At this point, SoftBank Group is really just its Vision Fund

Last week, SoftBank Group Corp. — Masayoshi Son’s holding company for his rapidly expanding collection of businesses — reported its fiscal year financials. There were some major headlines that came out of the news, including that the company’s Vision Fund appears to be doing quite well and that SoftBank intends to increase its stake in Yahoo Japan.

Now that the dust has settled a bit, I wanted to dive into all 80 pages of the full financial results to see what else we can learn about the conglomerate’s strategy and future.

The Vision Fund is just dominating the financials

We talk incessantly about the Vision Fund here at TechCrunch, mostly because the fund seems to be investing in every startup that generates revenue and walks up and down Sand Hill looking for capital. During the last fiscal year ending March 31st, the fund added 36 new investments and reached 69 active holdings. The total invested capital was a staggering $60.1 billion.

The state of the smartphone

Earlier this month, Canalys used the word “freefall” to describe its latest reporting. Global shipments fell 6.8% year over year. At 313.9 million, they were at their lowest level in nearly half a decade.

Of the major players, Apple was easily the hardest hit, falling 23.2% year over year. The firm says that’s the “largest single-quarter decline in the history of the iPhone.” And it’s not an anomaly, either. It’s part of a continued slide for the company, seen most recently in its Q1 earnings, which found the handset once again missing Wall Street expectations. That came on the tale of a quarter in which Apple announced it would no longer be reporting sales figures.

Tim Cook has placed much of the iPhone’s slide at the feet of a disappointing Chinese market. It’s been a tough nut for the company to crack, in part due to a slowing national economy. But there’s more to it than that. Trade tensions and increasing tariffs have certainly played a role — and things look like they’ll be getting worse before they get better on that front, with a recent bump from a 10 to 25% tariff bump on $60 billion in U.S. goods.

It’s important to keep in mind here that many handsets, regardless of country of origin, contain both Chinese and American components. On the U.S. side of the equation, that includes nearly ubiquitous elements like Qualcomm processors and a Google-designed operating system. But the causes of a stagnating (and now declining) smartphone market date back well before the current administration began sowing the seeds of a trade war with China.

Image via Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty ImagesThe underlying factors are many. For one thing, smartphones simply may be too good. It’s an odd notion, but an intense battle between premium phone manufacturers may have resulted in handsets that are simply too good to warrant the long-standing two-year upgrade cycle. NPD Executive Director Brad Akyuz tells TechCrunch that the average smartphone flagship user tends to hold onto their phones for around 30 months — or exactly two-and-a-half years.

That’s a pretty dramatic change from the days when smartphone purchases were driven almost exclusively by contracts. Smartphone upgrades here in the States were driven by the standard 24-month contract cycle. When one lapsed, it seemed all but a given that the customer would purchase the latest version of the heavily subsidized contract.

But as smartphone build quality has increased, so too have prices, as manufacturers have raised margins in order to offset declining sales volume. “All of a sudden, these devices became more expensive, and you can see that average selling price trend going through the roof,” says Akyuz. “It’s been crazy, especially on the high end.”

Minecraft Earth makes the whole real world your very own blocky realm

When your game tops a hundred million players, your thoughts naturally turn to doubling that number. That’s the case with the creators, or rather stewards, of Minecraft at Microsoft, where the game has become a product category unto itself. And now it is making its biggest leap yet — to a real-world augmented reality game in the vein of Pokemon GO, called Minecraft Earth.

Announced today but not playable until summer (on iOS and Android) or later, MCE (as I’ll call it) is full-on Minecraft, reimagined to be mobile and AR-first. So what is it? As executive producer Jesse Merriam put it succinctly: “Everywhere you go, you see Minecraft. And everywhere you go, you can play Minecraft.”

Yes, yes — but what is it? Less succinctly put, MCE is like other real-world based AR games in that it lets you travel around a virtual version of your area, collecting items and participating in mini-games. Where it’s unlike other such games is that it’s built on top of Minecraft: Bedrock Edition, meaning it’s not some offshoot or mobile cash-in; this is straight-up Minecraft, with all the blocks, monsters, and redstone switches you desire, but in AR format. You collect stuff so you can build with it and share your tiny, blocky worlds with friends.

That introduces some fun opportunities and a few non-trivial limitations. Let’s run down what MCE looks like — verbally, at least, since Microsoft is being exceedingly stingy with real in-game assets.

There’s a map, of course

Because it’s Minecraft Earth, you’ll inhabit a special Minecraftified version of the real world, just as Pokemon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite put a layer atop existing streets and landmarks.

