Mobile

German Supreme Court dismisses Axel Springer lawsuit, says ad blocking is legal


Germany’s Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit yesterday from Axel Springer against Eyeo, the company behind AdBlock Plus.

The European publishing giant (which acquired Business Insider in 2015) argued that ad-blocking, as well as the business model where advertisers pay to be added to circumvent the white list, violated Germany’s competition law. Axel Springer won a partial victory in 2016, when a lower court ruled that it shouldn’t have to pay for white listing.

However, the Supreme Court has now overturned that decision. In the process, it declared that ad-blocking and Eyeo’s white list are both legal. (German speakers can read the court’s press release.)

After the ruling, Eyeo sent me the following statement from Ben Williams, its head of operations and communications:

Today, we are extremely pleased with the ruling from Germany’s Supreme Court in favor of Adblock Plus/eyeo and against the German media publishing company Axel Springer. This ruling confirms — just as the regional courts in Munich and Hamburg stated previously — that people have the right in Germany to block ads. This case had already been tried in the Cologne Regional Court, then in the Regional Court of Appeals, also in Cologne — with similar results. It also confirms that Adblock Plus can use a whitelist to allow certain acceptable ads through. Today’s Supreme Court decision puts an end to Axel Springer’s claim that they be treated differently for the whitelisting portion of Adblock Plus’ business model.

Axel Springer, meanwhile, described ad-blocking as “an attack on the heart of the free media” and said it would appeal to the country’s Constitutional Court.

ZTE says export ban will ‘severely impact’ its survival


It’s been a hell of a week for ZTE. News Monday that it was being hit with a seven-year export ban sent the company scrambling. The Chinese handset maker suspended its earnings report and reportedly sent its lawyers to meet with Google to see if anything could be worked out about a punishment that could hamper its ability to utilize Android and various key services.

Four days after we first reached out, ZTE has finally offered us an official reaction to the news. And it’s a doozy. The six-paragraph official statement from corporate mulls over the punishment and reasserts ZTE’s compliance to international law, which it “regard[s] as the foundation and bottom-line of the company’s operation.”

ZTE adds that it invested “over $50 million in its export control compliance program and is planning to invest more resources in 2018.” So, why did the company get dinged by the U.S. Department of Commerce for failure to significantly reprimand staff after pleading guilty to violating sanctions on Iran and North Korea?

The company contends that the U.S. Bureau of Industry and Security “ignored” its “diligent work” and progress it has made in complying with the law, calling the punishment, “unfair.” Seven years is certainly severe, given that U.S.-based companies make north of a quarter of the components used in the company’s handsets, according to estimates.

That, coupled with U.S.-based software makers, Google included, put the company in an extremely tight spot moving forward, and will likely require a complete rethink of ZTE’s business model, if upheld.

“The Denial Order will not only severely impact the survival and development of ZTE,” the company says, “but will also cause damages to all partners of ZTE including a large number of U.S. companies.” ZTE adds that it will continue to fight the ruling, taking “judicial measures,” if necessary.

The punishment comes as ZTE finds itself targeted by the U.S. government over spying charges, alongside fellow Chinese handset maker, Huawei.

 

iOS 11’s new App Store boosts downloads by 800% for Featured apps


When Apple launched its new App Store in iOS 11 back in September, it aimed to offer app developers better exposure, as well as a better app discovery experience for consumers. A new study from Sensor Tower out today takes a look at how well that’s been working in the months since. According to its findings, getting a featured spot on the new App Store can increase downloads by as much as 800 percent, with the “App of the Day” or “Game of the Day” spots offering the most impact.

The app store intelligence firm examined data from September 2017 to present day to come to its conclusions, it says.

During this time, median U.S. iPhone downloads for apps that snagged the “Game of the Day” spot increased by 802 percent for the week following the feature, compared to the week prior to being featured.

“App of the Day” apps saw a boost of 685 percent.

Being featured in other ways – like in one of the new App Store Stories or in an App List – also drove downloads higher, by 222 percent and 240 percent, respectively.

The numbers seem to indicate that Apple is achieving the results it wanted with the release of its redesigned App Store.

Over the years, Apple’s app marketplace had grown so large that finding new apps had become challenging. And developers sometimes found ways to bump their apps higher in the top charts for exposure, leaving iPhone owners wondering if a new app was really that popular, or if it was some sort of paid promotion.

The iOS 11 App Store, on the other hand, has taken more of an editorial viewpoint to its app recommendations. While the top charts haven’t gone away, the focus these days is on what Apple thinks is best – not the wisdom of the masses. Apple has applied its editorial eye to things like timely round-ups of apps; curated, thematic collections; as well as articles about apps and interviews with developers. Apple also picks an app and game to feature daily, so the App Store always has fresh content and a reason for users to return.

