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Saturday, March 21, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News


YC startup Felix wants to replace antibiotics with programmable viruses

Posted: 21 Mar 2020 03:19 PM PDT

Right now the world is at war. But this is no ordinary war. It’s a fight with an organism so small we can only detect it through use of a microscope — and if we don’t stop it, it could kill millions of us in the next several decades. No, I’m not talking about COVID-19, though that organism is the one on everyone’s mind right now. I’m talking about antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

You see, more than 700,000 people died globally from bacterial infections last year — 35,000 of them in the U.S. If we do nothing, that number could grow to 10 million annually by 2050, according to a United Nations report.

The problem? Antibiotic overuse at the doctor’s office or in livestock and farming practices. We used a lot of drugs over time to kill off all the bad bacteria — but it only killed off most, not all, of the bad bacteria. And, as the famous line from Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park goes, “life finds a way.”

Enter Felix, a biotech startup in the latest Y Combinator batch that thinks it has a novel approach to keeping bacterial infections at bay – viruses.

Phage killing bacteria in a petri dish

It seems weird in a time of widespread concern over the corona virus to be looking at any virus in a good light but as co-founder Robert McBride explains it, Felix’s key technology allows him to target his virus to specific sites on bacteria. This not only kills off the bad bacteria but can also halt its ability to evolve and once more become resistant.

But the idea to use a virus to kill off bacteria is not necessarily new. Bacteriophages, or viruses that can “infect” bacteria, were first discovered by an English researcher in 1915 and commercialized phage therapy began in the U.S. in the 1940’s through Eli Lilly and Company. Right about then antibiotics came along and Western scientists just never seemed to explore the therapy further.

However, with too few new solutions being offered and the standard drug model not working effectively to combat the situation, McBride believes his company can put phage therapy back at the forefront.

Already Felix has tested its solution on an initial group of 10 people to demonstrate its approach.

Felix researcher helping cystic fibrosis patient Ella Balasa through phage therapy

“We can develop therapies in less time and for less money than traditional antibiotics because we are targeting orphan indications and we already know our therapy can work in humans,” McBride told TechCrunch . “We argue that our approach, which re-sensitizes bacteria to traditional antibiotics could be a first line therapy.”

Felix plans to deploy its treatment in those suffering from cystic fibrosis first as there is no cure for this disease, which tends to require a near constant stream of antibiotics to combat lung infections.

The next step will be to conduct a small clinical trial involving 30 people, then, as the scientific research and development model tends to go, a larger human trial before seeking FDA approval. But McBride hopes his viral solution will prove itself out in time to help the coming onslaught of antibiotic resistance.

“We know the antibiotic resistant challenge is large now and is only going to get worse,” McBride said. “We have an elegant technological solution to this challenge and we know our treatment can work. We want to contribute to a future in which these infections do not kill more than 10 million people a year, a future we can get excited about.”

Under quarantine, media is actually social

Posted: 21 Mar 2020 12:23 PM PDT

The flood of status symbol content into Instagram Stories has run dry. No one is going out and doing anything cool right now, and if they are, they should be shamed for it. Beyond sharing video chat happy hour screenshots and quarantine dinner concoctions, our piece-by-piece biographies have ground to a halt. Oddly, what remains feels more social than social networks have in a long time.

With no source material, we’re doing it live. Coronavirus has absolved our desire to share the recent past. The drab days stuck inside blur into each other. The near future is so uncertain that there’s little impetus to make plans. Why schedule an event or get excited for a trip just to get your heartbroken if shelter-in-place orders are extended? We’re left firmly fixed in the present.

A house-arrest Houseparty, via StoicLeys

What is social media when there’s nothing to brag about? Many of us are discovering it’s a lot more fun. We had turned social media into a sport but spent the whole time staring at the scoreboard rather than embracing the joy of play.

But thankfully, there are no Like counts on Zoom .

Nothing permanent remains. That’s freed us from the external validation that too often rules our decision making. It’s stopped being about how this looks and started being about how this feels. Does it put me at peace, make me laugh, or abate the loneliness? Then do it. There’s no more FOMO because there’s nothing to miss by staying home to read, take a bath, or play board games. You do you.

Being social animals, what feels most natural is to connect. Not asynchronously through feeds of what we just did. But by coexisting concurrently. Professional enterprise technology for agenda-driven video calls has been subverted for meandering, motive-less togetherness. We’re doing what many of us spent our childhoods doing in basements and parking lots: just hanging out.

