfaces, including display products.
That last point is an important one, given how much of the company’s store layout revolves around hands-on products. Curb-side pick and drop off have been added, as well, for those who understandably would like to avoid the in-person experience.
As for when each location reopens, Apple says it’s monitoring health trends and local/national guidance to determine the timeframe. You can check your local store’s status here. And as the conversation of secondary waves begin to become a reality in many areas, O’Brien says the company will close stores down again, if necessary. “These are not decisions we rush into,” she writes, “and a store opening in no way means that we won’t take the preventative step of closing it again should local conditions warrant.”
After plenty of talk about AR as the next computing platform, Apple may have more interest in virtual reality than they’ve previously forecasted.
Following an April report from 9to5mac, today Apple confirmed to Bloomberg the acquisition of VR broadcasting startup NextVR. A note on NextVR’s website now highlights that the company is “moving in a new direction.”
At face value, this acquisition seems a little strange for Apple. Apple has been pushing full throttle on mobile AR, largely eschewing public activity or interest in the VR world, leaving that domain wholly in Facebook’s hands. Late last year, The Information reported that Apple had informed employees that it may be shipping a device in 2022 that combined AR and VR capabilities in a form factor similar to the Oculus Quest. That, teamed with this acquisition, suggests that Apple may have deeper plans for VR than they’ve previously indicated.
Over a few years of iOS presence, it’s not clear whether Apple has really come to many grand realizations around what good AR content looks like. Therefore, releasing a “mixed reality” headset in a couple years and continuing to push developer innovation on AR content while relying on a broader base of VR content satisfying users makes practical sense for a gen-one AR device.
9to5mac pinned the NextVR deal price around $100 million, a price that’s far from a thrilling end for NextVR’s investors who collectively pumped $115 million into the company, but at the same time would be a surprisingly robust exit for the company given the broader shape of the VR content market at the moment. If that’s truly where the deal ended up, that would be a lot of money for Apple to pay for something for which they don’t have meaningful plans. One of NextVR’s biggest strengths was in the partnerships they had built out over the years with sports leagues. I’m guessing Apple doesn’t care too much about keeping those partnerships active when they don’t sell devices optimized for them, but NextVR’s tech stack for broadcasting VR content broadly could paint a picture of future Apple content maneuvering.
As Apple has built out organizational heft in the content space around efforts like Apple TV+, it’s more feasible that they’d want to use an acquisition like this to get a head start in extending their content network to new devices in their pipeline.
The main problem with all of this is that VR-optimized content doesn’t translate very well to augmented reality. NextVR’s solution leverages the full field-of-view of existing VR headsets, putting users in a wholly 3D environment. There’s no technical reasons that AR headset users couldn’t eventually experience this content in the same way, but there aren’t any AR headsets with the field-of-view to leverage this type of content, and advances here have been pretty slow. Existing AR devices might not be optimized for VR and vice versa, but Apple might already be organizing itself with the assumption that that won’t be the case for long.
Facebook struggled for years to build out a meaningful network of virtual reality content to power its Oculus hardware. Solving the chicken-and-the-egg problem of not enough content for users but not enough users to court content developers ended up leading to Facebook unilaterally bankrolling VR development for several years. Apple could await a similar fate in AR.
With Magic Leap increasingly out of the picture, when Apple eventually debuts an augmented reality device, they may find themselves arriving onto a dead sector with little non-enterprise development organically in the works. Apple has long thrived on its developer relationships to gather early interest in a new platform, but with ARKit’s consumer interest largely failing to build thus far, it’s fair to expect that plenty of developers might have a wait-and-see approach to any ambitious AR release, leaving a heavy burden on Apple’s ability to scrounge together AR launch content.
Apple’s biggest failure with ARKit thus far has been their own inability to highlight the platform’s potential on mobile devices. Through several iterations of their AR development platform, the company has been more conservative than ever in showcasing first-party use cases. Their most high-profile reveal has been a downloadable 3D measurement app. All the while, few hits have emerged that uniquely leverage the spatial platform.
Virtual reality may be a safer place for Apple to invest in the meantime. Good virtual reality content is generally easier to make, it relies less on interacting with the real world and developers have more end-to-end control of experiences. Leveraging NextVR’s tech could give Apple access to a smooth pipeline toward a wider body of VR content that could be enjoyed on a “mixed reality” device and on more technologically advanced AR glasses down the road. Tim Cook and plenty of others in Apple’s leadership have been outspoken in their excitement for AR’s potential, but as developers continue to struggle in finding that potential, perhaps virtual reality’s appeal is growing more important to that long-term strategy.
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 and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. 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’re continuing to look at how the coronavirus outbreak is impacting the world of mobile applications, including the latest on countries’ various contact-tracing apps, the pandemic’s impact on gaming and fintech and more. We’re also looking at that big app crash caused by Facebook, plus new app releases from Facebook and Google, Android 11’s new timeline and Apple’s plans to move WWDC online, among other things.
It will be interesting to see how successfully Apple is able to take its developer conference online. After all, developers could already access the sessions and keynotes through videos — but the real power of the event was in the networking and being able to talk to Apple engineers, ask questions, get hands-on help and see how other developers are using Apple technologies to innovate. Unless Apple is planning a big revamp of its developer site and app that would enable those connections, it seems this year’s event will lack some of WWDC’s magic.
The company also announced the Swift Student Challenge, an opportunity for student developers to showcase their coding by creating their own Swift playground.
Cupertino, California — Apple today announced it is awarding $10 million from its Advanced Manufacturing Fund to COPAN Diagnostics, a market leader in sample collection kits that play a critical role in COVID-19 testing. This funding will allow COPAN Diagnostics to rapidly accelerate their supply of sample collection kits for hospitals across the United States, expanding production from several thousand today to more than one million kits per week by early July. As part of this effort, Apple will support COPAN Diagnostics’ expansion to a new, larger facility in Southern California, with advanced equipment that Apple is helping design. This expansion is expected to create more than 50 new jobs.
“We feel a deep sense of responsibility to do everything we can to help medical workers, patients, and communities support the global response to COVID-19,” said Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer. “COPAN is one of the world’s most innovative manufacturers of sample collection kits for COVID-19 testing, and we’re thrilled to partner with them so they can expand as we work to address this critical issue for our nation. I couldn’t be prouder of our teams for bringing all of their energy, passion, and innovative spirit to supporting the country’s COVID-19 response.”
“We’re excited to forge this new relationship with Apple, whose teams are already making a huge difference with our efforts to scale up the production of our sample collection and transport kits,” said Norman Sharples, CEO of COPAN Diagnostics. “Collection and transport kits are a critical component in the fight against COVID-19. At COPAN, we’re excited and grateful for this partnership with Apple as our strong beliefs of innovation, quality, and excellence in manufacturing and design are perfectly aligned. Apple’s operational expertise will help us increase delivery of important pre-analytical tools for medical professionals across the country at this critical time.”