Uber Rewards is rolling out. Here’s how the perks work

Did you blow enough money on Uber to get Diamond status? A lot of users are finding out tonight as Uber rolls out its rider loyalty Rewards program to San Francisco and a slew of other cities. The feature calculates how much you’ve spent on Uber and Uber Eats in the last six months awards you perks like no-fee cancellations if you rebook, guaranteed prices between your two favorite spots, and free car upgrades. Uber confirms to TechCrunch that Rewards will roll out to the entire US soon but now is available in 25 places across the country.

Uber Rewards is still a bit complicated to be easy enough for everyone to quickly understand, but it does a could job of offering powerful perks and a way for everyone to earn $5 rebates. The program could discourage users from checking other ride hailing apps if their Uber’s ETA or price seems too high.

Meanwhile, Lyft’s loyalty program remains unseen. The competitor tried to steal the spotlight by announcing its own rewards system just two days before Uber, yet it seems like that was vaporware as it still hasn’t launched. Uber was far from first here, as Southeast Asia’s Grab has had rewards since 2016. But Uber could flex its deep pockets and cultural cache here by using slick product design to differentiate itself in a crowded market of lookalikes.

How To Use Uber Rewards

Luckily, almost everything in Uber Rewards happens automatically. All you have to do is look out for the invitation to join at the bottom of the home screen and activate it. You’ll then see your tier and the associated perks that you’ll get to keep for the next six months.

The only non-retroactive perk is the $5 credits you get for each 500 points you earn going forward. You get 1 point per dollar spent on UberPool, Express Pool and Uber Eats;  2 points on UberX, Uber XL and Uber Select; and 3 points on Uber Black and Black SUV.  The one perk you have to configure yourself is if you’re platinum, you’ll have to choose which route to get price protection for. You probably want to pick your home and your most frequent destination or one of reasonable distance that you often travel to or from during rush hour.

Uber Rewards is now available in Boston, Dallas, Orange County, Houston, New Orleans, Kansas City, Indianapolis, LA, SF, Fort Collins, Rockies, Pittsburgh, Lehigh valley, Gettysburg, Erie, and Western Massachusetts. That’s on top of the launch cities of Miami, Denver, Tampa, New York, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Atlanta, San Diego, and anywhere in New Jersey. Once Uber has nailed the experience in the US, it plans to roll it out to international locales.

Uber Rewards Levels

Now, here’s a breakdown of the Uber Rewards tiers, the best perks, and how much Ubering it takes to earn them (from our November post announcing the feature):

Blue: $5 credits

The only Uber perk that doesn’t reset at the end of a period is that you get $5 of Uber Cash for every 500 points earned regardless of membership level. “Even as a semi-frequent Uber Rewards member you’ll get these instant benefits,” Janakiram says. Blue lets you treat Uber like a video game where you’re trying to rack up points to earn an extra life. To earn 500 points, you’d need about 48 UberPool trips, 6 Uber Xs and 6 Uber Eats orders.

Gold: Flexible cancellations

Once you hit 500 points, you join Uber Gold and get flexible cancellations that refund your $5 cancellation fee if you rebook within 15 minutes, plus priority support Gold is for users who occasionally take Uber but stick to its more economical options. “The Gold level is all about being there when things aren’t going exactly right,” Janakiram explains. To earn 500 points in six months, you’d need to take about 2 UberPools per week, one Uber X per month and one Uber Eats order per month.

Platinum: Price protection

At 2,500 points you join Uber Platinum, which gets you the Gold benefits plus price protection on a route between two of your favorite places regardless of traffic or surge. And Platinum members get priority pickups at airports. To earn 2,500 points, you’d need to take UberX 4 times per week and order Uber Eats twice per month. It’s designed for the frequent user who might rely on Uber to get to work or play.

Diamond: Premium support & upgrades

At 7,500 points, you get the Gold and Platinum benefits plus premium support with a dedicated phone line and fast 24/7 responses from top customer service agents. You get complimentary upgrade surprises from UberX to Uber Black and other high-end cars. You’ll be paired with Uber’s highest-rated drivers. And you get no delivery fee on three Uber Eats orders every six months. Reaching 7,500 points would require UberX 8 times per week, Uber Eats once per week and Uber Black to the airport once per month. Diamond is meant usually for business travelers who get to expense their rides, or people who’d ditched car ownership for ridesharing.