It’s time to Houseparty

For evidence, just look at group video chat app Houseparty, where teens aimlessly chill with everyone’s face on screen at once. In Italy, which has tragically been on lock down since COVID-19’s rapid spread in the country, Houseparty wasn’t even in the top 1500 apps a month ago. Today it’s the #1 social app, and the #2 app overall second only to Zoom which is topping the charts in tons of countries.

Houseparty topped all the charts on Monday, when Sensor Tower tells TechCrunch the app’s download rate was 323X higher than its average in February. As of yesterday it was #1 in Portugal (up 371X) and Spain (up 592X), as well as Peru, Argentina, Chile, Austria, Belgium, and the U.K. I despite being absent from the chart a week earlier. Apptopia tells me Houseparty saw 25 downloads in Spain on March 1st and 40,000 yesterday.

Houseparty rockets to #1 in many countries

A year ago Houseparty was nearly dead, languishing at #245 on the US charts before being acquired by Fortnite-maker Epic in June. Our sudden need for unmediated connection has brought Houseparty roaring back to life, even if Epic has neglected to update it since July.

“Houseparty was designed to connect people in the most human way possible when they are physically apart” the startup’s co-founder Ben Rubin tells me. “This is a time of isolation and uncertainty for us all. I'm grateful that we created a product that gives a sense of human connection to millions people during this critical moment.”

Around the world, apps for direct connection are spiking. Google Hangouts rules in Sweden. Discord for chat while gaming is #1 in France. Slack clone Microsoft Teams is king in the Netherlands. After binging through Netflix, all that’s left to entertain us is each other.

Undivided By Geography

If we’re all stuck at home, it doesn’t matter where that home is. We’ve been released from the confines of which friends are within a 20 minute drive or hour-long train. Just like students are saying they all go to Zoom University since every school’s classes moved online, we all now live in Zoom Town. All commutes have been reduced to how long it takes to generate an invite URL.

Nestled in San Francisco, even pals across the Bay in Berkeley felt far away before. But this week I had hour-long video calls with my favorite people who typically feel out of reach in Chicago and New York. I spent time with babies I hadn’t met in person. And I kept in closer touch with my parents on the other coast, which is more vital and urgent than ever before.

Playing board game Codenames over Zoom with friends in New York and North Carolina

Typically, our time is occupied by acquaintances of circumstance. The co-workers who share our office. The friends who happen to live in the neighborhood. But now we’re each building a virtual family completely of our choosing. The calculus has shifted from who is convenient or who invites us to the most exciting place, to who makes us feel most human.

Even celebrities are getting into it. Rather than pristine portraits and flashy music videos, they’re appearing raw, with crappy lighting, on Facebook and Instagram Live. John Legend played piano for 100,000 people while his wife Chrissy Teigen sat on screen in a towel looking salty like she’s heard “All Of Me” far too many times. That’s more authentic than anything you’ll get on TV.

And without the traditional norms of who we are and aren’t supposed to call, there’s an opportunity to contact those we cared about in a different moment of our lives. The old college roommate, the high school buddy, the mentor who gave you you’re shot. If we have the emotional capacity in these trying times, there’s good to be done. Who do you know who’s single, lives alone, or resides in a city without a dense support network?

Reforging those connections not only surfaces prized memories we may have forgotten, but could help keep someone sane. For those who relied on work and play for social interaction, shelter-in-place is essentially solitary confinement. There’s a looming mental health crisis if we don’t check in on the isolated.

The crisis language of memes

It can be hard to muster the energy to seize these connections, though. We’re all drenched in angst about the health impacts of the virus and financial impacts of the response. I certainly spent a few mornings sleeping in just to make the days feel shorter. When all small talk leads to rehashing our fears, sometimes you don’t have anything to say.

Luckily we don’t have to say anything to communicate. We can share memes instead.

My father-in-law sent me this. That’s when you know memes have become the universal language

The internet’s response to COVID-19 has been an international outpour of gallow’s humor. From group chats to Instagram joke accounts to Reddit threads to Facebook groups like quarter-million member “Zoom Memes For Quaranteens”, we’re joining up to weather the crisis.

A nervous laugh is better than no laugh at all. Memes allow us to convert our creeping dread and stir craziness into something borderline productive. We can assume an anonymous voice, resharing what some unspecified other made without the vulnerability of self-attribution. We can dive into the creation of memes ourselves, killing time under house arrest in hopes of generating smiles for our generation. And with the feeds and Stories emptied, consuming memes offers a new medium of solidarity. We’re all in this hellscape together so we may as well make fun of it.

