All posts in “Mobile”

OnePlus 6T launch date moved because of Apple iPad event

The successor to the OnePlus 6 (pictured) is coming soon.
The successor to the OnePlus 6 (pictured) is coming soon.

Image: raymond wong/mashable

Everyone knows OnePlus as the scrappy Chinese company that makes flagship Android phones and sells them for hundreds of dollars less than, say, Samsung’s Galaxy phones or Google’s Pixels.

OnePlus’s highly anticipated next-generation flagship phone, the 6T, was originally supposed to launch on Oct. 30, but now the company has moved the event date to Oct. 29, no doubt because another tech behemoth is also holding a product launch event on Oct. 30. (We’re looking at you Apple.)

If that’s not a true commitment to its biggest fans, we’re not sure what is.

Besides the potential awkwardness of having less press at its launch event because they’d have to choose between OnePlus and Apple, sticking to the original date would have meant the 6T news being swallowed up by Apple’s expected new iPad launch.

OnePlus CEO Pete Lau shared a forum post explaining in detail why they’ve moved the launch up. The short of it is: “Our goal is to make sure [the 6T] gets the time and attention it deserves.”

“When we announced the launch of the OnePlus 6T on October 8, we were convinced our timing would allow us to maximize the amount of people we could reach with our message,” says Lau.
That changed when Apple announced they would be hosting their own event on October 30.”

Lau says the company spoke to some press and were told they’d be “overshadowed by Apple” if they stuck to their original launch date.

Potentially lost press coverage and attendance aside, he pays respect to OnePlus’s community, offering full refunds to anyone who has been inconvenienced by the change and can’t make it.

“Everyone who owns a ticket will be able to apply for a full refund for their ticket,” says Lau. “If you’re still able to join our event, first of all: Thank you! We will cover any costs you might incur to change your plans. If you need to pay to move your flight, we’ve got your back. Same goes for those of you who booked a hotel or made other arrangements. Our team will be getting in touch with all ticket owners individually to help you out.”

OnePlus’s launch date change is one of the few times any company has openly acknowledged it’d be overshadowed by Apple. It’s the company recognizing its current place in the industry and not letting arrogance cloud its products or messaging.

The new launch event will kick off on Oct. 29 at 11 a.m. ET. 

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Microsoft’s new expense tracker Spend hits the App Store

The team behind mileage-tracking app MileIQ, a company Microsoft acquired a few years ago, is out with a new application. This time, the focus isn’t on tracking miles, but rather expenses. The new app, simply called “Spend,” arrived on the App Store on Thursday, offering automatic expense tracking for work reimbursement purposes or for taxes.

Spend doesn’t appear to be a part of some grand Microsoft plan to take on expense tracking industry giants, like Expensify or SAP-owned Concur, for example. At least, not at this time.

Instead, the app is a Microsoft Garage project, the App Store clarifies.

Microsoft Garage is the company’s internal incubator when employees can test out new ideas to see if they resonate with consumers and business users.

Through the program, a number of interesting projects have gotten their start over the years, like the Cortana-based dictation tool, Dictate; mobile design creation app Sprightly; short-form email app Send; the Word Flow keyboard for smartphones; a Bing-backed alternative to Google News; and dozens more.

The new Spend app, at first glance, looks well-designed and easy to use.

Like most expense trackers, it offers features like the ability to take photos of receipts, expense categorization features, and reporting.

However, what makes Spend interesting is the app’s automated tracking and matching, and its user interface for working with your receipts.

The app begins by automatically tracking all your expenses from a linked credit card or bank account. You can then swipe on the expenses to mark them as personal or business. These expenses are automatically categorized, and you can add extra tags for added organization.

You can also add notes to purchases, split expenses, and customize expense categories, in addition to tags.

And the app can generate expense reports on a weekly, monthly or custom bases, which can be exported at spreadsheets or PDFs. There’s a web dashboard for when you’re using the app at your computer, but Spend doesn’t appear on the MileIQ main website at this time. It does, however, have a support site.

The company says the new app is an early version, and they plan to revise it going forward as they make improvements. Microsoft has been asked for more details on its plans with Spend, and we’ll update if they have more to offer.