Roger Dickey ditches $32M-funded Gigster to start Untitled Labs

Most founders don’t walk away from their startup after raising $32 million and reaching 1000 clients. But Roger Dickey’s heart is in consumer tech, and his company Gigster had pivoted to doing outsourced app development for enterprises instead of scrappy entrepreneurs.

So today Dickey announced that he’d left his role as Gigster CEO, with former VMware VP Christopher Keane who’d sold it his startup WaveMaker coming in to lead Gigster in October. Now, Dickey is launching Untitled Labs, a “search lab” designed to test multiple consumer tech ideas in “social and professional networking, mobility, personal finance, premium services, health & wellness, travel, photography, and dating” before building out one

Untitled Labs is starting off with $2.8 million in seed funding from early Gigster investors and other angels including Founders Fund, Felicis Ventures, Caffeinated Capital, Joe Montana’s Liquid Ventures, Ashton Kutcher, Nikita Bier of TBH (acquired by Facebook), and Zynga co-founder Justin Waldron.

Investors lined up after seeing the success of Dickey’s last two search labs. In 2007, his Curiosoft lab revamped classic DOS game Drugwars as a Facebook game called Dopewars and sold it to Zynga where it became the wildly popular Mafia Wars. He did it again in 2014, building Gigster out of Liquid Labs and eventually raising $32 million for it in rounds led by Andreessen Horowitz and Redpoint. Dickey had proven he wasn’t just dicking around and his search labs could experiment their way to an A-grade startup.

“I loved learning about B2B but over the years I realized my true passions were in consumer and I kinda got the itch to try something new” Dickey tells me. “These things happen in the life-cycle of a company. The person who starts it isn’t always the same person to take it to an IPO. Gigster’s doing incredibly well. It was just a really vanilla separation in the best interest of all parties.”

Gigster co-founders (from left): Debo Olaosebikan and Roger Dickey

Gigster’s remaining co-founder and CTO Debo Olaosebikan will stay with the startup, but tells me he’ll be “moving away from a lot of the day-to-day management.” He’ll be in a more public facing role, evangelizing the vision of digital transformation to big clients hoping Gigster can equip them with the apps their customers demand. “We’ve gotten to a really good place on the backs of the founders and to get it to the next level inside of enterprise, having people who’ve done this, lived this, worked in enterprise for a long time makes sense for the company.”

Olaosebikan and Dickey both confirm there was no misconduct or other funny business that triggered the CEO’s departure, and he’ll stay on the Gigster board. Dickey tells me that Gigster’s business managing teams of freelance product managers, engineers, and designers to handle product development for big clients has grown revenue every quarter. It now has 1200 clients including almost 10% of Fortune 500 companies. Olaosebikan says “We have a great repeatable sales model. We can grow profitably and then we can figure out financing. We’re not in a hurry to raise money.”

Since leaving Gigster, Dickey has been meeting with investors and entrepreneurs to noodle on what’s in their “idea shelf” — the product and company concepts these techies imagine but are too busy to implement themselves. Meanwhile, he’s seeking a few elite engineers and designers to work through Untitled’s prospects.

Dickey said he came up with the “search labs” definition since he and others had found success with the strategy that no one had formalized. The search labs model contrasts with three other ways people typically form startups:

  • Traditional Startup: Founders come up with one idea and raise from venture firms to build it into a company that’s quick to start and lets them keep a lot of equity, but these startups often fail because they lack product market fit. Examples: Facebook, SpaceX.
  • Startup Accelerators and Incubators: Founders come up with one idea and enter an accelerator or incubator that provides funding and education for lots of startups in exchange for a small slice of equity. Founders sometimes learn their idea won’t work and pivot during the program, which is why accelerators seek to fund great teams, but otherwise operate traditionally. Examples: Y Combinator, 500 Startups.
  • Startup Studio: The studios’ founders work with entrepreneurs to come up with a small number of ideas while keeping a significant of the equity. The entrepreneurs operate semi-autonomously but with the advantage of shared resources. Examples: Expa, Betaworks.
  • Search Lab: Founders conceptualize and experiment with a small number of startup ideas, then focus the company around the most promising prototype. Examples: Untitled Labs, Midnight Labs (turned into TBH)

Dickey tells me that after 80 angel investments, going to every recent Y Combinator Demo Day, and talking with key players across the industry, the search lab method was the best way to hone in on his best idea rather than just going on a hunch. Given that approach, he went with “Untitled” so he could save the branding work for when the right product emerges. Dickey concludes “We’re trying to keep it really barebones. We don’t have an office, don’t have a logo, and we’re not going to make swag. We’re just going to find the next business as efficiently as possible.”