The web’s mental immune system has kicked into gear amidst the outbreak. Rather than wallowing in captivity, we’ve developed digital antibodies that are evolving to fight the solitude. We’re spicing up video chats with board games like Codenames. One-off livestreams have turned into wholly online music festivals to bring the sounds of New Orleans or Berlin to the world. Trolls and pranksters are finding ways to get their lulz too, Zoombombing webinars. And after a half-decade of techlash, our industry’s leaders are launching peer-to-peer social safety nets and ways to help small businesses survive until we can be patrons in person again.

Rather than scrounging for experiences to share, we’re inventing them from scratch with the only thing we’re left with us in quarantine: ourselves. When the infection waves pass, I hope this swell of creativity and in-the-moment togetherness stays strong. The best part of the internet isn’t showing off, it’s showing up.

Startups Weekly: Investors also face a pandemic reckoning

Posted: 21 Mar 2020 11:00 AM PDT

Billions of dollars have flowed into startup investing this decade, but the era appears to be closing with the coronavirus pandemic. Limited partners are saying no to younger venture firms who are still out raising, while cutting back on weaker existing firms in their portfolios, Connie Loizos reports on TechCrunch this week.

Other firms with direct ties to public markets are losing even more access to working capital. Connie thinks we will soon see term sheets getting pulled using force majure clauses (and in fact we’ve been hearing a few rumors). In another sign of pressure in the funding ecosystem, Danny Crichton hears that some investors are preparing for layoffs at their own firms.

With the pandemic’s impact just starting to be felt across global economies, everyone is bracing for hard times. So, if you’re a startup with fresh funding in the bank, Danny suggests that now is an especially good time to make a funding announcement that stands out.

Over on Extra Crunch, we’ve been going deeper on what startups and investors are facing and how they can adapt. “I expected 20-30% declines in valuation, but I would up that today to 50-60% in the earliest stages based on feedback I have heard,” Danny details in his latest update on pandemic fundraising trends.

Alex Wilhelm interviewed a growth-stage investor who thinks that Q4 may be the earliest that bigger startups will be able to do raises — and probably not from new investors right away. Everyone is trying to support existing portfolios too.

But what is really changing, when you look at the time scales of startups? Here’s an even-keeled view from long-time VC Mike Volpi, in an interview with Connie this week:

“[The business of venture is a very long-term one. For the average holding period we have within our portfolio companies is probably eight years. If you think about an investment that we made even, let's say, last year, it's going to look really different seven years from now. So these moments of fluctuation for us as VCs shouldn't impact our thinking too much. They're unpleasant. You have to be thoughtful about how to manage through them. But from an investment perspective, we shouldn't really let it get too much in in the scope of how we think about it.”

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

The great unicorn stall?

Alex had been writing a popular series on companies on their way to IPO. Now the window on hundreds of unicorns appears to have closed for months if not longer. “Procore and Accolade, for instance, have filed publicly to debut but have yet to price and pull the trigger on their offering,” he writes on Extra Crunch this week. “Asana and DoorDash and Postmates have all filed privately to go public, but given the insane repricing of their comps on the public markets, no public filings appear to be in the offing.” He then breaks out Airbnb’s particular situation as a travel unicorn in a time of frozen borders.

yc logo02

Y Combinator’s first remote-first demo day 

While the entire event was online, we covered it as usual in a series of articles breaking out the entire class by categories:

Healthcare, Biotech, Fintech and Nonprofits

Hardware, Robots, AI and Developer Tools

Consumer Companies

B2B Companies

While the storied seed-stage venture firm has emphasized physical location to help its founders connect and learn, it is now considering making the next class fully remote.

You can find our casual take on the companies in this wrap-up call.  We put together our list of 20 favorites, including reasons why, for Extra Crunch. Subscribers can also listen to Natasha Mascarenhas’ Equity interview with CEO Michael Seibel.

Image via Getty Images / Colin Anderson Productions pty ltd

Where top VCs are investing in remote events

Suddenly everybody needs to come up with new solutions to remote events. But what does that even look like? Arman Tabatabai surveyed five investors with bets in the space for Extra Crunch on what they think will be happening next. Respondents include:

DISRUPT SF 2020 530X350

TechCrunch can help you stay connected

I swear the whole newsletter was not just building up to this moment, but we are also working out our plans for Disrupt and other conferences this year. For starters, we’ll have a discounted pass for the livestream and recorded videos of the main stage. More details here!

We’re also experimenting with lighter-weight ways for startup people to stay in the loop from anywhere through Extra Crunch. Danny kicked off a weekly conference call with investors and other specialists. Check out the recording from this week with Niko Bonatsos of General Catalyst; stay tuned next Tuesday for a live call with resident immigration law columnist Sophie Alcorn.