Embracing multimodality, Uber pioneers ride recommendations

For the first time, Uber will make contextual, personalized suggestions about the best way to get from point A to point B. The startup offers more than just cars now, and it’s starting to understand the tradeoffs between price, speed, convenience, and comfort amidst its multi-modal fleet. Most noticeably, you’ll now see JUMP bikes get premier billing right alongside Uber’s other vehicles. Going a short distance and there’s a charged up bike nearby? Uber will suggest you pedal. Might need extra room for luggage on your way to the airport? UberXL and SUV will appear. Always take cheap Pools? It won’t show you a pricier Black car.

Uber is finally getting smart. It has to if it’s going to make sense of its growing patchwork of ride types without overwhelming passengers with too many options. Uber’s algorithm can help them choose. “We think there’s a lot to be gained by being a one-stop shop to get somewhere” says Uber director of product Nundu Janakiram.

Uber now dynamically recommends different ride types

In particular, Uber could block disruption by scooter-specific startups like Spin, Bird, or Skip. If those apps have no vehicles nearby or you’re going to far, they’ve got nothing to offer. But Uber can provide a competitively priced Express Pool when there’s no open-air ride available, while convincing its existing UberX riders to try a bike or scooter for quick trips when congestion is thick thanks to its new in-house traffic estimates.

Uber Director Of Product Nundu Janakiram

Previously, you’d get a static set of three ride options from the price class you booked from last, regardless of your destination. Meanwhile, bikes and scooters were buried in Uber’s hamburger menu sidebar or an awkward toggle at the top of the screen. The company hans’t done a good job of communicating the definition of Select (nicer normal-sized cars) or Express Pool (walk and wait for a discount) either.

Now Uber’s homescreen can cherry pick the most relevant ride suggestions from across all price classes and vehicle types based on your trip length, destination type, and your personal ride history. Along with better explanations of the different options, this could get users experimenting with modes they’d never tried before.

To make room for more recommendations, the Uber Pool option will unfold to offer both Pools and Express Pools. Uber will even point you to nicer vehicles like Black cars or XLs if UberX is surging to the point that their prices are similar. If you want to compare all the options manually, you can tap to see a list with all the specs and prices lined up.

Beyond ride recommendations, Uber is moving the address bar to the bottom of the screen so its closer to your thumbs (which is great as phones keep getting bigger). Finally, in the coming weeks Uber will add a dynamic message bar to the center of the homescreen. Here depending on your pickup and drop off, it could show instructions for hailing from an airport, a discount offer, a birthday message, or just a friendly “Good Morning”. 

Eventually, Uber hopes to integrate public transportation ticketing like through its partner Masabi, car rentals, and even multi-leg trips into its recommendations. Maybe a JUMP bike to the train, then an UberPool that’s waiting to take you to your final destination is quicker and cheaper than any one mode alone. If you’re looking at an hour-plus Uber, it might cost less to just rent a car through its partner GetAround and drive yourself. And if a scooter is by far the best ride for you but all of Ubers are rented out, it could recommend one from its partner Lime.

A new communication box is coming to the center of Uber’s homescreen

Uber’s data shows users are rapidly embracing the multi-modal future. A study found the introduction of JUMP bikes to one city led to a 15 percent increase in total Uber + JUMP trips, even though Uber use dropped 10 to 15 percent.

Even if Uber sometimes cannibalizes itself by recommending cheaper options, it’s a smart long-term strategy. Janakiram laughs that “If we wanted to optimize for revenue, we wouldn’t have shown UberX, Pool, and Express Pool first for every user for the last few years.” The lifetime value of ridesharing users is so high that’s worth losing a couple of bucks here or there to keep users from straying to multi-modal competitors like Lyft. Retention will be a key metric under scrutiny as it eyes a 2019 IPO at a potential $120 billion valuation.

“The big picture is that we want your phone to replace your personal car” Janakiram concludes. “If we want to be a true transportation platform, we need to be everywhere our riders need to be as well. The right ride for the right context, and what’s the right ride for you.”