The end result is something that’s more akin to a publication about apps, instead of a just an app marketplace.

What’s most interesting, then, in Sensor Tower’s report, are what sort of app publishers Apple has chosen to feature.

Apple had touted the App Store changes would be a way to give smaller developers more exposure. But if you’ve popped into the App Store from time to time, you may have noticed that big publishers – not indies – were having their apps featured.

In fact, an early report about the App Store revamp criticized Apple for giving big publishers too much attention. It said that apps from brands like Starbucks and CBS, or game makers like EA and Glu, weren’t exactly hurting for downloads.

But Apple’s favoring of big publishers is only true to a point, says Sensor Tower.

It found that 13 of the top 15 featured publishers (by number of features) had at least one million U.S. iPhone downloads since the launch of the new App Store last September. It’s not surprising that Apple wants to highlight these publishers. Many of them, and particularly the game publishers, have multiple popular apps. So when their apps get an update or they have a new release, consumers pay attention.

Apple, of course, wants to capitalize on that consumer interest because it shares in the revenue app publishers generate through things like paid downloads, in-app purchases and subscriptions.

However, Apple isn’t only giving the limelight to large publishers, says Sensor Tower.

It also found that 29 percent of the apps it has feature since the launch of the revamped App Store were from publishers who had fewer than 10,000 downloads during that time.

“While it’s clearly the case that big publishers are more likely to receive the largest number of features, small publishers still very much have their chance to benefit from a feature on the App Store,” said Sensor Tower’s Mobile Insights Analyst, Jonathan Briskman.

Though Sensor Tower’s published report focused only on the iOS App Store, it’s worth noting how it compares with Google Play.

Getting a featured spot on Google’s app store isn’t as impactful, the firm tells TechCrunch. The largest week-over-week increase to the median it saw there was only around 200 percent.

Image credits, all: Sensor Tower 

AT&T CEO says a new $15-per-month, sports-free streaming service is launching in a few weeks


AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson revealed on Thursday the carrier’s plans to launch another live TV service called “AT&T Watch,” which would offer a cheap, $15-per-month bundle of channels for customers, and be provided to AT&T Wireless subscribers for free. At this price point, the service would be one of the lowest on the market – less than Sling TV’s entry-level, $20-per-month package, and just a bit less than Philo’s low-cost, sports-free offering, priced at $16 per month.

Stephenson, who’s in court defending the proposed $85 billion merger with Time Warner against antitrust claims, announced the service on the witness stand. He held up the soon-to-arrive AT&T Watch as a rebuttal of sorts to the Justice Department’s point about the company’s continually climbing prices for its DirecTV satellite service, according to a report from Variety.

The Justice Department is concerned that, if the merger goes through, AT&T will then raise prices on Time Warner’s Turner networks, like TNT, TBS and CNN in a way that would hurt other pay TV providers.

Few other details were offered regarding AT&T Watch, beyond its price point – which is due to the fact that it will also be sports-free offering, like Philo.

But AT&T’s advantage over competitors is the distribution provided by its AT&T Wireless business. Although its existing streaming service DirecTV Now is one of the newest on the market, it has already reached number two in terms of subscribers, falling behind Sling TV.

Beyond its lack of sports, the channel lineup for AT&T Watch was not discussed, nor was an exact launch date.

Stephenson said the company hoped to launch it in the next few weeks.

This robot can build your Ikea furniture


There are two kinds of people in the world: those who hate building Ikea furniture and madmen. Now, thanks to Ikeabot, the madmen can be replaced.

Ikeabot is a project built at Control Robotics Intelligence (CRI) group at NTU in Singapore. The team began by teaching robots to insert pins and manipulate Ikea parts and then, slowly, began to figure out how to pit the robots against the furniture. The results, if you’ve ever fought with someone trying to put together a Billy, are heartening.

From Spectrum:

The assembly process from CRI is not quite that autonomous; “although all the steps were automatically planned and controlled, their sequence was hard-coded through a considerable engineering effort.” The researchers mention that they can “envision such a sequence being automatically determined from the assembly manual, through natural-language interaction with a human supervisor or, ultimately, from an image of the chair,” although we feel like they should have a chat with Ross Knepper, whose IkeaBot seemed to do just fine without any of that stuff.

In other words the robots are semi-autonomous but never get frustrated and can use basic heuristics to figure out next steps. The robots can now essentially assemble chairs in about 20 minutes, a feat that I doubt many of us can emulate. You can watch the finished dance here, in all its robotic glory.