Across the week

TechCrunch

Wondering if venture capital is open for business? A new initiative has investors saying yes
Startups rethink what it means to be high-touch during a pandemic
Beware of 'ZoomBombing:' screensharing filth to video calls
PSA: Yes you can join a Zoom meeting in the browser

Extra Crunch

Dear Sophie: How do I get visas for my team to work from home?
Manage remote teams with a transparent culture
Founders who share insights can build industry trust at scale
Can Apple keep the AR industry alive?

#EquityPod

From Alex:

“This week's episode was a testament to making do, as we've had to cancel some trips, juggle a few guests, and get up and running as a podcast that have guests dial in without losing our stride. So, this week Danny and Natasha and Alex were joined by Unshackled VC's Manan Mehta. And it went pretty ok, aside from a hiccup or two, expect Equity to still feature guests as often as it makes sense, even if we're currently locked out of our own studio….”

Listen to the rest here.

Here’s a wrap of the main tech-related coronavirus news in the last 24 hours

Posted: 21 Mar 2020 10:30 AM PDT

Much of the world is waking up to a strange new reality. As the coronavirus strain, COVID-19, swept across the planet, today may go down in history as the day when huge numbers of countries were largely united in a global shut-down to address the pandemic.

TechCrunch brings you a wrap of the technology world's response to the virus so far in our own dedicated COVID-19 coverage.

• In Extra Crunch we cover how you should pitch a story in the era of COVID-19.

• Google says coronavirus has become its biggest search topic by a country mile this year, and to continue its efforts to harness that attention in the best possible way, late on Friday the company launched a new information portal dedicated to the pandemic as well as an improved search experience for desktop and mobile.

• In response to COVID-19, Hulu has added a free live news stream to its on-demand app for customers who only subscribe to its on-demand service, not its live TV add-on. The news coverage is provided in partnership with ABC News Live, and brings live news 24/7 to Hulu on-demand subscribers as part of their existing subscription.

• Unfortunately, "Robocalls", which have been targeting the vulnerable and unsuspecting for years, are taking advantage of the current global catastrophe to enhance their scams. The FCC warns that it has received numerous reports of coronavirus-related robocall cons in the wild — here's what to look for.

• Two major tech companies — Amazon and IBM — have each announced programs to encourage developers to find solutions to a variety of problems related to the pandemic.

• Google announced on Twitter that it is cancelling its annual I/O developer conference out of concern for the health and safety of all involved. It will not be holding any online conference in its place either.

• Rivian, the buzzy electric vehicle startup that is backed by Amazon and Ford, is shutting down all of its facilities due to the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. Rivian employs more than 2,000 workers across several locations, including its headquarters in Plymouth, Mich., a factory in Normal, Ill. as well as operations in San Jose and Irvine, Calif., where engineers are working on autonomous vehicle technology. Rivian also has an office in the U.K.

• During two of this week's White House briefings, President Trump referred specifically to two potential treatments that have been identified by medical researchers and clinicians. But no drugs or treatments have been proven as effective for either the prevention of contracting COVID-19 or for its treatment. While chloroquine has been used for decades to treat malaria, and chronic rheumatoid arthritis, it can have dangerous side effects, including death, if taken incorrectly. Even when taken correctly, it can cause things like stomach distress and even permanent damage to a person's vision.

• The COVID-19 outbreak isn't just affecting movie theaters — it has also halted TV and film production around the world. For Netflix, that has included production on high-profile titles like "The Witcher" and "Stranger Things." So the streaming company just announced that it has created a $100 million fund that it says will support the cast and crew who have suddenly found themselves out of work.

• Elon Musk tweeted Friday that Tesla and SpaceX employees are "working on ventilators" even though he doesn't believe they will be needed. His confirmation on Twitter that both of the companies he leads are working on ventilators comes a day after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made a direct plea to Musk to help alleviate a shortage at hospitals gearing up to combat COVID-19.

• Uber Eats is waiving delivery and activation fees in the UK to support restaurants hit by decreasing demand during the coronavirus crisis. The measure will apply until March 31 when it says it will review it. On Monday the on-demand food delivery giant announced a similar waiver of delivery fees in the US. The announcement by Uber Eats UK comes shortly after Just Eat UK said it would reduce its commission and waive some fees for 30 days — as part of an emergency support package for partner restaurants struggling to cope with disruption to their businesses.

• Privacy-hostile practices by tech giants face ongoing legislative challenges, but a pandemic is clearly an exceptional circumstance. These days, governments are now turning to the tech sector for help. US President Donald Trump was reported last week to have summoned a number of tech companies to the White House to discuss how mobile location data could be used for tracking citizens. And in another development this month he announced Google was working on a nationwide coronavirus screening site — in fact it's Verily, a different division of Alphabet. But concerns were quickly raised that the site requires users to sign in with a Google account, suggesting users' health-related queries could be linked to other online activity the tech giant monetizes via ads.