Shodan Safari, where hackers heckle the worst devices put on the internet

If you leave something on the internet long enough, someone will hack it.

The reality is that many device manufacturers make it far too easy by using default passwords that are widely documented, allowing anyone to log in as “admin” and snoop around. Often, there’s no password at all.

Enter “Shodan Safari,” a popular part-game, part-expression of catharsis, where hackers tweet and share their worst finds on Shodan, a search engine for exposed devices and databases popular with security researchers. Almost anything that connects to the internet gets scraped and tagged in Shodan’s vast search engine — including what the device does and internet ports are open, which helps Shodan understand what the device is. If a particular port is open, it could be a webcam. If certain header comes back, it’s backend might be viewable in the browser.

Think of Shodan Safari as internet dumpster diving.

From cameras to routers, hospital CT scanners to airport explosive detector units, you’d be amazed — and depressed — at what you can find exposed on the open internet.

Like a toilet, or prized pot plant, or — as we see below — someone’s actual goat.

The reality is that Shodan scares people — and it should. It’s a window into the world of absolute insecurity. It’s not just exposed devices but databases — storing anything from two-factor codes to your voter records, and where you’re going to the gym tonight. But devices take up the bulk of what’s out there. Exposed CCTV cameras, license plate readers, sex toys, and smart home appliances. If it’s out there and exposed, it’s probably on Shodan.

If there’s ever a lesson to device makers, not everything has to be connected to the internet.

Here’s some of the worst things we’ve found so far. (And here’s where to send your best finds.)

An office air conditioning controller. (Screenshot: Shodan)

 

A weather station monitor at an airport in Alabama. (Screenshot: Shodan)

 

A web-based financial system at a co-operative credit bank in India. (Screenshot: Shodan)

 

For some reason, a beef factory. (Screenshot: Shodan)

 

An electric music carillon near St. Louis. used for making church bell melodies. (Screenshot: Shodan)

 

A bio-gas production and refinery plant in Italy. (Screenshot: Shodan)

 

A bird. Just a bird. (Screenshot: Shodan via @Joshbal4)

 

A brewery in Los Angeles. (Screenshot: Shodan)

 

The back end of a cinema’s projector system. Many simply run Windows. (Screenshot: Shodan via @tacticalmaid)

 

The engine room of a Dutch fishing boat. (Screenshot: Shodan)

 

An explosive residue detector at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 3. (Screenshot: TechCrunch)

 

A fish tank water control and temperature monitor. (Screenshot: Shodan)

 

A climate control system for a flower store in Colorado Springs. (Screenshot: Shodan)

 

The web interface for a Tesla PowerPack. (Screenshot: Shodan via @xd4rker)

 

An Instagram auto-follow bot.(Screenshot: Shodan)

 

A terminal used by a pharmacist. (Screenshot: Shodan)

 

A controller for video displays and speakers at a Phil’s BBQ restaurant in Texas. (Screenshot: Shodan)

 

A Kodak Lotem printing press. (Screenshot: Shodan)

 

Someone’s already hacked lawn sprinkler system. Yes, that’s Rick Astley. (Screenshot: Shodan)

 

A sulfur dioxide detector. (Screenshot: Shodan)

 

An internet-connected knee recovery machine. (Screenshot: Shodan)

 

Somehow, a really old version of Windows XP still in existence. (Screenshot: Shodan)

 

Someone’s workout machine. (Screenshot: Shodan)

‘Anti-Uber’ taxi strikes kick off again in Spain

Taxi drivers in major cities in Spain are on strike again to apply pressure for more stringent regulations to control app rivals such as Uber and Cabify which they view as unfair competition.

In Barcelona the taxi sector called an indefinite strike on Friday, using their vehicles to block Gran Vía in the Catalan capital, with protest action carrying on through the weekend and continuing into today.

Taxi drivers in Madrid are also on strike from this morning.

In Barcelona, the strike was called after the Catalan government announced proposals for regulating the vehicle for hire (VTC) sector which include a 15 minute wait time between a passenger booking and being able to take a ride.

The taxi drivers want the wait time to be much longer than that; at least 24 hours.