The best part? Even robots get frustrated and fling parts around:

I, for one, welcome our Ikea chair manufacturing robotic overlords.

Don’t just stir; Stircle


Although I do my best to minimize the trash produced by my lifestyle (blog posts notwithstanding), one I can’t really control, at least without carrying a spoon on my person at all times, is the necessity of using a disposable stick to stir my coffee. That could all change with the Stircle, a little platform that spins your drink around to mix it.

Now, of course this is ridiculous. And there are other things to worry about. But honestly, the scale of waste here is pretty amazing. Design house Amron Experimental says that 400 million stir sticks are used every day, and I have no reason to doubt that. My native Seattle probably accounts for a quarter of that.

So you need to get the sugar (or agave nectar) and cream (or almond milk) mixed in your iced americano. Instead of reaching for a stick and stirring vigorously for ten or fifteen seconds, you could instead place your cup in the Stircle (first noticed by New Atlas and a few other design blogs), which would presumably be built into the fixins table at your coffee shop.

Around and around and around she goes, where she stops, nobody… oh. There.

Once you put your cub on the Stircle, it starts spinning — first one way, then the other, and so on, agitating your drink and achieving the goal of an evenly mixed beverage without using a wood or plastic stirrer. It’s electric, but I can imagine one being powered by a lever or button that compresses a spring. That would make it even greener.

The video shows that it probably gets that sugar and other low-lying mixers up into the upper strata of the drink, so I think we’re set there. And it looks as though it will take a lot of different sizes, including reusable tumblers. It clearly needs a cup with a lid, since otherwise the circling liquid will fly out in every direction, which means you have to be taking your coffee to go. That leaves out pretty much every time I go out for coffee in my neighborhood, where it’s served (to stay) in a mug or tall glass.

But a solution doesn’t have to fix everything to be clever or useful. This would be great at an airport, for instance, where I imagine every order is to go. Maybe they’ll put in in a bar, too, for extra smooth stirring of martinis.

Actually, I know that people in labs use automatic magnetic stirrers to do their coffee. This would be a way to do that without appropriating lab property. Those things are pretty cool too, though.

You might remember Amron from one of their many previous clever designs; I happen to remember the Keybrid and Split Ring Key, both of which I used for a while. I’ll be honest, I don’t expect to see a Stircle in my neighborhood cafe any time soon, but I sure hope they show up in Starbucks stores around the world. We’re going to run out of those stirrer things sooner or later.

Technique to beam HD video with 99 percent less power could sharpen the eyes of smart homes


Everyone seems to be insisting on installing cameras all over their homes these days, which seems incongruous with the ongoing privacy crisis — but that’s a post for another time. Today, we’re talking about enabling those cameras to send high-definition video signals wirelessly without killing their little batteries. A new technique makes beaming video out more than 99 percent more efficient, possibly making batteries unnecessary altogether.

Cameras found in smart homes or wearables need to transmit HD video, but it takes a lot of power to process that video and then transmit the encoded data over wi-fi. Small devices leave little room for batteries, and they’ll have to be recharged frequently if they’re constantly streaming. Who’s got time for that?

The idea behind this new system, created by a University of Washington team led by prolific researcher Shyam Gollakota, isn’t fundamentally different from some others that are out there right now. Devices with low data rates, like a digital thermometer or motion sensor, can something called backscatter to send a low-power signal consisting of a couple bytes.

Backscatter is a way of sending a signal that requires very little power, because what’s actually transmitting the power is not the device that’s transmitting the data. A signal is sent out from one source, say a router or phone, and another antenna essentially reflects that signal, but modifies it. By having it blink on and off you could indicate 1s and 0s, for instance.

UW’s system attaches the camera’s output directly to the output of the antenna, so the brightness of a pixel directly correlates to the length of the signal reflected. A short pulse means a dark pixel, a longer one is lighter, and the longest length indicates white.

Some clever manipulation of the video data by the team reduced the number of pulses necessary to send a full video frame, from sharing some data between pixels to using a “zigzag” scan (left to right, then right to left) scan pattern. To get color, each pixel needs to have its color channels sent in succession, but this too can be optimized.

Assembly and rendering of the video is accomplished on the receiving end, for example on a phone or monitor, where power is more plentiful.

In the end, a full-color HD signal at 60FPS can be with less than a watt of power, and a more modest but still very useful signal — say, 720p at 10FPS — can be sent for under 80 microwatts. That’s a huge reduction in power draw, mainly achieved by eliminating the entire analog to digital converter and on-chip compression. At those levels, you can essentially pull all the power you need straight out of the air.