• Diligent Robotics wants to give nurses a helper droid that can run errands for them around the hospital. The startup's bot Moxi is equipped with a flexible arm, gripper hand and full mobility so it can hunt down lightweight medical resources, navigate a clinic's hallways and drop them off for the nurse. With the world facing a critical shortage of medical care professionals, Moxi could help healthcare centers use their staff as efficiently as possible. And because robots can't be infected by COVID-19, they're one less potential carrier interacting with vulnerable populations.

In other news from around the web:

• The Telegram app emerged a few years ago as a challenger to WhatsApp and took off largely in non-Western countries. A story today in the China Tech site Abacus explores how Telegram is emerging as an alternative source of news form outside China 'Great Firewall', and is being accessed by citizens there who are hungry for uncensored news about the COVID-19 pandemic. The "2019-nCoV outbreak real-time broadcast," channel now has more than 87,000 subscribers, with recent messages getting between 15,000 and 20,000 views, according to Telegram channel's view counter.

• Another report today in The Verge explores how Amazon workers across the US and in many other countries are finding themselves designated as "key workers" who must continue to show up to deliver goods nations, like the US, which have gone into an effective quarantine. However, many of those workers are concerned that safety precautions, benefits, and protections have not changed sufficiently to reflect the new reality of living and working in a pandemic, and that even Amazon warehouses that keep operating as everything else shuts down many workers there are of course likely to contract the virus.

• Getaround is a startup that actually launched at TechCrunch Disrupt several years ago, and the car-sharing company has soared in distribution and valuation in the last few years. But with the coronavirus outbreak suddenly affecting people unwilling or unable to share a personal car that might well be owned by someone infected by the virus, Getaround is now experiencing a huge plunge in demand. As a result, the company is now, according to Bloomberg. reportedly seeking a sale after finding itself "dangerously short on cash", according to people familiar with the matter.

• Over at Microsoft, the tech giant is now offering its Healthcare Bot service to organizations on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response to help screen patients for potential infection and care. As an example, the CDC just released a COVID-19 assessment bot that can quickly assess the symptoms and risk factors for people worried about infection, provide information and suggest the next course of action such as contacting a medical provider or, for those who do not need in-person medical care, managing the illness safely at home.

The news is significant because several healthcare startups such as Babylon Health and Ada Health already offer such AI-powered 'chat' apps which many will likely be turning to in this crisis.

Original Content podcast: Apple’s ‘Amazing Stories’ is thoroughly unamazing

Posted: 21 Mar 2020 10:13 AM PDT

It’s been two-and-a-half years since the news first broke that Steven Spielberg would be rebooting his ’80s anthology series “Amazing Stories” for Apple’s then-unnamed streaming service.

Now, after some behind-the-scenes drama, “Amazing Stories” has launched on Apple TV+, with the first two segments currently available. The first, “The Cellar,” is a time travel romance, while “The Heat” is a combination ghost story/murder mystery/sports drama.

As we explain on the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, it’s hard to tell exactly who this show was made for. Both of the episodes aired so far get pretty goofy, as if the show was made for kids — but they also move into surprisingly dark territory. Both start with familiar setups, then take some surprising twists and turns, but the results aren’t very satisfying.

In the end, it was hard for any of us to muster any enthusiasm for watching the show’s remaining three episodes.

You can listen to our full review in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple . You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

And if you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:

0:00 Intro
0:44 “Amazing Stories” review
25:50 “Amazing Stories” spoiler discussion

WhatsApp tests new feature to fight misinformation: Search the web

Posted: 21 Mar 2020 09:42 AM PDT

WhatsApp, one of the most popular instant messaging platforms on the planet, is testing a feature that could make it simpler for its 2 billion users to tell whether the assertion made in messages they have received is true.

In the recent most beta version of its Android app, the Facebook-owned service has given users the ability to quickly comb through the web with the text or video they have received for more context.

WhatsApp has been testing this feature in some capacity for several quarters now (last year, it allowed some users to look up an image on the web), but a spokesperson has now told TechCrunch that the platform plans to roll out this feature in the near future.

"We are working on new features to help empower users to find out more information about the messages they receive that have been forwarded many times. This feature is currently in testing, and we look forward to rolling it out in the near future," a spokesperson said in a statement.

Images credit: @shrinivassg

The timely test of this feature comes at a time when WhatsApp and other messaging platforms are being used more often than ever before as people stay in touch with their friends, families, and colleagues in the face of a global pandemic.

