- Thousands of academics spurn Nature’s new paid-access Machine Learning journal
- New Bigscreen update streams your desktop to the Oculus Go
- Birchbox ownership changes hands after beauty business does recap
- Everything Facebook launched at F8 and Why
- Facebook’s Free Basics program ended quietly in Myanmar last year
- A CEO known publicly for the power of smiling was just ousted for intimidating employees
- The BBC will run its first podcast ads, powered by Acast
- ‘SmartLens’ app created by a high schooler is a step towards all-purpose visual search
- Facebook wants to fix the ‘Happy Birthday’ spam problem by using Stories
- What do Meltdown, Spectre and RyzenFall mean for the future of cybersecurity?
- In-app purchases are coming to Facebook’s Instant Games on Android and the web
- Cisco is acquiring business intelligence startup Accompany for $270M
- Eliot Peper’s Bandwidth is a riveting novel exploring the dark side of feeds and geopolitics
- Snapchat scrambles to fix failed redesign, moves Stories to Discover
- Apple says it will return $100B to investors with a massive new program after a strong Q2
- Snapchat slips in Q1 to its slowest user growth rate ever, shares fall 15%
- Match stock is tanking in light of Facebook’s dating play
- New Oculus Venues app organizes live VR events under one roof
- Facebook will soon bring 3D photos to the news feed
- Oculus hopes Boggle will help VR users get social in updated Rooms app
Posted: 01 May 2018 07:57 PM PDT
Nature, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, has just announce plans to create a Machine Intelligence imprint, and researchers are not happy. The field has been doing fine with open-access journals — why clog it up with the paid-access model everyone has been trying to escape for decades? Over two thousand have signed a statement saying they won’t publish in it.
Academic publishing is a tumult right now, with open-access journals and proponents thereof battling with the old-guard prestige of the likes of Science and Nature — along with the fees from jealous keepers such as Elsevier and Springer. Meanwhile sites like Sci-Hub have worked to liberate the data held by paid journals, illegally of course, and become indispensable in the process.
The statement comes from Tom Dietterich at Oregon State University, founding president of the International Machine Learning Society.
“Machine learning has been at the forefront of the movement for free and open access to research… We see no role for closed access or author-fee publication in the future of machine learning research and believe the adoption of this new journal as an outlet of record for the machine learning community would be a retrograde step,” it reads.
The statement cites past opposition in the community to paid journals and the fact that all the major ones in existence charge nothing as well “The following list of researchers,” it continues, “hereby state that they will not submit to, review, or edit for this new journal.”
There are nearly 2,300 signatures from all over the world. Students, professors, researchers, architects, and engineers people the list; there are representatives of many major companies in the field: Google, Intel, Amazon, Microsoft, IBM; many of the world’s most august learning institutions can be found on it as well.
It’s not that machine learning is fundamentally incompatible with paid access, Diettrich told me in an email; rather, the field has grown to prominence so recently that free and open-access journals have just been the better option from the start.
“Our research community has been fortunate to develop an expectation of free and open access to published research, but many other areas of science and mathematics are moving in the same direction,” he wrote.
I asked if he thought Nature’s interest manifesting in this way indicated a healthy field. “It is a sign that Nature Publishing Group believes they can make money in this relatively young area of research,” he answered.
But the pledge seems like a widely supported one, he concluded: “My impression is that we have excellent representation from all of the major research labs in universities and companies.”
Nature may still draw papers because of its clout, but it looks like at least a significant number of researchers in this area will give it the cold shoulder. Are you among their number? Feel free to add your name to the list.
Posted: 01 May 2018 07:50 PM PDT
Oculus says that its new Go headset already boasts support for more than 1,000 titles out of the gate as of today. One of the most interesting of the small subset of those that I’ve taken a look at today has been the latest update for Bigscreen, which brings the previously PC-only VR desktop streaming platform to mobile with Oculus Go (Gear VR too).
The free app is launching in beta and there are still some performance issues to be sorted out, but the app ultimately does what it claims, streaming your PC’s display to the $200 Oculus headset, effectively bringing a much more capable machine into the small standalone headset.
Bigscreen is still driving plenty of updates but today the experience supports 1080p desktop streaming at 30 frames, a resolution and latency that is definitely best suited for streaming movies and videos from YouTube, not firing up a game of Fortnite. That functionality will be coming, however, as the team looks to bring 60fps desktop streaming to the Go.