They put together a demonstration device with off-the-shelf components, though without custom chips it won’t reach those

A frame sent during one of the tests. This transmission was going at about 10FPS.

microwatt power levels; still, the technique works as described. The prototype helped them determine what type of sensor and chip package would be necessary in a dedicated device.

Of course, it would be a bad idea to just blast video frames into the ether without any compression; luckily, the way the data is coded and transmitted can easily be modified to be meaningless to an observer. Essentially you’d just add an interfering signal known to both devices before transmission, and the receiver can subtract it.

Video is the first application the team thought of, but there’s no reason their technique for efficient, quick backscatter transmission couldn’t be used for non-video data.

The tech is already licensed to Jeeva Wireless, a startup founded by UW researchers (including Gollakota) a while back that’s already working on commercializing another low-power wireless device. You can read the details about the new system in their paper, presented last week at the Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation.

Russia’s game of Telegram whack-a-mole grows to 19M blocked IPs, hitting Twitch, Spotify and more


As the messaging app Telegram continues to try to evade Russian authorities by switching up its IP addresses, Russia’s regulator Roskomnadzor (RKN) has continued its game of whack-a-mole to try to lock it down by knocking out complete swathes of IP address. The resulting chase how now ballooned to nearly 19 million IP addresses at the time of writing, as tracked by unofficial RKN observer RKNSHOWTIME (updated on a Telegram channel with stats accessible on the web via Phil Kulin’s site).

As a result, there have been a number of high-profile services also knocked oput in the crossfire, with people in Russia reporting dozens of sites affected including Twitch, Slack, Soundcloud, Viber, Spotify, Fifa, Nintendo, as well as Amazon and Google. (A full list of nearly forty addresses is listed below.)

What’s notable is that Google and Amazon themselves seem still not to be buckling under pressure. As we reported earlier this week, a similar — but far smaller — instance happened in the case of Zello, which had also devised a technique to hop around IP addresses when its own IP addresses were shut down by Russian regulators.

Zello’s circumventing lasted for nearly a year, until it seemed the regulator started to use a more blanket approach of blocking entire subnets — a move that ultimately led to Google and Amazon asking Zello to cease its activities.

After that, Zello’s main access point for its Russian users was via VPN proxies — one of the key ways that users in one country can effectively appear as if they are in another, allowing them to circumvent geoblocking and geofencing, either by the companies themselves, or those that have been banned by a state.

It’s important to note that the domain fronting that Google is in the process of shutting down is not the same as IP hopping — although, more generally, it will mean that there is now one less route for those globally whose traffic is getting blocked through censorship to wiggle around that. The IP hopping that has led to 19 million addresses getting blocked in Russia is another kind of circumvention. (I’m pointing this out because several people I’ve spoken to assumed they were the same.)

Pavel Durov, Telegram’s founder and CEO, has made several public calls on Telegram and also third-party sites like Twitter to praise how steadfast the big internet companies have been. And others like the ACLU have also waded into the story to call on Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft to hold strong and continue to allow Telegram to IP hop.

But what could happen next?

I’ve contacted Google, Amazon and Telegram now several times to ask this question and for more details on what is going on. As of yet I’ve had no replies. However, Alexey Gavrilov, the CTO and founder of Zello, provided a little more potential insight:

He said that ultimately they might ask Telegram to stop — something that might become increasingly hard not to do as more services get affected — and if that doesn’t work they can suspend Telegram’s account.

“Each cloud provider has provisions, which let them do it if your use interferes with other customers using their service,” Gavrilov notes. “The interpretation of this rule may be not trivial in case when the harm is caused by third party (i.e RKN in this case) so I think there are some legal risks for Amazon / Google. Plus that would likely cause a PR issue for them.”

Another question is whether there are bigger fish to fry in this story. Some have floated the idea that just as Zello preceded Telegram, RKN’s battles with the latter might lead to how it negotiates with Facebook.

As we have reported before, Facebook notably has never moved to house Russian Facebook data in Russia. Local hosting has been one of the key requirements that the regulator has enforced against a number of other companies as part of its “data protection” rules, and over the last couple of years while some high-profile companies have run afoul of the these regulations, others (including Apple and Google) have reportedly complied.

Regardless, there’s been one ironic silver lining in this story. Since RKN shifted its focus to waging a war on Telegram, Gavrilov tells me that Zello service has been restored in Russia. Here’s to weathering the storm. 