And as it has happened in the past, several platforms including WhatsApp are grappling with spread of misinformation — this time about the coronavirus.

But WhatsApp has moved to take action much swiftly this time. It began reaching out to dozens of governments last month to assist in their efforts to provide accurate information to the general public, it said today.

Earlier today, India announced a WhatsApp bot to help its citizens be better informed about coronavirus. Earlier this week, the World Health Organization also announced a WhatsApp bot for people globally to bust myths about the coronavirus and answer some of the most frequently asked questions about the disease.

"The WHO Health Alert is the latest official NGO or government helpline to become available on WhatsApp, joining the Singapore Government, The Israel Ministry of Health, the South Africa Department of Health, and KOMINFO Indonesia. We are actively working to launch local services with other countries as well," WhatsApp said in a statement.

‘The Lovebirds’ reportedly skipping theaters and heading to Netflix

Posted: 21 Mar 2020 08:19 AM PDT

Netflix is picking up “The Lovebirds,” an upcoming romantic comedy starring Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae.

“The Lovebirds” reunites Nanjiani with director Michael Showalter. Their previous collaboration, “The Big Sick,” was distributed by Amazon Studios, who gave it a theatrical release before moving to streaming.

This is part of the ongoing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced Hollywood studios to scramble as theaters close amidst a broader push for social distancing. Responses have ranged from delaying major releases to releasing movies early, either as digital rentals or via subscription streaming services like Disney+.

Paramount has already delayed a number of its releases, including “The Lovebirds” (originally scheduled for April 3) and “A Quiet Place II.” This is the first time the outbreak has prompted one of the major studios to have cancel a theatrical release entirely in favor of Netflix, but Paramount had an existing deal with the streamer and previously chose to distribute “The Cloverfield Paradox” via Netflix rather than theaters.

There does not appear to be an official announcement or release date yet. Deadline and The Hollywood Reporter are both reporting on the deal.

This approach likely makes more sense for a mid-budget romantic comedy like “The Lovebirds” than it does for a big-budget blockbuster — but according to The Wrap, Warner Bros. is even considering a streaming release for this summer’s “Wonder Woman.”

This Week in Apps: Coronavirus special coverage, Apple tries to save AR with lidar and more

Posted: 21 Mar 2020 07:49 AM PDT

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 "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’re continuing to look at how the coronavirus outbreak is impacting the world of mobile applications. In particular, we have new data from App Annie that shows which app categories are gaining or losing as a result of the pandemic. We also take a look at other mobile news, including the new Android 11 preview, iPad’s new lidar, TikTok’s new advisory committee and more, as well as a few apps to help get you through this tough time.

Coronavirus Special Coverage

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are continuing to play out on app stores and across the industry. This week, we're leading with these stories, followed by other news.

Android apps reviews slow down

Google this week warned Android developers that Play Store app review times will be much longer than normal due to the COVID-19 crisis. Developers should expect app reviews to take up to a week or even longer, the company informed its community by way of an alert on the Google Play Console.

Twitter prioritizes blue-check verifications to confirm experts on COVID-19 and the novel coronavirus

Posted: 21 Mar 2020 06:13 AM PDT

At long last, here’s an actually useful purpose for Twitter’s blue-check verification mark: Twitter last night announced that it is mobilising the badge system to help surface and signal more authoritative and verified voices that can provide “credible updates” on the topic of the coronavirus, and made a general call out for people that are experts to get all of their information up to date — including associating the word addresses with their accounts — to speed up this process.

This is the latest move from Twitter in what has been an ongoing effort to clear its platform of false information and the harmful spread of it as the pandemic increasingly takes its grip on the world.

The blue check mark was always intended to help steer people to know when they looking at more authentic voices or the official accounts for high-profile people or organizations, although it’s also been a huge vanity metric for many people, and so has often had a taint of the more ridiculous side of Twitter (the one where people also obsess over like and retweet counts). So harnessing it for a truly useful purpose is a great move.

It’s also one that is linking up with other efforts online: yesterday Google launched an updated search experience that includes a carousel of Twitter accounts Tweeting information related to the pandemic. This will help Twitter and Google populate that in a more informative and dynamic way.

If you are an expert who would like to use Twitter to broadcast more effective messages to the public, please read on. And if you are an authority who is not affiliated with one of the authorities working on fighting and managing the coronavirus outbreak, hold tight as Twitter said it will also be working on how to more quickly verify you, too.