That being said, there is full cross-compatibility between the desktop and mobile versions of Bigscreen with this release. The experience will definitely feel a little different without a tracked headset and controllers, but Oculus Go users will be able to dive in and chat with Vive, Rift and Windows MR users just the same.
Getting the remote desktop streaming feature on Go will require a little finagling for PC users who will also have to download the Bigscreen app in the Steam or the Oculus Store on desktop in order to fire up the app. From there they just need to open Bigscreen “in desktop mode” and punch the code that pops up into their Go headset. For now, remote desktop streaming is only open to PC users, Shankar says the startup is hoping to work on Mac support for the app later this year.
While Oculus launched a number of apps today at F8 focused on bringing users together in a social experience, none of them can do quite what Bigscreen does.
“The focus is just different,” founder Darshan Shankar tells TechCrunch. “We’ve been so much more focused on utilitarian value and providing something for people to do that they already love doing as opposed to just social for the sake of doing social.”
Bigscreen has raised $14 million in funding from Andreessen Horowitz, True Venture, Presence Capital and others for this mission of delivering the VR use cases that it sees users asking for. Though the company started four years ago, this is the startup’s first foray into mobile VR which has constituted the bulk of headset sales over the past few years.
The update is available now for Oculus Go and Gear VR users, support for Google Daydream is coming soon.
Posted: 01 May 2018 07:38 PM PDT
Beauty-in-a-box brand Birchbox has changed up its ownership structure.
The New York-based startup, which has raised almost $90 million in funding from noted venture firms like Accel Partners and First Round Capital, has a new majority owner in hedge fund Viking Global, sources confirm to TechCrunch.
First reported by Recode, Birchbox made some changes to its cap table after failing to find a suitable buyer. We are told that the details are still getting finalized, but that Viking is expected to take on a majority stake after investing about $15 million. Viking previously led Birchbox’s $60 million funding round in 2014.
Birchbox did not respond for comment.
Birchbox has managed to become a household name amongst its targeted demographic of female millennials, but its business has faced challenges amidst growing competition. Ipsy, Glossybox, Sephora and Allure Magazine are amongst the many beauty sample box subscriptions that consumers can buy.
Its boxes retail for just $10 per month. And while they are able to find discounts and partnerships with beauty brands eager to partner with Birchbox, it can still be hard to keep distribution costs down, while also spending on sales and marketing to grow the business. Birchbox hopes that consumers will buy more full-sized products off of its website.
Recaps are not uncommon, but they are usually a sign that a startup is struggling. However, it is an opportunity for Birchbox to raise cash and remain in business while it figures out a longer-term plan.
Birchbox was founded in 2010 by Harvard Business alums Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp. Barna left Birchbox and is now an investor at First Round Capital. Beauchamp remains CEO.
Posted: 01 May 2018 06:24 PM PDT
Day 1 of Facebook’s F8 conference was packed with announcements and updates. Here are 10 big takeaways from Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote on Day 1. You can find full coverage and analysis of F8 here.
Facebook is launching a dating feature where you can volunteer to make a profile that’s only visible to non-friends who’ve also opted in to looking for love. Facebook will match you based on all its data, and messaging will happen in a dedicated inbox rather than Messenger.
Why: If Facebook wants to drive “meaningful connections”, it doesn’t get more meaningful than introducing you to your life partner. Facebook will have to be careful to keep everything private, as people already think it’s creepy or uncool. But investors love it, considering Tinder parent company Match Group’s share price fell 22 percent today.
2. “Clear History”
Facebook is building Clear History, a new privacy feature allowing users to delete data Facebook has collected from sites and apps that use its ads and analytics tool. This means you can scrub some of your browsing history from Facebook's data store. Mark Zuckerberg likened this to deleting cookies from your browser history. It’s a nice gesture to the privacy-conscious, though it’ll make your Facebook experience less personalized.
Why: Zuckerberg faced tons of questions from congress about data it collects from around the web. Users were pissed to learn they had little control over it. Clear History could quiet some cries for regulation.
3. Instagram video chat and anti-bullying
Instagram is launching video chat, which TechCrunch scooped in March when we spotted the feature buried in its Android app. Meanwhile, Instagram is also getting a new filter to protect users from bullying comments, plus an improved Explore tab.