The look is blocky to be sure but not so far off the normal look that you won’t recognize it. It uses OpenStreetMaps data, including annotated and inferred information about districts, private property, safe and unsafe places, and so on — which will be important later.

The fantasy map is filled with things to tap on, unsurprisingly called tappables. These can be a number of things: resources in the form of treasure chests, mobs, and adventures.

Chests are filled with blocks, naturally, adding to your reserves of cobblestone, brick, and so on, all the different varieties appearing with appropriate rarity.

A pig from Minecraft showing in the real world via augmented reality.Mobs are animals like those you might normally run across in the Minecraft wilderness: pigs, chickens, squid, and so on. You snag them like items, and they too have rarities, and not just cosmetic ones. The team highlighted a favorite of theirs, the muddy pig, which when placed down will stop at nothing to get to mud and never wants to leave, or a cave chicken that lays mushrooms instead of eggs. Yes, you can breed them.

Last are adventures, which are tiny AR instances that let you collect a resource, fight some monsters, and so on. For example you might find a crack in the ground that, when mined, vomits forth a volume of lava you’ll have to get away from, and then inside the resulting cave are some skeletons guarding a treasure chest. The team said they’re designing a huge number of these encounters.

Importantly, all these things, chests, mobs, and encounters, are shared between friends. If I see a chest, you see a chest — and the chest will have the same items. And in an AR encounter, all nearby players are brought in, and can contribute and collect the reward in shared fashion.

And it’s in these AR experiences and the “build plates” you’re doing it all for that the game really shines.

The AR part

“If you want to play Minecraft Earth without AR, you have to turn it off,” said Torfi Olafsson, the game’s director. This is not AR-optional, as with Niantic’s games. This is AR-native, and for good and ill the only way you can really play is by using your phone as a window into another world. Fortunately it works really well.

First, though, let me explain the whole build plate thing. You may have been wondering how these collectibles and mini-games amount to Minecraft. They don’t — they’re just the raw materials for it.

Whenever you feel like it, you can bring out what the team calls a build plate, which is a special item, a flat square that you virtually put down somewhere in the real world — on a surface like the table or floor, for instance — and it transforms into a small, but totally functional, Minecraft world.

In this little world you can build whatever you want, or dig into the ground, build an inverted palace for your cave chickens or create a paradise for your mud-loving pigs — whatever you want. Like Minecraft itself, each build plate is completely open-ended. Well, perhaps that’s the wrong phrase — they’re actually quite closely bounded, since the world only exists out to the edge of the plate. But they’re certainly yours to play with however you want.

Notably all the usual Minecraft rules are present — this isn’t Minecraft Lite, just a small game world. Water and lava flow how they should, blocks have all the qualities they should, and mobs all act as they normally would.

The magic part comes when you find that you can instantly convert your build plate from miniature to life-size. Now the castle you’ve been building on the table is three stories tall in the park. Your pigs regard you silently as you walk through the halls and admire the care and attention to detail with which you no doubt assembled them. It really is a trip.

It doesn’t really look like this but you get the idea.

In the demo, I played with a few other members of the press, we got to experience a couple build plates and adventures at life-size (technically actually 3/4 life size — the 1 block to 1 meter scale turned out to be a little daunting in testing). It was absolute chaos, really, everyone placing blocks and destroying them and flooding the area and putting down chickens. But it totally worked.

The system uses Microsoft’s new Azure Spatial Anchor system, which quickly and continuously fixed our locations in virtual space. It updated remarkably quickly, with no lag, showing the location and orientation of the other players in real time. Meanwhile the game world itself was rock-solid in space, smooth to enter and explore, and rarely bugging out (and that only in understandable circumstances). That’s great news considering how heavily the game leans on the multiplayer experience.

The team said they’d tested up to 10 players at once in an AR instance, and while there’s technically no limit, there’s sort of a physical limit in how many people can fit in the small space allocated to an adventure or around a tabletop. Don’t expect any giant 64-player raids, but do expect to take down hordes of spiders with three or four friends.

Pick(ax)ing their battles

In choosing to make the game the way they’ve made it, the team naturally created certain limitations and risks. You Wouldn’t want, for example, an adventure icon to pop up in the middle of the highway.

For exactly that reason the team spent a lot of work making the map metadata extremely robust. Adventures won’t spawn in areas like private residences or yards, though of course simple collectibles might. But because you’re able to reach things up to 70 meters away, it’s unlikely you’ll have to knock on someone’s door and say there’s a cave chicken in their pool and you’d like to touch it, please.