[Disclosure: Uber’s Janakiram and I briefly lived in the same three-bedroom apartment 5 years ago, though I’d already agreed to write about the redesign when I found out he was involved.]

Spotify’s Premium app gets a big makeover

Spotify has given its app a big makeover, with a focus on making the experience better for its paying subscribers. The company has simplified the app’s navigation by reducing the numbers of buttons and has revamped its Search page, which now incorporates elements previously found in “Browse,” like favorite genres or music to match a mood. And it’s given its Radio service a redesign as well, with the addition of new and easy-to-use Artist Radio Playlists.

The most immediately noticeable change is the app’s navigation.

Spotify has always felt a bit cluttered, with its five navigation buttons – Home, Browse, Search, Radio and My Library. The new app has chopped this down to just three buttons – Home, Search, and My Library.

Recommendations will appear on the Home page, following the update, while discovery is powered by Search.

The Search page lets you seek out artists, albums and podcasts by typing in queries, as before. But the page is also now personalized, showing your own “Top Genres” beneath the search bar – like R&B, Rock, Hip-Hop, Kids & Family – or whatever else you listen to. This is helpful because users’ tastes can change over time, or they may share their individual Spotify account with others (instead of opting for a Family plan), which can garble their recommendations.

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The “Browse” section has moved to this Search page in the redesign, and points to things like top charts, Spotify’s programmed playlists, your own personalized playlists, plus music by mood, genre, activity and more.

The Radio section got an overhaul, too.

With the update, you can search for a favorite artist or song, then immediately start listing to one of the brand-new Artist Radio playlists. These are personalized, endless streams based on your own tastes – and they’re updated regularly to stay fresh, Spotify notes.

This latter feature appears to address a recent challenge from Pandora, which tapped into its Music Genome to create dozens of personalized playlists for its users. Spotify, effectively, is turning its radio stations into personalized playlists now, too. Instead of asking users to thumbs up/down its selections, it will just create stations it knows you’ll like, based on the data it already has. These radio playlists also work offline, the company says.

The updated app for Premium users follows a redesign of the app for its free customers, announced back in April. That redesign made it easier for free users to access over a dozen playlists with songs on demand, which also included the option to skip tracks. It also reduced the number of tabs in the bottom navigation.

Spotify says the redesign for Spotify Premium is rolling out to all Premium subscribers on iOS and Android globally starting today.

Why IGTV should go premium

It’s been four months since Facebook launched IGTV, with the goal of creating a destination for longer-form Instagram videos. Is it shaping up to be a high-profile flop, or could this be the company’s next multi-billion dollar business?

IGTV, which features videos up to 60 minutes versus Instagram’s normal 60-second limit, hasn’t made much of a splash yet. Since there are no ads yet, it hasn’t made a dollar either. But, it offers Facebook the opportunity to dominate a new category of premium video, and to develop a subscription business that better aligns with high-quality content.

Facebook worked with numerous media brands and celebrities to shoot high-quality, vertical videos for IGTV’s launch on June 20, as both a dedicated app and a section within the main Instagram app. But IGTV has been quiet since. I’ve heard repeatedly in conversations with media executives that almost no one is creating content specifically for IGTV and that the audience on IGTV remains small relative to the distribution of videos on Snapchat or Facebook. Most videos on it are repurposed from a brand’s or influencer’s Snapchat account (at best) or YouTube channel (more common). Digiday heard the same feedback.

Instagram announced IGTV on June 20 as a way for users to post videos up to 1 hour long in a dedicated section of the app (and separate app).

Facebook’s goal should be to make IGTV a major property in its own right, distinct from the Instagram feed. To do that, the company should follow the concept embodied in the “IGTV” name and re-envision what television shows native to the format of an Instagram user would look like.

Its team should leverage the playbook of top TV streaming services like Netflix and Hulu in developing original series with top talent in Hollywood to anchor their own subscription service, but do in it a new format of shows produced specifically for the vertically-oriented, distraction-filled screen of a smartphone.

Mobile video is going premium

Of the 6+ hours per day that Americans spend on digital media, the majority on that is now on their phone (most of it on social and entertainment activities) and video viewing has grown with it. In addition to the decline in linear television viewing and rise of  “over-the-top” streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, we’ve seen the creation of a whole new category of video: mobile native video.