Why: Instagram Direct messaging is super popular, but lacked video chat…which is also super popular on Messenger and WhatsApp. Combined with anti-bullying features, Instagram could become a safer and sillier place for teens to hang out — which is just what Facebook wants to defeat Snapchat.
4. Facebook is reopening its app review process
Facebook will re-open its app review process following the pause it took after the Cambridge Analytica crisis – welcome news for developers.
Why: Facebook couldn’t risk another sketchy app slipping through and selling user data, but it also has to keep developers loyal to its platform so they keep building experiences that attract users. Facebook was wise to balance safety and privacy with new developer capabilities today.
5. Oculus Go goes on sale for $199
Oculus Go, Facebook’s cheap and capable standalone VR headset, is now on sale. It costs $199 for the version with 32GB of onboard storage, and $249 for the 64GB variety.
Why: VR headsets where you have to stick your phone in are clumsy and prevent Facebook from controlling the whole experience. Instead of relying on the Samsung Gear headset shell and your iPhone or Android, Facebook gets to dictate everything about the perfect VR rig you can strap on first-timers.
6. Messenger simplifies and starts translation
Facebook is tiptoeing into translation of chat threads in Messenger, starting with English-Spanish convos in the US within Marketplace. Meanwhile, Facebook is stripping out the camera and games tab to give Messenger a cleaner design.
Why: Translation could deliver on the Facebook promise of bringing the world closer together by eradicating language barriers and letting people realize how much they have in common. But Messenger was getting way too bloated with so many new features, so the simplification should let the actually useful ones shine.
7. Introducing VR Memories and 3D photos
Facebook is bringing 3D illustrations and models to the News Feed. It’s also going to turn 2D photos into VR memories — 3D enivironments you can explore using a trippy point cloud design.
Why: Facebook wants to stay ahead of the content trends and be the home of future formats. They might seem like a novelty today, but at least they keep Facebook interesting.
8. WhatsApp hits 450 million stories users
WhatsApp’s Snapchat Stories clone WhatsApp Status now has 450 million daily active users. That’s well over 2X the user count of Snapchat’s whole app. And WhatsApp is also adding stickers and group video calling.
Why: This is a big deal because Snapchat had a disastrous earnings call today where it sank to its slowest user growth rate ever while WhatsApp Status continues its explosive growth. Snapchat neglected the international market at first, and now WhatsApp has beaten it to the punch worldwide.
9. Sharing to Facebook and Instagram Stories from other apps
Starting with Spotify, SoundCloud, and GoPro, other apps can share photos and videos directly to Stories inside Facebook and Instagram.
Why: Facebook wants to make its Stories more interesting than Snapchat’s. And this new wing of the platform could create a massive opportunity for music discovery, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Myspace.
10. Oculus TV
Oculus wants you to watch TV inside its new Go headset. At first you’ll get Facebook Watch, but expect apps like Netflix and Hulu to arrive eventually.
Why: There just aren’t enough great VR experiences, but perhaps Facebook can get people spending more time in their headsets by creating a virtual big screen for 2D content.
For more of TechCrunch’s F8 coverage, check out all our stories:
Posted: 01 May 2018 05:11 PM PDT
As recently as last week, Facebook was touting the growth of Free Basics, its Internet.org project designed to give users free curated web access in developing countries, but the app isn’t working out everywhere. As the Outline originally reported and TechCrunch confirmed, the Free Basics program has ended in Myanmar, perhaps Facebook’s most controversial non-Western market at the moment.
Its mission statement pledging to “bring more people online and help improve their lives” is innocuous enough, but Facebook’s Internet.org strategy is extremely aggressive, optimized for explosive user growth in markets that the company has yet to penetrate. Free Basics, an initiative under Internet.org, is an app that offers users in developing markets a “free” Facebook-centric version of the broader internet.
The app provides users willing to sign up for Facebook with internet access that doesn’t count against their mobile plan — stuff like the weather and local news — but keeps them within a specially tailored version of the platform’s walled garden. The result in some countries with previously low connectivity rates was that the social network became synonymous with the internet itself — and as we’ve seen, that can lead to a whole host of very real problems.
The Outline reports that Free Basics has ended in “half a dozen nations and territories,” including Bolivia, Papua New Guinea, Trinidad and Tobago, Republic of Congo, Anguilla, Saint Lucia and El Salvador. Facebook told TechCrunch that two international mobile providers have exited the program, accounting for the end of Free Basics in those countries.