We’ll update this post as and when we get responses from the big players. A more complete list of sites that people have reported as affected by the 19 million address block is below, via Telegram channel Нецифровая экономика (“Non-digital economy”). Some of these have been disputed, so take this with a grain of salt:

1. Sberbank (disputed)
2. Alfa Bank (disputed)
3. VTB
4. Mastercard
5. Some Microsoft services
6. Video agency RT Ruptly
7. Games like Fortnite, PUBG, Guild Wars 2, Vainglory, Guns of Boom, World of Warships Blitz, Lineage 2 Mobile and Total War: Arena
8. Twitch
9. Google
10. Amazon
11. Russian food retailer Dixy (disupted)
12. Odnoklassniki (the social network, ok,ru)
13. Viber
14. Дилеры Volvo
15. Gett Taxi
16. BattleNet
17. SoundCloud
18. DevianArt
19. Coursera
20. Realtimeboard
21. Trello
22. Slack
23. Evernote
24. Skyeng (online English language school)
25. Part of the Playstation Network
26. Ivideon
27. ResearchGate
28. Gitter
29. eLama
30. Behance
31. Nintendo
32. Codeacademy
33. Lifehacker
34. Spotify
35. FIFA
36. And it seems like some of RKN’s site itself

SNK may be making a mini-console stuffed with arcade classics


If you’ve worked through the amazing selection of games provided by the NES and SNES Classic Editions, you may be in luck: SNK, the legendary arcade game creator behind the likes of Metal Slug and Samurai Shodown, is teasing what looks like its own tiny arcade cabinet.

Teased as part of the company’s 40th anniversary, the shrouded gadget definitely doesn’t look like a NEO-GEO, or even a NEO-GEO Pocket. Gizmodo notes that the description mentions a “new game machine,” but no details beyond that. The tall, boxy outline suggests a small arcade cabinet, and the slab in front of it looks a lot like an arcade controller.

It wouldn’t be a particularly original creation — there are dozens of tiny arcade cabinets with built-in games, but the truth is none of them is particularly good. They’re novelties, perfectly fun for a laugh, but the hardware – compared with the impressive solidity of real arcade controllers and the NEO-GEO’s itself – just isn’t there.

If I had to guess, I’d say this is an arcade cabinet-style console with improved internals, a decent screen to accommodate games newer than 1996, and a separate, perhaps even wireless arcade controller. Price… I’d put it at $200 or $250. Extra controller (and you’ll want it), my guess is $60. I could easily be way off, though. Maybe they’d even let us plug in our old Tanksticks?

An original NEO-GEO controller. You can feel the sturdiness from where you sit.

Inside, you’ll probably find a generous helping of SNK classics, likely limited to arcade and NEO-GEO titles. Even without SNK’s classic games for home consoles like the NES. My eyes were watering as I scrolled down the list of games the company has put out and which may end up on this device.

King of the Monsters 2? Last Resort? Twinkle Star Sprites? King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown, and all the other fighters? Not to mention Metal Slug and its sequels. The amount of quarters I’ve sunk into these fantastic, beautiful games is uncountable.

If SNK is smart, they’ll make it possible to add new games to the system, too. There are plenty to choose from, as the company catered to a number of niches. Having them available for a few bucks each would be a dream — and anyway, if this isn’t a possibility, people will just hack new ROMs onto the system.

Whatever the case is, you can be sure I’m already jockeying for position to review the thing. I’ll let you know the second I hear anything.

Apple has a new iPhone recycling robot named ‘Daisy’


Meet Daisy. Apple’s latest recycling robot was revealed, not coincidentally, a few days before Earth Day, in a press announcement summing up the company’s recent environmental accomplishments. The new ‘bot is an update to Liam, the recycling robot the company announced back in 2016.

Daisy was developed in-house by Apple engineers, using some of Liam’s parts — a recycling of sorts. The industrial robot is able to disassemble nine different versions of the iPhone, sorting all of their reusable components in the process. In all, Daisy is capable of taking apart a full 200 iPhones in a given hour, proving a solid alternative to traditional methods that can destroy valuable components in the process. Any connection to HAL 3000, however, is surely coincidental. 

Along with Daisy, Apple’s also using the occasion to announce GiveBack, an addition to its recycling program. For every device customers turn in or trade from now until April 30, the company will make a donation to Conservation International, a Virginia-based environmental nonprofit. Eligible devices will still qualify for an in-store or gift card credit. 

For good measure, there’s also a new Apple Watch challenge coming for Earth Day, encouraging people to get outside on Sunday and enjoy the planet. The announcements come a week after Apple announced that it had achieved its goal of powering its global facilities with 100 percent renewable energy.