There were reports of violence during Friday’s action. The Huffington Post said a Cabify driver suffered a panic attack after his car was attacked by a group of protestors. It reports the police used cardiopulmonary resuscitation manoeuvers on the driver to stabilize him.

A journalist for El Pais also posted a video of the attack and resulting damage to the vehicle on Twitter.

The AP reports that local police arrested seven people in connection with the violence.

On Sunday, Elite Taxi BCN, one of the main associations backing the strike action, issued a video of its spokesman, Alberto Álvarez, calling for protestors to keep things peaceful.

The latest strikes follow a summer of action by the sector which also kicked off in Barcelona, also with violent scenes and reports of attacks on VTC drivers.

In that case Uber and Cabify temporarily paused services in the city on safety grounds. The pair do not appear to have stopped their services this time.

Although some VTC drivers have been holding counter protests by parking their vehicles along a stretch of Avenue Diagonal, causing further disruption to the flow of traffic in the city.

The taxi strike in the summer only ended after the government agreed to transfer regulatory competency for the VTC sector to the regions. The Catalan government is the first regional authority to have put forward proposals for regulating VTCs.

But the move devolving regulatory competency has not ended the ‘taxi war’. Far from it; it’s cranking up a gear as taxi associations demand a firewall for their sector by overruling the on-demand convenience of app-based rivals which are counter protesting in the hopes of steering out of a looming regulatory bind.

The latter group argues that imposed wait limits would be unconstitutional because they would go against the general interest of citizens. They also point out that waiting time based regulations have not been successfully enforced anywhere in Europe (London’s TfL proposed a five minute waiting time after a booking back in 2015 but dropped the measure after a public consultation, for instance).

While the taxi sector argues that existing laws aren’t being enforced meaning that a regulated public service is being unfairly undercut and undermined by multinationals that also only bring precarious work, rather than sustainable employment…

In Barcelona the annual Mobile World Congress tradeshow, which takes place in just over a month’s time — bringing an influx of around 100,000 techie visitors — is a strategic ratchet for the taxi industry to pressure authorities. Threats to paralyze the city are at their most politically and economically potent. So there’s plenty of uncertainty about where the latest huelga indefinida will lead.

If wait limits are imposed the VTC sector claims it would result in scores of drivers being put out of work. Commenting on the Barcelona government’s proposals for regulating the sector, an Uber spokesman told us: “Recent developments could have major consequences for drivers as well as the thousands of riders who enjoy new mobility services in the city. We continue to call for dialogue with all local stakeholders, including taxis, to shape the future of urban mobility in Spain together.”

We’ve also reached out to Cabify for comment.

Unauto VTC, a VTC association, issued a press release on Saturday decrying the blockade of the city and what it dubbed “intolerable levels of violence” by taxi associations, as well as attacking the “absolutely disproportionate” proposed VTC regulations. It also denounced the local government minister in charge of the regulation, Damià Calvet, accusing him of caving in to taxi industry “blackmail”.

“The Catalan Government’s umpteenth caving in to taxi sector blackmail has ensured it will no longer be satisfied with anything other than the disappearance of the VTC sector. We hope the government rectifies this immediately and allows the general interest of the citizens of Catalonia to prevail,” said association president, Eduardo Martín, in a statement (which we’ve translated).

“I wonder what the next thing Barcelona’s taxi sector will be asking for under threat of blocking the Mobile World Congress. Maybe the Metro closes an hour earlier, or that the Aerobus disappears. In view of the attitude of the current Government of the Generalitat it is possible that they will achieve it.”

The city government pointed us to a statement today, from the councillor for mobility and president of metropolitan transport, Mercedes Vidal, calling for an “acceptable” proposal so taxis and VTC drivers do not do the same work.

Facebook launches petition feature, its next battlefield

Gather a mob and Facebook will now let you make political demands. Tomorrow Facebook will encounter a slew of fresh complexities with the launch of Community Actions, its News Feed petition feature. Community Actions could unite neighbors to request change from their local and national elected officials and government agencies. But it could also provide vocal interest groups a bully pulpit from which to pressure politicians and bureaucrats with their fringe agendas.