As a Facebook spokeswoman told TechCrunch, Facebook is still moving forward with the program:
Facebook confirmed to TechCrunch that Free Basics did indeed end in Myanmar in September 2017, a little over a year since its June 2016 launch in the country. The company clarified that Myanmar’s state-owned telecom Myanma Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) cooperated with the Myanmar government to shut down access to all free services, including Free Basics in September of last year. The move was part of a broader regulatory effort by the Myanmar government.
In a press release, MPT described how the regulation shaped policy for the country’s three major telecoms:
In Myanmar, Facebook’s Free Basics offering ran afoul of the same price floor regulations that restricted the distribution of free SIM cards.
Elsewhere, Facebook’s Free Basics program is winding down for other reasons. In the case of the telecom Digicel, the company confirmed to TechCrunch that it ended access to Free Basics in El Salvador and some of its Caribbean markets due to commercial reasons on its end and that the decision was not a result of any action by Facebook or Internet.org.
As the Free Basics program is part of a partnership between Facebook and local mobile providers, the latter can terminate access to the app at will. Still, it’s not clear if that was the case in all the countries in which the app is no longer available.
In 2016, India regulated Facebook’s free internet deal out of existence, effectively blocking Facebook’s access to its most sought-after new market in the process. Since then, vocal critics have called Facebook’s Internet.org efforts everything from digital colonialism to a spark in the tinderbox for countries dealing with targeted violence against religious minorities.
Still, according to Facebook, even as some markets dry up, the program is quietly expanding. In late 2017 Facebook added Sudan and Cote d’Ivoire to its Free Basics roster. This year, Facebook launched the initiative in Cameroon and added additional mobile partners in Columbia and Peru.
Myanmar’s access to Free Basics is now restricted, but Facebook indicated that its efforts to connect the country — and its 54 million newly minted or yet to be converted Facebook users — are not over.
Posted: 01 May 2018 05:02 PM PDT
Ron Gutman, the co-founder and CEO of HealthTap, a venture-backed medical advice startup, was reportedly elbowed out today by his board of directors. The reason, the board said in a letter to employees, was that it had finally heard too many complaints about Gutman’s behavior inside the company.
Recode published the news of his termination earlier, along with excerpts of an explainer provided to Gutman that alleges he “committed acts of intimidation, abuse, and mistrust, and that [he] repeatedly mistreated, threatened, harassed and verbally abused employees."
"This leaves us with no choice but to fire you,” reads the letter. “The toxicity you introduced into the workplace ends now."
The development may seem curious to those who followed Gutman’s earlier career. Back in 2011, Gutman was on the TED speaking circuit, talking passionately about the power of smiling and attracting a great deal of publicity in the process. His 2011 presentation has been watched nearly five million times; it later spawned a book, published by TED, called Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act.
Gutman, a Stanford grad, has denied that he abused his employees in a public statement that reads: "The actions of the VCs are harmful to the Company and in violation of their duties. I will not stand for their effort to take control of the Company unfairly and to the detriment of the Company. I will continue to fight for HealthTap and for all of our employees, our customers and our users all over the world. My team and I remain committed to saving lives and help people live healthier happier longer lives."
It’s not the first time that Gutman has found himself at the center of a controversy.
Nine years ago, Gutman sold an earlier startup of his, Wellsphere, to a much larger (and, for a minute, publicly traded) rival called HealthCentral, which at the time was a collection of consumer health and wellness information.
Terms of the deal were never disclosed, but plenty of complaints surfaced after the sale, by bloggers who claimed that Wellsphere had tricked them into agreeing to an “irrevocable, perpetual license” to use, make or sell whatever content they had posted to the company’s website. Why they found this so galling: To grow its “well” of content into something sellable, Wellsphere reached out to more than 1,700 medical bloggers, appealing to their self-perception as “true medical experts” and inviting them to publish even their previously posted material to its platform.
Gutman founded HealthTap the very next year, in 2010.
What happens to the company now is a bit of a question mark. HealthTap has raised nearly $40 million over the years, including from Mohr Davidow Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Mayfield and Eric Schmidt's Innovation Endeavors. But it hasn’t raised fresh funding in five years — a sign, oftentimes, that investors aren’t prepared to throw more money at a company.
For now, says Recode, Gutman is being replaced by Bill Gossman, a software CEO whose LinkedIn profile shows that he also has been a longtime venture partner with Mohr Davidow. In the board’s letter to employees, it calls Gossman “the right leader for the company at this time.”
