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The Google Assistant on Android gets more visual responses

Judhajeet Das

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About half a year ago, Google gave the Assistant on phones a major visual refresh. Today, the company is following up with a couple of small but welcome tweaks that’ll see the Assistant on Android provide more and better visual responses that are more aligned with what users already expect to see from other Google services.

That means when you ask for events now, for example, the response will look exactly like what you’d see if you tried the same query from your mobile browser. Until now, Google showed a somewhat pared-down version in the Assistant.

Also — and this is going to be a bit of a controversial change — when the Assistant decides that the best answer is simply a list of websites (or when it falls back to those results because it simply doesn’t have any other answer), the Assistant used to show you a couple of boxes in a vertical layout that were not exactly user-friendly. Now, the Assistant will simply show the standard Google Search layout.

Seems like a good idea, so why would that be controversial? Together with the search results, Google will also show its usual Search ads. This marks the first time that Google is showing ads in the Assistant experience. To be fair, the Assistant will only show these kinds of results for a very small number of queries, but users will likely worry that Google will bring more ads to the rest of the Assistant.

Google tells me that advertisers can’t target their ads to Assistant users and won’t get any additional information about them.

The Assistant will now also show built-in mortgage calculators, color pickers, a tip calculator and a bubble level when you ask for those. Also, when you ask for a stock quote, you’ll now see a full interactive graph, not just the current price of the quote.

These new features are rolling out to Android phones in the U.S. now. As usual, it may take a bit before you see them pop up on your own phone.

Tech Passionate and Heavy Geek! Into Blogging world since 2014 and never looked back since then :) I am also a YouTube Video Producer and a Aspiring Entrepreneur. Founder, MyDroidDoes

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Startups Weekly: #CodeCon, the ‘techlash’ and ill-prepared CEOs

Judhajeet Das

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Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a newsletter published every Saturday that dives into the week’s noteworthy venture capital deals, funds and trends. Before I dive into this week’s topic, let’s catch up a bit. Last week, I wrote about Peloton’s upcoming initial public offering. Before that, I noted the proliferation of billion-dollar companies. 

Remember, you can send me tips, suggestions and feedback to [email protected] or on Twitter @KateClarkTweets. If you don’t subscribe to Startups Weekly yet, you can do that here. 

Now I know this newsletter is supposed to be about startups, but we’re shifting our focus to Big Tech today. Bear with me.

I spent the better part of the week in Scottsdale, Ariz. where temperatures outside soared past 100 and temperatures inside were icy cold. Both because Recode + Vox cranked the AC to ungodly levels but also because every panel, it seemed, veered into a debate around the “techlash” and antitrust.

If you aren’t familiar, the Financial Times defines the techlash as “the growing public animosity toward large Silicon Valley platform technology companies.” Code Conference has in the past been an event that underscores innovation in tech. This year, amid growing tensions between tech’s business practices and the greater good, things felt a little different.

The conference began with Peter Kafka grilling YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki. Unfortunately for her, CodeCon took place the week after an enormous controversy struck YouTube. You can read about that here. Wojcicki wasn’t up to the task of addressing the scandal, at least not honestly. She apologized to the LGBTQ community for YouTube’s actions but was unable to confront the larger issue at hand: YouTube has failed to take necessary action toward eliminating hate speech on its platform, much like other social media hubs.

From there, The Verge’s Casey Newton asked Instagram head Adam Mosseri and Facebook vice president of consumer hardware Andrew Bosworth point blank if Facebook should be broken up. Unsurprisingly, neither of the two men are fond of the idea.

“Personally, if we split [Facebook and Instagram] it might make my life easier but I think it’s a terrible idea,” Mosseri, who was named CEO of Instagram last fall, said. “If you split us up, it would just make it exponentially more difficult to keep people safe. There are more people working on safety and integrity issues at Facebook than all the people that work at Instagram.”

Bosworth, who manages VR projects at Facebook, had this to say: “You take Instagram and Facebook apart, you have the same attack surfaces. They now aren’t able to share and combine data … So this isn’t circular logic. This is an economy of scale.”

Wojcicki, when asked whether YouTube should separate from Google, had a less nuanced and frankly shockingly ill-prepared response:

There’s more where that came from, but this newsletter isn’t about big tech! It’s about startups! Here’s all the startup news you missed this week.

IPO Corner

CrowdStrike’s IPO went really well: After pricing its IPO at $34 per share Tuesday evening and raising $612 million in the process (a whole lot more than the planned $378 million), the company’s stock popped 90% Wednesday morning with an initial share price of $63.50. A bona fide success, CrowdStrike boasted an initial market cap of $11.4 billion, nearly four times that of its last private valuation, at market close Wednesday. I chatted with CrowdStrike CEO George Kurtz on listing day. You can read our full conversation here.

Fiverr climbs: The marketplace had a good first day on the NYSE. The company priced its IPO at $21 per share Wednesday night, raising around $111 million. It then started trading Thursday morning at $26 apiece, with shares climbing for most of the day and closing at $39.90 — up 90% from the IPO price. Again, not bad. Read TechCrunch’s Anthony Ha’s conversation with Fiverr CEO Micha Kaufman here.

Get ready for … Slack’s highly-anticipated direct listing next week (June 20). Catch up on direct listings here and learn more about Slack’s journey to the public markets here.