Community Actions embodies the central challenge facing Facebook. Every tool it designs for positive expression and connectivity can be subverted for polarization and misinformation. Facebook’s membership has swelled into such a ripe target for exploitation that it draws out the worst of humanity. You can imagine misuses like “Crack down on [minority group]” that are offensive or even dangerous but some see as legitimate. The question is whether Facebook puts in the forethought and aftercare to safeguard its new tools with proper policy and moderation. Otherwise each new feature is another liability.

Community Actions start to roll out to the US tomorrow after several weeks of testing in a couple of markets. Users can add a title, description, and image to their Community Action, and tag relevant government agencies and officials who’ll be notified. The goal is to make the Community Action go viral and get people to hit the “Support” button. Community Actions have their own discussion feed where people can leave comments, create fundraisers, and organize Facebook Events or Call Your Rep campaigns. Facebook displays the numbers of supporters behind a Community Action, but you’ll only be able to see the names of those you’re friends with or that are Pages or public figures.

Facebook is purposefully trying to focus Community Actions to be more narrowly concentrated on spurring government action than just any random cause. That means it won’t immediately replace Change.org petitions that can range from the civilian to the absurd. But one-click Support straight from the News Feed could massively reduce the friction to signing up, and thereby attract organizations and individuals seeking to maximize the size of their mob.

You can check out some examples here of Community Actions here like a non-profit Colorado Rising calling for the governor to put a moratorium on oil and gas drilling, citizens asking the a Florida’s mayor and state officials to build a performing arts center, and a Philadelphia neighborhood association requesting that the city put in crosswalks by the library. I fully expect one of the first big Community Actions will be the social network’s users asking Senators to shut down Facebook or depose Mark Zuckerberg.

The launch follows other civic-minded Facebook features like its Town Hall and Candidate Info for assessing politicians, Community Help for finding assistance after a disaster, and local news digest Today In. A Facebook spokesperson who gave us the first look at Community Actions provided this statement:

“Building informed and civically engaged communities is at the core of Facebook’s mission. Every day, people come together on Facebook to advocate for causes they care about, including by contacting their elected officials, launching a fundraiser, or starting a group. Through these and other tools, we have seen people marshal support for and get results on issues that matter to them. Community Action is another way for people to advocate for changes in their communities and partner with elected officials and government agencies on solutions.”

The question will be where Facebook’s moderators draw the line on what’s appropriate as a Community Action, and the ensuing calls of bias that line will trigger. Facebook is employing a combination of user flagging, proactive algorithmic detection, and human enforcers to manage the feature. But what the left might call harassment, the right might call free expression. If Facebook allows controversial Community Actions to persist, it could be viewed as complicit with their campaigns, but could be criticized for censorship if it takes one down. Like fake news and trending topics, the feature could become the social network’s latest can of worms.

Facebook is trying to prioritize local Actions where community members have a real stake. It lets user display “constituent” badges so their elected officials know they aren’t just a distant rabble-rouser. It’s why Facebook will not allow President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence to be tagged in Community Actions. But you’re free to tag all your state representatives demanding nude parks, apparently.

Another issue is how people can stand up against a Community Action. Only those who Support one may join in its discussion feed. That might lead trolls to falsely pledge their backing just to stir up trouble in the comments. Otherwise, Facebook tells me users will have to share a Community Action to their own feed with a message of disapproval, or launch their own in protest. My concern is that an agitated but niche group could drive a sense of false equivocacy by using Facebook Groups or message threads to make it look like there’s as much or more support for a vulgar cause or against of a just one. A politician could be backed into a corner and forced to acknowledge radicals or bad-faith actors lest they look negligent

While Facebook’s spokesperson says initial tests didn’t surface many troubles, the company is trying to balance safety with efficiency and it will consider how to evolve the feature in response to emergent behaviors. The trouble is that open access draws out the trolls and grifters seeking to fragment society. Facebook will have to assume the thorny responsibility of shepherding the product towards righteousness and defining what that even means. If it succeeds, there’s an amazing opportunity here for citizens to band together to exert consensus upon government. A chorus of voices carries much further than a single cry.

Facebook is secretly building LOL, a cringey teen meme hub

How do you do, fellow kids? After Facebook Watch, Lasso and IGTV failed to become hits with teens, the company has been quietly developing another youthful video product. Multiple sources confirm that Facebook has spent months building LOL, a special feed of funny videos and GIF-like clips. It’s divided into categories like “For You,” “Animals,” “Fails,” “Pranks” and more with content pulled from News Feed posts by top meme Pages on Facebook. LOL is currently in private beta with around 100 high school students who signed non-disclosure agreements with parental consent to do focus groups and one-on-one testing with Facebook staff.