Twitter said it is working with global health authorities — these include organizations like the WHO, the CDC, state health authorities and recognized academic institutions — to identify not just these organizations’ own accounts but those of experts affiliated with them. While it has it has “already Verified hundreds of accounts,” there are many more to verify, but the process is being slowed down by people not having all of their information in order. (Essentially these are some of the usual requirements for verification, applied specifically now to coronavirus experts.)

Specifically, Twitter said that experts needed to make sure that the email address that a person has associated with their Twitter account is their work emails. Instructions on how to do that here.

Then, Twitter said that a person’s bio needs to include references and a link to the place where they are working, and ideally that the page they are linking to also includes a reference back to the Twitter account (if it’s a link to a bio page). Instructions on how to update your profile here.

And accounts that are looking for verification, it goes without saying, have to follow the official Twitter Rules (which cover things like no harassment, impersonation accounts and so on), and specifically as it relates to coronavirus and COVID-19, Twitter’s guidance for that.

Twitter had, predictably, what looked like hundreds of responses to its Tweets on this subject, both from people simply saying, “Hey, what about me? Can I get verified today for my birthday?!” and those saying they also should be verified because of their authoritative position on COVID-19. Going about how to do the latter with accuracy will be a much bigger challenge that Twitter is still working out. “We're also considering a way to take public suggestions, but first are reviewing the suggestions we have from global public health authorities and partners,” it concluded.

Google launches COVID-19 page and search portal with safety tips, official stats and more, US-only for now

Posted: 21 Mar 2020 05:11 AM PDT

Google says coronavirus has become its biggest search topic by a country mile this year, and to continue its efforts to harness that attention in the best possible way, late on Friday the company launched a new information portal dedicated to the pandemic as well as an improved search experience for desktop and mobile.

The search experience, Google says, was updated in response to “people's information needs expanding,” while the new information portal also provides the basic, most useful information (for example around symptoms), plus a lot of links and on-site options to explore further.

Something notably absent on Google’s page or search experience are any links to conversation forums or places to hear and talk to other average people. Google has never been particularly successful in its many efforts to break into social media and this underscores that, while also helping it steer away from the fact that many of these forums are not always well managed. I would imagine that more tools for direct communication, such as the Google Hangouts product, and possibly others in that same category, might well be added or linked to as well over time.

Let’s dive into some more details.

The new search experience now not only includes search results but also a number of additional links to “authoritative information” from health authorities and updated data and visualisations.

“This new format organizes the search results page to help people easily navigate information and resources, and it will also make it possible to add more information over time as it becomes available,” Emily Moxley, Google’s product manager for search, writes in a blog post.

The search experience now also includes links to a Twitter carousel featuring accounts from civic organizations local to you, and also a new “most common questions” section related to the pandemic from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This is rolling out first in the US in English and Google said it would be adding more languages and regions soon.

Meanwhile, the portal — also available first for the US — features tips on staying healthy and advice for those who are concerned; links to further official resources; links to more localised resources; links to fundraising efforts; the latest statistics; and an overview of all of Google’s own work (for example, the specific efforts it’s making for educators). We have asked the company when and if it plans to cover other regions beyond the US, and we’ll update this as we learn more.

This is an important move for Google. The internet has figured as critical platform from the earliest days of the Novel Coronavirus emerging out of China, but it hasn’t all been positive.

On one hand, there has been a ton of misinformation spread around about the virus, and the internet overall (plus specific sites like Google’s search and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter) has played a huge role in being responsible for disseminating the majority of that bad news. (Not all those searches and clicks lead to the right information, or good data, unfortunately.)

On the other hand, it’s also been an indispensable resource: in countries where health services have already become overwhelmed by the influx of people seeking help, official online portals (like this one) are serving a very important role in triaging inbound requests before people resort to physically getting themselves into the system (if they need to). And the internet is the main place people will turn in the days and weeks ahead as they are asked to socially isolate themselves to slow down the spread of the pandemic, serving its role in providing information, but hopefully also some diversion and enrichment.

Google’s site is bringing together as many of the positive and legitimate strands of information as it can.

The main page focuses on the most important basics: an brief overview of the virus, a list of the most common symptoms, a list of most common things you can do to prevent getting infected or spreading the infection and a (very brief, for now) section on treatments.

From this, it goes on to more detailed links to videos and other resources for specific interests such as advice for the elderly, a map-based data overview to monitor what is going on elsewhere; and then resources for further help for topics that are coming up a lot, such as advice for people working from home, or for how to set up self-isolation, online education advice, cooking resources and more. Relief efforts so far only has one link, to the Solidarity Response Fund started by the UN Foundation, which has had a donation of $50 million from Google. \

There are a number of other relief and fundraising efforts underway, including those to help fund the race for research to improve the medical tools and medicine we have to fight this. I think the idea is that all of these sections will grow and evolve as the situation evolves.