Bird confirmed its acquisition of Scoot

As is usually the case with these things, parties from both Bird and Scoot declined to tell us any details about the deal, so we went and found the details ourselves! First, The Wall Street Journal’s Katie Roof reported the (mostly stock) deal was valued at roughly $25 million. We confirmed with our sources that it was indeed less than $25 million and came after Scoot struggled to raise additional capital from venture capital investors.

Fortnite throws a Houseparty 

While we’re on the subject of M&A, Epic Games, the creator of Fortnite, acquired Houseparty, a video chatting mobile app, this week. The deal comes shortly after Epic Games raised a whopping $1.25 billion. Founded in 2015, Houseparty is a social network that delivers video chat across a number of different platforms, including iOS, Android and macOS. Like Fortnite, the offering tends to skew younger. Specifically, the app caters toward teen users, providing a more private and safer space than other, broader platforms.

Startup Capital

Symphony, a messaging app, gets $165M at a $1.4B valuation
BetterUp raises $103M to fast-track employee development
Neurobehavioral health company BlackThorn pulls in $76M from GV
Against Gravity, maker of the VR hit ‘Rec Room,’ nabs $24M
Simpo secures $4.5M seed round to help drive software adoption

~Extra Crunch~

If you’ve been unsure whether to sign up for TechCrunch’s awesome new subscription service, now is the time. Through next Friday, it’s only $2 a month for two months. Seems like a no-brainer. Sign up here. Here are some of my personal favorite EC pieces of the week:

Silicon Valley’s founder fetish infantilizes public companies

If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Crunchbase News editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm and I debate dual-class stock, discuss my takeaways from #CodeCon and review the biggest rounds of the week. You can subscribe to Equity here or wherever else you listen to podcasts.

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Shazam for Android now recognizes music played through headphones

Judhajeet Das

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Shazam, the Apple -owned app that helps users identify songs playing around them, can now recognize songs you’re listening to through your headphones when using an Android phone or tablet.

Acquired by Apple for $400 million last year, the company introduced a feature called ‘Pop-Up Shazam’ to its Android app recently, which when enabled, works with any other Android app to track and identify songs playing externally or internally on the phone.

It’s a feature that many users have requested for years. Prior to this, when a user would chance upon a music track in say a YouTube video, they only had two inconvenient ways to shazam the song. They could either unplug the earphones from the phone and let the audio play through the built-in speakers, or draw an earpiece close to the mic of the phone.

The new feature enables Shazam to track the audio signal beaming off of other apps, thereby not completely relying on just output from the surrounding and a phone’s speaker. The app is tapping the audio signal by using a persistent notification that floats around and could be dragged — like the ones from Facebook Messenger — and can be activated by a single tap.

In our test, the feature worked as advertised through both wired and wireless earphones (amusingly, Apple’s AirPods) and on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube apps. iPhone users hoping to use a similar feature will likely have to patiently wait as persistent notification isn’t something that Apple’s mobile operating system currently supports. Apple did integrate Shazam into Siri in 2014, so it is possible that it may someday explore ways to further expand songs recognition feature on its platform.

Google has taken a shot at audio recognition in recent years, too, after it introduced a ‘Now Playing’ feature in its Pixel 3 series smartphone last year. If enabled, the phone actively looks for songs playing in the surrounding, identifies them and keeps a log.

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Most US mobile banking apps have security and privacy flaws, researchers say

Judhajeet Das

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You might figure the biggest U.S. banks would have some of the most secure mobile apps. Spoiler alert: not so much.

New findings from security firm Zimperium, shared exclusively with TechCrunch, say most of the top banking apps have security flaws that put user data at risk. The security firm, which has a commercial stake in the mobile security business, downloaded the banks’ iOS and Android apps and scanned for security and privacy issues, like data leaks, which put private user data and communications at risk.

The researchers found most of the apps had issues, like failing to adhere to best coding practices and using old open-source libraries that are infrequently updated.

Some of the apps were using open-source code from GitHub from more than three years ago, said Scott King, Zimperium’s director of embedded security.

Worse, more than half of the banking apps are sharing customer data with at least one advertiser, the researchers said.

An unnamed iOS banking app with an 86/100 risk score (Image: Zimperium)

Two unnamed Android banking apps each with an 82/100 risk score (Image: Zimperium)

The researchers, who didn’t name the banks, said one of the worst offending iOS apps scored 86 out of 100 on the risk scale for several privacy lapses, including communicating over an unencrypted HTTP connection. The same app was vulnerable to two known remote bugs dating back to 2015. The researchers said the risk scores for the banks’ corresponding Android apps were far higher. Two of the apps were rated with a risk score of 82 out of 100. Both of the apps were storing data in an insecure way, which third-party apps could access and recover sensitive data on a rooted device, said King.

One of the Android apps wasn’t properly validating HTTPS certificates, making it possible for an attacker to perform a man-in-the-middle attack. Several of the iOS and Android apps were capable of taking screenshots of the app’s display, increasing the risk of data leaking.

Zimperium said two-thirds of the Android banking apps are targeted by several malware campaigns, such as BankBot, which tricks users into downloading fake apps from Google Play and waits until the victim signs in to a banking app on their phone. Using an overlay screen, the malware campaigns steal logins and passwords.

The security firm called on banking apps to do more to bolster their apps’ security.

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