You can read the board’s letter in its entirety below:
Posted: 01 May 2018 04:41 PM PDT
The BBC will start running ads in its podcasts, thanks to a partnership with podcast publishing and monetization company Acast.
Acast CEO Ross Adams told me that ads will start running later this week, with the BBC including “bumpers” today announcing the imminent ad launch.
"Podcasts are one way we're reinventing BBC radio to engage younger audiences with our world class content,” said Bob Shennan, director of BBC Radio and Music, in the announcement. “We're working with established and new talent to produce shows which are informative and entertaining as only the BBC can be. The BBC has been challenged to generate more commercial income to supplement the licence fee and this new deal will contribute to that."
To be clear, the BBC will remain ad-free in the United Kingdom, where it’s supported by the aforementioned license fee. Adams said one of the things Acast could offer was the ability to make sure ads were only served outside the U.K. (and to account for edge cases like U.K. military bases in other countries).
Adams said Acast will also be providing the BBC with new data about how the podcasts are performing.
“We give them the data and the dashboard to start really doubling down and focusing on podcasting as a medium,” he said.
According the announcement, this will apply to all BBC podcasts outside the U.K. (subject to rights restrictions), including Global News, The Assassination, World Business Report and Radio 4’s In Our Time. Most podcasts will have a single 30-second ad at the beginning, then another at the end.
Posted: 01 May 2018 04:05 PM PDT
A couple of years ago I was eagerly expectant of an app that would identify anything you pointed it at. Turns out the problem was much harder than anyone expected — but that didn’t stop high school senior Michael Royzen from trying. His app, SmartLens, attempts to solve the problem of seeing something and wanting to identify and learn more about it — with mixed success, to be sure, but it’s something I don’t mind having in my pocket.
Royzen reached out to me a while back and I was curious — as well as skeptical — about the idea that where the likes of Google and Apple have so far failed (or at least failed to release anything good), a high schooler working in his spare time would succeed. I met him at a coffee shop to see the app in action and was pleasantly surprised, but a little baffled.
The idea is simple, of course: You point your phone’s camera at something and the app attempts to identify it using an enormous but highly optimized classification agent trained on tens of millions of images. It connects to Wikipedia and Amazon to let you immediately learn more about what you’ve ID’ed, or buy it.
It recognizes more than 17,000 objects — things like different species of fruit and flower, landmarks, tools and so on. The app had little trouble telling an apple from a (weird-looking) mango, a banana from a plantain and even identified the pistachios I’d ordered as a snack. Later, in my own testing, I found it quite useful for identifying the plants springing up in my neighborhood: periwinkles, anemones, wood sorrel, it got them all, though not without the occasional hesitation.
The kicker is that this all happens offline — it’s not sending an image over the cell network or Wi-Fi to a server somewhere to be analyzed. It all happens on-device and within a second or two. Royzen scraped his own image database from various sources and trained up multiple convolutional neural networks using days of AWS EC2 compute time.
Then there are far more than that number in products that it recognizes by reading the text of the item and querying the Amazon database. It ID’ed books, a bottle of pills and other packaged goods almost instantly, providing links to buy them. Wikipedia links pop up if you’re online as well, though a considerable amount of basic descriptions are kept on the device.
On that note, it must be said that SmartLens is a more than 500-megabyte download. Royzen’s model is huge, since it must keep all the recognition data and offline content right there on the phone. This is a much different approach to the problem than Amazon’s own product recognition engine on the Fire Phone (RIP) or Google Goggles (RIP) or the scan feature in Google Photos (which was pretty useless for things SmartLens reliably did in half a second).
“With the several past generations of smartphones containing desktop-class processors and the advent of native machine learning APIs that can harness them (and GPUs), the hardware exists for a blazing-fast visual search engine,” Royzen wrote in an email. But none of the large companies you would expect to create one has done so. Why?
The app size and toll on the processor is one thing, for sure, but the edge and on-device processing is where all this stuff will go eventually — Royzen is just getting an early start. The likely truth is twofold: it’s hard to make money and the quality of the search isn’t high enough.
It must be said at this point that SmartLens, while smart, is far from infallible. Its suggestions for what an item might be are almost always hilariously wrong for a moment before arriving at, as it often does, the correct answer.