In response to TechCrunch’s questioning, Facebook confirmed it is privately testing LOL as a home for funny meme content with a very small number of U.S. users. While those testers experience LOL as a replacement for their Watch tab, Facebook says there’s no plans to roll out LOL in Watch and the team is still finalizing whether it will become a separate feature in one of Facebook’s main app or a standalone app. Facebook initially declined to give a formal statement but told us the details we had were accurate. [Update: A Facebook spokesperson has now provided an official statement: “We are running a small scale test and the concept is in the early stages right now.”]

With teens increasingly turning to ephemeral Stories for sharing and content consumption, Facebook is desperate to lure them back to its easily-monetizable feeds. Collecting the funniest News Feed posts and concentrating them in a dedicated place could appeal to kids seeking rapid-fire lightweight entertainment. LOL could also soak up some of the “low-quality” videos Facebook scrubbed out of the News Feed a year ago in hopes of decreasing zombie-like passive viewing that can hurt people’s well-being.

But our sources familiar with LOL’s design said it still feels “cringey”, like Facebook is futilely pretending to be young and hip. The content found in LOL is sometimes weeks old, so meme-obsessed teens may have seen it before. After years of parents overrunning Facebook, teens have grown skeptical of the app and many have fled for Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube. Parachuting into the memespehere may come off as inauthentic posing and Facebook could find it difficult to build a young fanbase for LOL.

In one of the recent designs for LOL, screenshots attained by TechCrunch show users are greeted with a carousel of themed collections called “Dailies” like “Look Mom No Hands” in a design reminiscent of Snapchat’s Discover section. Below that there’s a feed of algorithmically curated “For You” clips. Users can filter the LOL feed to show categories like “Wait For It”, “Savage”, “Classics”, “Gaming”, “Celebs”, “School”, and “Stand-Up”, or tap buttons atop the screen to see dedicated sub-feeds for these topics.

Once users open a Dailies collection or start scrolling the feed, it turns into a black-bordered theater mode that auto-advances after you finish a video clip for lean-back consumption. Facebook cuts each video clip up into sections several seconds long that users can fast-forward through with a tap like they’re watching a long Instagram Story. Below each piece of content is a set of special LOL reaction buttons for “Funny”, “Alright”, and “Not Funny”. There’s also a share button on each piece of content, plus users can upload videos or paste in a URL to submit videos to LOL.

Facebook has repeatedly failed to capture the hearts of teens with Snapchat clones like Poke and Slingshot, standalone apps like Lifestage, and acquisitions like TBH. Fears that it’s losing the demographic or that the shift driven by the youth from feeds to Stories that Facebook has less experience monetizing have caused massive drops in the company’s share price over the years. If Facebook can’t fill in this age gap, the next generation of younger users might sidestep the social network too, which could lead to huge downstream problems for growth and revenue.

That’s why Facebook won’t give up on teens, even despite embarrassing stumbles. Its new Tik Tok clone Lasso saw only 10,000 downloads in the first 12 days. Despite seeming like a ghost town, Facebook still updated it with a retweet-like Relasso and camera uploads today. Unlike the Tik Tok-dominated musical video space, though, the meme sharing universe is much more fragmented and there’s a better chance for Facebook to barge in.

Teens discover memes on Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, and exchange them in DMs. Beyond Imgur that encompasses lots of visual storytelling styles, there’s no super-popular dedicated meme discovery app. Instagram is probably already the leader, with tons of users following meme accounts to get fresh daily dumps of jokes. Facebook might have more luck if it built meme creation tools and a dedicated viewing hub in Explore or a second Stories tray within Instagram. As is, it mostly ignores meme culture while occasionally shutting down curators’ accounts.

Facebook might seem out of touch, but the fact that it’s even trying to build a meme browser shows it recognizes the opportunity here. Sometimes our brains need a break and we want quick hits of entertainment that don’t require too much thought, commitment, or attention span. As Facebook tries to become more meaningful, LOL could save room for meaningless fun.

Google starts pulling unvetted Android apps that access call logs and SMS messages

Google is removing apps from Google Play that request permission to access call logs and SMS text message data but haven’t been manually vetted by Google staff.

The search and mobile giant said it is part of a move to cut down on apps that have access to sensitive calling and texting data.