Furthermore adventures will not spawn in areas like streets or difficult to reach areas. The team said they worked very hard making it possible for the engine to recognize places that are not only publicly accessible, but safe and easy to access. Think sidewalks and parks.

Another limitation is that, as an AR game, you move around the real world. But in Minecraft verticality is an important part of the gameplay. Unfortunately the simple truth is that in the real world you can’t climb virtual stairs or descend into a virtual cave. You as a player exist on a 2D plane, and can interact with but not visit places above and below that plane. (An exception of course is on a build plate, where in miniature you can fly around it freely by moving your phone).

That’s a shame for people who can’t move around easily, though you can pick up and rotate the build plate to access different sides. Weapons and tools also have infinite range, eliminating a potential barrier to fun and accessibility.

What will keep people playing?

In Pokemon GO, there’s the drive to catch ’em all. In Wizards Unite, you’ll want to advance the story and your skills. What’s the draw with Minecraft Earth? Well, what’s the draw in Minecraft? You can build stuff. And now you can build stuff in AR on your phone.

The game isn’t narrative-driven, and although there is some (unspecified) character progression, for the most part the focus is on just having fun doing and making stuff in Minecraft. Like a set of LEGO blocks, a build plate and your persistent inventory simply make for a lively sandbox.

Admittedly that doesn’t sound like it carries the same addictive draw of Pokemon, but the truth is Minecraft kind of breaks the rules like that. Millions of people play this game all the time just to make stuff and show that stuff to other people. Although you’ll be limited in how you can share to start, there will surely be ways to explore popular builds in the future.

And how will it make money? The team basically punted on that question — they’re fortunately in a position where they don’t have to worry about that yet. Minecraft is one of the biggest games of all time and a big money-maker — it’s probably worth the cost just to keep people engaged with the world and community.

MCE seems to me like a delightful thing but one that must be appreciated on its own merits. A lack of screenshots and gameplay video isn’t doing a lot to help you here, I admit. Trust me when I say it looks great, plays well, and seems fundamentally like a good time for all ages.

A few other stray facts I picked up:

  • Regions will roll out gradually but it will be available in all the same languages as Vanilla at launch
  • Yes, there will be skins (and they’ll carry over from your existing account)
  • There will be different sizes and types of build plates
  • There’s crafting, but no 3×3 crafting grid (?!)
  • You can report griefers and so on, but the way the game is structured it should be an issue
  • The AR engine creates and uses a point cloud but doesn’t like take pictures of your bedroom
  • Content is added to the map dynamically, and there will be hot spots but emptier areas will fill up if you’re there
  • It leverages AR Core and AR Kit, naturally
  • The Hololens version of Minecraft we saw a while back is a predecessor “more spiritually than technically”
  • Adventures that could be scary to kids have a special sign
  • “Friends” can steal blocks from your build plate if you’re playing together (or donate them)

Sound fun? Sign up for the beta here.

Asus’ $499 ZenFone 6 has a flip-up camera and a giant battery

Premium smartphone manufacturers have moved the needle on pricing, but 2019 may well go down as a kind of golden age for budget flagships. Apple, Google and Samsung are all in that business now, and OnePlus has once again shown the world how to offer more for less. And then there’s the new ZenFone.

It’s a bit of an understatement to suggest that Asus has had trouble breaking into the smartphone space. And things aren’t likely to get any easier as the market further consolidates among the top five players. But you’ve got to hand it to the company for swinging for the fences with the $499 ZenFone 6.

First thing’s first. Like the excellent OnePlus 7 Pro, the phone (fone?) forgoes the notch and hole punch, instead opting for a clever pop-up that flips up from the back. That means one camera is doing double duty, toggling between the front and rear with the push of an on-screen button. Like the OnePlus, there’s built-in fall detection that retracts the camera if it slips from your hand.

That whole dealie would be enough to help the phone stand out in a world of similar handsets, but this is a solid budget handset through and through. Inside is a bleeding-edge Snapdragon 855, coupled with a beefy 5,000 mAh battery. The new ZenFone also sports a headphone jack, because it’s 2019 and rules don’t apply to smartphones anymore.

Is that all enough to right the ship? Probably not, but it’s nice to see Asus stepping up with a compelling product at an even more compelling price point. More information on the phone’s U.S. release should be arriving soon.

A year after outcry, carriers are finally stopping sale of location data, letters to FCC show

Reports emerged a year ago that all the major cellular carriers in the U.S. were selling location data to third party companies, which in turn sold them to pretty much anyone willing to pay. New letters published by the FCC show that despite a year of scrutiny and anger, the carriers have only recently put to end this practice.