It identified one book I had as “White Whale,” and no, it wasn’t Moby Dick. An actual whale paperweight it decided was a trowel. Many items briefly flashed guesses of “Human being” or “Product design” before getting to a guess with higher confidence. One flowering bush it identified as four or five different plants — including, of course, Human Being. My monitor was a “computer display,” “liquid crystal display,” “computer monitor,” “computer,” “computer screen,” “display device” and more. Game controllers were all “control.” A spatula was a wooden spoon (close enough), with the inexplicable subheading “booby prize.” What?!
This level of performance (and weirdness in general, however entertaining) wouldn’t be tolerated in a standalone product released by Google or Apple. Google Lens was slow and bad, but it’s just an optional feature in a working, useful app. If it put out a visual search app that identified flowers as people, the company would never hear the end of it.
And the other side of it is the monetization aspect. Although it’s theoretically convenient to be able to snap a picture of a book your friend has and instantly order it, it isn’t so much more convenient than taking a picture and searching for it later, or just typing the first few words into Google or Amazon, which will do the rest for you.
Meanwhile for the user there is still confusion. What can it identify? What can’t it identify? What do I need it to identify? It’s meant to ID many things, from dog breeds and storefronts, but it likely won’t identify, for example, a cool Bluetooth speaker or mechanical watch your friend has, or the creator of a painting at a local gallery (some paintings are recognized, though). As I used it I felt like I was only ever going to use it for a handful of tasks in which it had proven itself, like identifying flowers, but would be hesitant to try it on many other things when I might just be frustrated by some unknown incapability or unreliability.
And yet the idea that in the very near future there will not be something just like SmartLens is ridiculous to me. It seems so clearly something we will all take for granted in a few years. And it’ll be on-device, no need to upload your image to a server somewhere to be analyzed on your behalf.
Royzen’s app has its issues, but it works very well in many circumstances and has obvious utility. The idea that you could point your phone at the restaurant you’re across the street from and see Yelp reviews two seconds later — no need to open up a map or type in an address or name — is an extremely natural expansion of existing search paradigms.
“Visual search is still a niche, but my goal is to give people the taste of a future where one app can deliver useful information about anything around them — today,” wrote Royzen. “Still, it's inevitable that big companies will launch their competing offerings eventually. My strategy is to beat them to market as the first universal visual search app and amass as many users as possible so I can stay ahead (or be acquired).”
My biggest gripe of all, however, is not the functionality of the app, but in how Royzen has decided to monetize it. Users can download it for free but upon opening it are immediately prompted to sign up for a $2/month subscription (though the first month is free) — before they can even see whether the app works or not. If I didn’t already know what the app did and didn’t do, I would delete it without a second thought upon seeing that dialog, and even knowing what I do, I’m not likely to pay in perpetuity for it.
A one-time fee to activate the app would be more than reasonable, and there’s always the option of referral codes for those Amazon purchases. But demanding rent from users who haven’t even tested the product is a non-starter. I’ve told Royzen my concerns and I hope he reconsiders.
It would also be nice to scan images you’ve already taken, or save images associated with searches. UI improvements like a confidence indicator or some kind of feedback to let you know it’s still working on identification would be nice as well — features that are at least theoretically on the way.
In the end I’m impressed with Royzen’s efforts — when I take a step back it’s amazing to me that it’s possible for a single person, let alone one in high school, to put together an app capable of completing such sophisticated computer vision tasks. It’s the kind of (over-) ambitious app-building one expects to come out of a big, playful company like the Google of a decade ago. This may be more of a curiosity than a tool right now, but so were the first text-based search engines.
SmartLens is in the App Store now — give it a shot.
Posted: 01 May 2018 03:35 PM PDT
Have you ever turned off Facebook’s notifications or even deleted the app entirely on your birthday, simply to avoid the non-stop barrage of alerts that someone had posted “Happy Birthday!” to your timeline? A fix may be in the works, as it turns out. An update to how Facebook will handle birthday notifications was given a brief mention during today’s keynote address at the company’s F8 developer conference, hinting at a new birthday feature yet to come.
The feature wasn’t one of Facebook’s demos, and the company is declining to share more details about its launch at this time.
However, the general idea is that Facebook could leverage the Stories format to create “birthday packages” that are sent once to users at the end of the day, instead of having users post messages to the friends’ timelines.
This was mentioned briefly alongside other ideas for how Stories will be expanded — like the upcoming launch of collaborative Stories, and a Stories option that allows video clipping, for example.