Google said in October that Android apps will no longer be allowed to use the legacy permissions as part of a wider push for developers to use newer, more secure and privacy minded APIs. Many apps request access to call logs and texting data to verify two-factor authentication codes, for social sharing, or to replace the phone dialer. But Google acknowledged that this level of access can and has been abused by developers who misuse the permissions to gather sensitive data — or mishandle it altogether.

“Our new policy is designed to ensure that apps asking for these permissions need full and ongoing access to the sensitive data in order to accomplish the app’s primary use case, and that users will understand why this data would be required for the app to function,” wrote Paul Bankhead, Google’s director of product management for Google Play.

Any developer wanting to retain the ability to ask a user’s permission for calling and texting data has to fill out a permissions declaration.

Google will review the app and why it needs to retain access, and will weigh in several considerations, including why the developer is requesting access, the user benefit of the feature that’s requesting access, and the risks associated with having access to call and texting data.

Bankhead conceded that under the new policy, some use cases will “no longer be allowed,” rendering some apps obsolete.

So far, tens of thousands of developers have already submitted new versions of their apps either removing the need to access call and texting permissions, Google said, or have submitted a permissions declaration.

Developers with a submitted declaration have until March 9 to receive approval or remove the permissions. In the meantime, Google has a full list of permitted use cases for the call log and text message permissions, as well as alternatives.

The last two years alone has seen several high profile cases of Android apps or other services leaking or exposing call and text data. In late 2017, popular Android keyboard ai.type exposed a massive database of 31 million users, including 374 million phone numbers.

Dolby quietly preps augmented audio recorder app “234″

Dolby is secretly building a mobile music production app it hopes will seduce SoundCloud rappers and other musicians. Codenamed “234” and formerly tested under the name Dolby Live, the free app measures background noise before you record and then nullifies it. Users can also buy “packs” of audio effects to augment their sounds with EQs settings like “Amped, Bright, Lyric, Thump, Deep, or Natural”. Recordings can then be exported, shared to Dolby’s own audio social network, or uploaded directly to SoundCloud through a built-in integration.

You could call it VSCO or Instagram for SoundCloud.

234 is Dolby Labs’ first big entrance into the world of social apps that could give it more face time with consumers than its core business of integrating audio technology into devices by other manufacturers. Using 234 to convince musicians that Dolby is an expert at audio quality could get them buying more of those speakers and headphones. And by selling audio effect packs, the app could earn the company money directly while making the world of mobile music sound better.

Dolby has been covertly testing Dolby Live/234 since at least June. A source tipped us off to the app and while the company hasn’t formally announced it, there is a website for signing up to test Dolby 234. Dolby PR refused to comment on the forthcoming app. But 234’s sign-up site advertises it saying “How can music recorded on a phone sound so good? Dolby 234 automatically cleans up the sound, gives it tone and space, and finds the ideal loudness. it’s like having your own producer in your phone.”

Those with access to the Dolby 234 app can quickly record audio or audio/video clips with optional background noise cancelling. Free sound editing tools including trimming, loudness boost, and bass and treble controls. Users can get a seven-day free trial of the Dolby’s “Essentials” pack of EQ presets like ‘Bright’ before having to pay, though the pack was free in the beta version so we’re not sure how much it will cost. The “Tracks” tab lets you edit or share any of the clips you’ve recorded.

Overall, the app is polished and intuitive with a lively feel thanks to the Instagram logo-style purple/orange gradient color scheme. The audio effects have a powerful impact on the sound without being gimmicky or overbearing. There’s plenty of room for additional features, though, like multi-tracking, a metronome, or built-in drum beats.

For musicians posting mobile clips to Instagram or other social apps, 234 could make them sound way better without much work. There’s also a huge opportunity for Dolby to court podcasters and other non-music audio creators. I’d love a way to turn effects on and off mid-recording so I could add the feeling of an intimate whisper or echoey ampitheater to emphasize certain words or phrases.

Given how different 234 is from Dolby’s traditional back-end sound processing technologies, it’s done a solid job with design and the app could still get more bells and whistles before an official launch. It’s a creative move for the brand and one that recognizes the seismic shifts facing audio production and distribution. As always-in earbuds like Apple’s AirPods and voice interfaces like Alexa proliferate, short-form audio content will become more accessible and popular. Dolby could spare the world from having to suffer through amazing creators muffled by crappy recordings.