We already knew that the carriers, like many large companies, simply could not be trusted. In January it was clear that promises to immediately “shut down,” “terminate,” or “take steps to stop” the location-selling side business were, shall we say, on the empty side. Kind of like their assurances that these services were closely monitored — no one seems to have bothered actually checking whether the third party resellers were obtaining the required consent before sharing location data.

Similarly, the carriers took their time shutting down the arrangements they had in place, and communication on the process has been infrequent and inadequate.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has been particularly frustrated by the foot-dragging and lack of communication on this issue (by companies and the commission).

“The FCC has been totally silent about press reports that for a few hundred dollars shady middlemen can sell your location within a few hundred meters based on your wireless phone data. That’s unacceptable,” she wrote in a statement posted today.

To provide a bit of closure, she decided to publish letters (PDF) from the major carriers explaining their current positions. Fortunately it’s good news. Here’s the gist:

T-Mobile swiftly made promises last May and in June of 2018 CEO John Legere said in a tweet that he “personally evaluated this issue,” and pledged that the company “will not sell customer location data to shady middlemen.”

That seems to have been before “T-Mobile undertook an evaluation last summer of whether to retain or restructure its location aggregator program… Ultimately, we decided to terminate it.” That phased termination took place over the next half a year, finishing only in March of 2019.

AT&T immediately suspended access by the offending company, Securus, to location data, but continued providing it to others. One hopes they at least began auditing properly. Almost a year later, the company said in its letter to Commissioner Rosenworcel that “in light of the press report to which you refer… we decided in January 2019 to accelerate our phase-out of these services. As of March 29, 2019, AT&T stopped sharing any AT&T customer location data with location aggregators and LBS providers.”

Sprint said shortly after the initial reports that it was in the “process of terminating its current contracts with data aggregators to whom we provide location data.” That process sure seems to have been a long one:

As of May 31, 2019, Sprint will no longer contract with any location aggregators to provide LBS. Sprint anticipates that after May 31. 2019, it may provide LBS services directly to customers like those described above [i.e. roadside assistance], but there are no firm plans at this time.

Verizon (the parent company of TechCrunch) managed to kill its contracts with all-purpose aggregators LocationSmart and Zumigo in November of 2018… except for a specific use case through the former to provide roadside assistance services during the winter. That agreement ended in March.

It’s taken some time, but the carriers seem to have finally followed through on shutting down the programs through which they resold customer location data. All took care to mention at some point the practical and helpful use cases of such programs, but failed to detail the apparent lack of oversight with which they were conducted. The responsibility to properly vet customers and collect mobile user consent seems to have been fully ceded to the resellers, who as last year’s reports showed, did nothing of the kind.

Location data is obviously valuable to consumers and many services can and should be able to request it — from those consumers. No one is arguing otherwise. But this important data was clearly being irresponsibly handled by the carriers, and it is probably right that the location aggregation business gets a hard stop and not a band-aid. We’ll likely see new businesses and arrangements appearing soon — but you can be sure that these too will require close monitoring to make sure the carriers don’t allow them to get out of hand… again.

Apple & Google celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day with featured apps, new shortcuts

With last fall’s release of iOS 12, Apple introduced Siri Shortcuts — a new app that allows iPhone users to create their own voice commands to take actions on their phone and in apps. Today, Apple is celebrating Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) by rolling out a practical, accessibility-focused collection of new Siri Shortcuts, alongside accessibility-focused App Store features and collections.

Google is doing something similar for Android users on Google Play.

For starters, Apple’s new Siri shortcuts are available today in a featured collection at the top of the Shortcuts app. The collection includes a variety of shortcuts aimed at helping users more quickly perform everyday tasks.

For example, there’s a new “Help Message” shortcut that will send your location to an emergency contact, a “Meeting Someone New” shortcut designed to speed up non-verbal introductions and communication, a mood journal for recording thoughts and feelings, a pain report that helps to communicate to others the location and intensity of your pain, and several others.

Some are designed to make communication more efficient — like one that puts a favorite contact on the user’s home screen, so they can quickly call, text or FaceTime the contact with just a tap.

Others are designed to be used with QR codes. For example, “QR Your Shortcuts” lets you create a QR code for any shortcut you regularly use, then print it out and place it where it’s needed for quick access — like the “Speak Brush Teeth Routine” shortcut that speaks step-by-step instructions for teeth brushing, which would be placed in the bathroom.