India launches WhatsApp chatbot to create awareness about coronavirus, asks social media services to curb spread of misinformation

Posted: 21 Mar 2020 03:24 AM PDT

India is turning to WhatsApp, the most popular app in the country, to create awareness about the coronavirus pandemic and has urged social media services to tackle the spread of misinformation on their platforms.

Narendra Modi, India's Prime Minister, said on Saturday that citizens in the country can text a WhatsApp bot — called MyGov Corona Helpdesk — to get instant authoritative answers to their coronavirus queries such as the symptoms of the viral disease and how they could seek help.

An individual is required to text +919013151515 (or click on this shortcut link) to connect to the bot.

The bot was built by Mumbai-based firm Haptik Technologies, which local telecom giant Reliance Jio acquired last year, and the information is being provided by the nation's Ministry of Health.

"The 'MyGov Corona Helpdesk' has been engineered to fight rumors, educate the masses and bring a sense of calm to the current chaos-like situation. We are committed to assisting the government with all our possible strengths and resources and hope that this chatbot can help the GoI spread the right information across the nation,” Aakrit Vaish, co-founder and chief executive of Haptik, told TechCrunch.

A screenshot of New Delhi’s WhatsApp bot

On Thursday, Modi urged the nation's 1.3 billion citizens to stay at home as much as possible for the next few days to prevent any "explosion" of coronavirus cases.

"For the last few days we have seen that people think we are safe from coronavirus. This is not right. It's not okay to get complacent," he said in a nationwide televised appearance.

More than 250 individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 in India so far.

On Friday, India’s IT ministry issued an advisory to social media giants including Facebook, ByteDance, Twitter, and Sharechat, to take immediate actions to remove or disable fake content around coronavirus.

“Intermediaries are urged to initiate awareness campaign on their platforms for the users not to upload/ circulate any false news/misinformation concerning coronavirus which are likely to create panic among public and disturb the public order and social tranquility,” it said.

Earlier this week, the World Health Organization partnered with WhatsApp to create a helpline to provide people with accurate health information related to the coronavirus.

The WHO Health Alert provides tips on how people could protect themselves, the latest news updates and findings on the pandemic, and answers to some of the frequently asked questions. People can sign up to this bot by clicking here.

In a statement, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, said, "digital technology gives us an unprecedented opportunity for vital health information to go viral and spread faster than the pandemic, helping us save lives and protect the vulnerable. We are proud to have partners like Facebook and Whatsapp, that are supporting us in reaching billions of people with important health information.”

WhatsApp, which has been grappling with spread of rumors about the pandemic, began reaching out to dozens of governments last month to assist in their efforts to provide accurate information to the general public, it said.

“As part of our effort to make sure everyone has accurate and timely information about coronavirus, we’re working with the Indian government and national governments around the world,” said Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook.

GM and Ventec Life Systems partner to ramp up production of ventilators

Posted: 20 Mar 2020 06:18 PM PDT

GM said Friday that it is working with Ventec Life Systems to help increase production of respiratory care products such as ventilators that are needed by a growing number of hospitals as the COVID-19 pandemics spreads throughout the U.S.

The partnership is part of StopTheSpread.org, a coordinated effort of private companies to respond to COVId-19, a disease caused by coronavirus.

Ventec will use GM’s logistics, purchasing and manufacturing expertise to build more ventilators. The companies did not provide further details such as when production might be able to ramp up or how many ventilators would be produced.

GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra said in a statement that GM is working closely with Ventec to rapidly scale up production.

"We will continue to explore ways to help in this time of crisis,” Barra added.

The need for ventilators is urgent as cases of COVID-19 pop up with increasing frequency as widespread testing begins. While some people with COVID-19 reported more mild symptoms, others have experienced severe respiratory problems and need to be hospitalized.

The shortage has prompted automakers to investigate ways of ramping up ventilator production. Volkswagen and Ford have reportedly either talked to the White House or committed to looking at the problem. Volkswagen said Friday it has created a task force to look into using 3D printing to make hospital ventilators.

Elon Musk tweeted Friday that Tesla and SpaceX  employees are "working on ventilators" even though he doesn't believe they will be needed. His confirmation on Twitter that both of the companies he leads are working on ventilators comes a day after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made a direct plea to Musk to help alleviate a shortage at hospitals gearing up to combat COVID-19.

Musk didn’t provide specifics what “working on ventilators” means, what Tesla factory might be used, the possible capacity or when he planned to begin production.

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