Starting at its most basic iteration with everyday users’ recordings for Snapchat Stories, Instagram Stories, and YouTube vlogs, mobile video is a very different viewing environment with a lot more competition for attention. Mobile video is watched as people are going about their day. They might commit a few minutes at a time, but not hour-long blocks, and there are distracting text messages and push notifications overlaid on the screen as they watch.

“Stories” on the major social apps have advanced vertically-oriented, mobile native videos as their own content format.

When I spoke recently with Jesús Chavez, CEO of the mobile-focused production company Vertical Networks in Los Angeles, he emphasized that successful episodic videos on mobile aren’t just normal TV clips with changes to the “packaging” (cropped for vertical, thumbnails selected to get clicks, etc.). The way episodes are written and shot has to be completely different to succeed. Chavez put it in terms of the higher “density” of mobile-native videos: packing more activity into a short time window, with faster dialogue, fewer setup shots, split screens, and other tactics.

With the growing amount of time people spend watching videos on their social apps each day—and the flood of subpar videos chasing view counts—it makes sense that they would desire a premium content option. We have seen this scenario before as ad-dependent radio gave rise to subscription satellite radio like SiriusXM and ad-dependent network TV gave rise to pay-TV channels like HBO. What that looks like in this context is a trusted service with the same high bar for riveting storytelling of popular films and TV series—and often featuring famous talent from those—but native to the vertical, smartphone environment.

If IGTV pursues this path, it would compete most directly with Quibi, the new venture that Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman are raising $2 billion to launch (and was temporarily called NewTV until their announcement at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit last Wednesday). They are developing a big library of exclusive shows by iconic directors like Guillermo del Toro and Jason Blum crafted specifically for smartphones through their upcoming subscription-based app.

Quibi’s funding is coming from the world’s largest studios (Disney, Fox, Sony, Lionsgate, MGM, NBCU, Viacom, Alibaba, etc.) whose executives see substantial enough opportunity in such a platform—which they could then produce content for—to write nine-figure checks.

TechCrunch’s Josh Constine argued last year Snapchat should go in a similar “HBO of mobile” direction as well, albeit ad-supported rather than a subscription model. The company indeed seems to be stepping further in this direction with last week’s announcement of Snapchat Originals, although it has announced and then canceled original content plans before.

Snapchat announced its Snap Originals last week.

Facebook is the best positioned to win

Facebook is the best positioned to seize this opportunity, and IGTV is the vehicle for doing so. Without even considering integrations with the Facebook, Messenger, or WhatsApp apps, Facebook is starting with a base of over 1 billion monthly active users on Instagram alone. That’s an enormous audience to expose these original shows to, and an audience who don’t need to create or sign into a separate account to explore what’s playing on IGTV. Broader distribution is also a selling point for creative talent: they want their shows to be seen by large audiences.

The user data that makes Facebook rivaled only by Google in targeted advertising would give IGTV’s recommendation algorithms a distinct advantage in pushing users to the IGTV shows most relevant to their interests and most popular among their friends.

The social nature of Instagram is an advantage in driving awareness and engagement around IGTV shows: Instagram users could see when someone they follow watches or “likes” a show (pending their privacy settings). An obvious feature would be to allow users to discuss or review a show by sharing it to their main Instagram feed with a comment; their followers would see a clip or trailer then be able to click-through to the full show in IGTV with one tap.

Developing and acquiring a library of must-see, high-quality original productions is massively capital intensive—just ask Netflix about the $13 billion it’s spending this year. Targeting premium quality mobile video will be no different. That’s why Katzenberg and Whitman are raising a $2 billion war chest for Quibi and budgeting production costs of $100,000-150,000 per minute on par with top TV shows. Facebook has $42 billion in cash and equivalents on its balance sheet. It can easily outspend Quibi and Snap in financing and marketing original shows by a mix of newcomers and Hollywood icons.