In addition to the launch of the new shortcuts, Apple added a collection of accessibility-focused apps to the App Store which highlights a ton of accessibility-focused apps including Microsoft’s new talking camera for the blind called Seeing AI, plus other utilities like text-to-speech readers, audio games, sign language apps, AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) solutions, eye-controlled browsers, smart home apps, fine motor skill trainers, and much more.

The App Store is also today featuring several interviews with developers, athletes, musicians, and a comedian who talk about how they use accessible technology.

Apple is not the only company rolling out special GAAD-themed collections today. Google also unveiled its own editorial collection of accessible apps and games on Google Play. In addition to several utilities, the collection features Live Transcribe, Google’s brand-new accessibility service for the deaf and hard of hearing that debuted earlier this month at its annual Google I/O developer conference.

Though the app’s status is “Unreleased,” users can install the early version which listens to conversations around you, then instantly transcribes them.

Other selections include home screen replacement Nova Launcher, blind assistant app Be My Eyes, head control for the device Open Sesame, communication aid Card Talk, and more.

TikTok tops the iOS App Store for the fifth quarter in a row

Despite a $5.7 million FTC fine and changes to restrict its use by under 13-year-olds, TikTok retained its No. 1 position as the most downloaded app on the Apple App Store for the fifth consecutive quarter, according to a new report from Sensor Tower. The app saw more than 33 million App Store downloads during Q1, and was followed by YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger to round out the top five.

The No. 16 top app, Twitter, also had a good quarter, the app store intelligence’s report noted.

With 11.7 million App Store downloads, it saw its biggest quarter in terms of downloads since Q1 2015 — and a year-over-year increase of 3.6 percent. Of course, these figures won’t necessarily translate to an increase in active users, though, as installs aren’t a direct correlation to usage.

But while TikTok was again topping the App Store, it wasn’t the most downloaded app on Android devices in Q1.

With a bigger footprint in emerging markets and a larger total user base, Android trends can look different from those on iOS. This past quarter, WhatsApp was the No. 1 app on Google Play with nearly 199 million installs. It was followed by Messenger, then TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram.

Facebook, WhatsApp and Messenger all saw over 150 millions apiece in Q1 2019, as did TikTok.

Though not the top app on Android, TikTok still had a huge quarter — particularly in India, where 88.6 million new users installed the app in Q1, up 8.2 times over Q1 2018, Sensor Tower noted in an earlier report. 

That said, TikTok’s numbers for the next quarter may not be as good. The app was banned in India in April over illegal content including pornography. While that ban was lifted later that month, Sensor Tower estimated it had cost the app at least 15 million downloads there, and what would have been its biggest-ever month.

An up-and-comer in Q1 included YouTube Kids, which saw a 291 percent quarter-over-quarter increase and 29 millions downloads on Google Play, where it joined YouTube and YouTube Music to become a top 20 app. 

With the two app stores figures’ combined, WhatsApp became the most downloaded app in the quarter with over 22 million installs across the App Store and Google Play.

Messenger clocked in at No. 2 with nearly 203 million installs. And TikTok’s gains on the App Store allowed it to take the No. 3. position, followed by Facebook and Instagram.

The rest of the top 10 didn’t change, with Facebook claiming four of the top five spots. Meanwhile, first-time users in India pushed image editor PicsArt into the worldwide top 20.

Samsung’s 5G phone hits Verizon, Sprint getting two 5G devices this month

With 5G, when it rains, it pours. A few hours after Verizon officially started selling the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, Sprint announced that it will be offering two 5G devices for its network by the end of the month.

For now, it still feels like manufacturers are putting the cart before the horse here. There’s little question that 5G will become ubiquitous in the next few years, but actual opportunities to access the technology are still pretty scarce.

Among U.S. carriers, Verizon (or parent company’s parent company) has been the most aggressive. Fitting then, that the company is first to market with the Galaxy S10 5G. Of course all of these devices while default to 4G when there’s no 5G to be found, which is going to be the case more often than not for a while.

Verizon’s 5G is currently available in select markets, including Chicago and Minneapolis. That number is set to balloon to 20 before year’s end, including, Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, Des Moines, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Little Rock, Memphis, Phoenix, Providence, San Diego, Salt Lake City and Washington, DC.

Sprint, meanwhile, has promised to flip on 5G in nine markets “in the coming weeks.” The list includes parts of Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Kansas City, and then locations in Los Angeles, New York City, Phoenix and Washington D.C.

To celebrate, the network will be offering two 5G devices this month. The LG V50 ThinQ and HTC 5G Hub will hit Sprint stores on May 31.