Snap can’t afford (financially) to compete head-on and doesn’t have the same scale of distribution. It is at 188 million daily active users and no longer growing rapidly (up 8% over the last year but DAUs actually shrunk by 3 million last quarter). Snapchat is also a much more private interface: it doesn’t enable users to see each others’ activity like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, Spotify, and others do to encourage content discovery. Snap is more likely to create a hub for ad-supported mobile-first shows for teens and early-twentysomethings rather than rival Quibi or IGTV in creating a more broadly popular Netflix or Hulu of mobile-native shows.

It’s time to go freemium

Investing substantial capital upfront is especially necessary for a company launching a subscription tier: consumers must see enough compelling content behind the paywall from the start, and enough new content regularly added, to find an ongoing subscription worthwhile.

There is currently no monetization of IGTV. It is sitting in experimentation mode as Facebook watches how people use it. If any company can drive enough ad revenue solely from short commercials to still profit on high-cost, high-quality episodic shows on mobile, it’s Facebook. But a freemium subscription model makes more sense for IGTV. From a financial standpoint, building IGTV into its own profitable P&L while making substantial content investments likely demands more revenue than ads alone will generate.

Of equal importance is incentive alignment. Subscriptions are defined by “time well spent” rather time spent and clicks made: quality over quantity. This is the environment in which premium content of other formats has thrived too; SiriusXM as the breakout on radio, HBO on linear TV, Netflix in OTT originals. The type of content IGTV will incentivize, and the creative talent they’ll attract, will be much higher quality when the incentives are to create must-see shows that drive new subscribers than when the incentives are to create videos that optimize for views.

Could there be a “Netflix for mobile native video” with shows shot in vertical format specifically for viewing on smartphone?

The optimization for views (to drive ad revenue) have been the model that media companies creating content for Facebook have operated on for the last decade. The toxicity of this has been a top news story over the last year with Facebook acknowledging many of the issues with clickbait and sensationalism and vowing changes.

Over the years, Facebook has dragged media companies up and down with changes to its newsfeed algorithm that forced them to make dramatic changes to their content strategies (often with layoffs and restructuring). It has burned bridges with media companies in the process; especially after last January, how to reduce dependence on Facebook platforms has become a common discussion point among digital content executives. If Facebook wants to get top producers, directors, and production companies investing their time and resources in developing a new format of high-quality video series for IGTV, it needs an incentives-aligned business model they can trust to stay consistent.

Imagine a free, ad-supported tier for videos by influencers and media partners (plus select “IGTV Originals”) to draw in Instagram users, then a $3-8/month subscription tier for access to all IGTV Originals and an ad-free viewing experience. (By comparison, Quibi plans to charge a $5/month subscription with ads with the option of $8/month for its ad-free tier.)

Looking at the growth of Netflix in traditional TV streaming, a subscription-based business should be a welcome addition to Facebook’s portfolio of leading content-sharing platforms. This wouldn’t be its first expansion beyond ad revenue: the newest major division of Facebook, Oculus, generates revenue from hardware sales and a 30% cut of the revenue to VR apps in the Oculus app store (similar to Apple’s cut of iOS app revenue). Facebook is also testing a dating app which—based on the freemium business model Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, and other leading dating apps have proven to work—would be natural to add a subscription tier to.

Facebook is facing more public scrutiny (and government regulation) on data privacy and its ad targeting than ever before. Incorporating subscriptions and transaction fees as revenue streams benefits the company financially, creates a healthier alignment of incentives with users, and eases the public criticism of how Facebook is using people’s data. Facebook is already testing subscriptions to Facebook Groups and has even explored offering a subscription alternative to advertising across its core social platforms. It is quite unlikely to do the latter, but developing revenue streams beyond ads is clearly something the company’s leadership is contemplating.

The path forward

IGTV needs to make product changes if it heads in this direction. Right now videos can’t link together to form a series (i.e. one show with multiple episodes) and discoverability is very weak. Beyond seeing recent videos by those you follow, videos that are trending, and a selection of recommendations, you can only search for channels to follow (based on name). There’s no way to search for specific videos or shows, no way to browse channels or videos by topic, and no way to see what people you follow are watching.

It would be a missed opportunity not to vie for this. The upside is enormous—owning the Netflix of a new content category—while the downside is fairly minimal for a company with such a large balance sheet.