“And then birthdays,” added Facebook Chief Product Officer Chris Cox in his keynote address. “Instead of all of us writing on your wall to wish you a ‘happy birthday,’ how about we pull together, over the course of the day, a photo and video reel, which you then receive as a package at the end, saying, ‘happy birthday.'”
It’s unclear when this feature will actually arrive, but we understand Facebook isn’t commenting publicly because the product team is still working on what this new “happy birthday” feature will look like.
It’s not likely to prevent anyone from writing on a friend’s timeline, we’d imagine — but it could be a change to how Facebook prompts you to remember your friend’s or family member’s birthday. (Today, Facebook prompts you to post to their timeline, but that could be tweaked to encourage users to leave messages via Stories instead.)
This isn’t the first time Facebook has attempted to fix the age-old Happy Birthday spam problem. It has also done things like group birthday posts together, and it has consistently tried to get people to use video with things like Birthday Cam in 2016, and later personalized but automated video messages.
It has also attempted to bundle birthday greetings into recap videos, which is the experience that sounds most similar to what Facebook is now teasing with this Happy Birthday Stories feature. Perhaps the recap video will make a comeback, but be presented not within your News Feed or Timeline, but as a personalized Story built for you.
Of course, if you really don’t like the birthday spam, you could just remove your birthday information from your Facebook profile ahead of the actual day.
Posted: 01 May 2018 03:30 PM PDT
The security community is still reeling from the discoveries of the Meltdown and Spectre computer vulnerabilities, and now it seems that a rash of new hardware vulnerabilities called MasterKey, RyzenFall, Fallout and Chimera have been found in the past few months, too.
Unlike most previous threats, all these vulnerabilities attack a computer's hardware, rather than its software. This second release of attacks may be early indications that Meltdown and Spectre have opened a new front in the war between hackers and defenders in the realm of computer chips.
While experts are working to make and distribute patches for these bugs, the question remains: What does this mean for cybersecurity as a whole? The answer to that question starts with understanding a bit about how hackers work.
Hackers are a social and trendy bunch. A couple of years ago, hacking onboard computers on cars was common, so a bunch of vulnerabilities were found and patched and now cars have become somewhat harder to commandeer. Then drone hacking was all the rage, and drone manufacturers too have implemented patches and become somewhat more secure.
That is how cyber defenses work. Some smart researcher finds a new hole. If they're nice (most are nice), they tell the manufacturers about it so they can fix the bugs. With Meltdown and Spectre, the researchers were nice and informed the manufacturers months beforehand. The MasterKey, RyzenFall, Fallout and Chimera researchers were not so nice, and only gave them a day. If the researchers are really not nice and decide instead to use their exploit, then some unlucky person or organization is probably going to have a very bad day.
That moment of discovery is the starting gun for an intense race between the defense community and the hacker community. Some hacker genius somewhere already knows how to use the bug and other hacker geniuses start working overtime to write their own code that exploits it.
Once a few of them figure it out, one of them will write a simpler version for people who don't understand the details so that hackers who aren't geniuses can use it too. Soon after that, it gets included in the common hacking databases. From that point on, anyone can literally point and click their way into your computer.
Although not much can be done for the folks who already had their bad day, the defense community, as a whole, almost always wins that race. As soon as their fastest programmer finds a fix, it can be quickly distributed throughout the world, making the new hacking toys only useful against the stragglers who fell behind the herd. And these days, it's gotten pretty hard to fall behind. The patching process has become invisibly smooth, and most regular computer users never even know that there was a race on.
With hardware vulnerabilities, things could be different. You can't change hardware by sending an invisible string of 1s and 0s through the air. For Meltdown and Spectre, workarounds where changing the software can help block the hardware problem are still being figured out and distributed. These workarounds showed up quickly at first, but the process has been anything but smooth, and proof-of-concept code for exploiting these vulnerabilities has been seen online for more than a month. As for the more recent vulnerabilities, it's not clear yet what workarounds exist, and there might not always be a workaround that creates software solutions to hardware problems.
Though stark, this situation is not entirely unprecedented. Some operating systems are no longer supported by their vendors, which means that any new hole will go un-patched. The most famous example is Windows XP. Most people know by now that using Windows XP is not safe, but don't fully understand how unsafe it is.
Today, any computer-savvy high schooler can watch a YouTube video and learn in just a couple hours how to point and click their way to control of someone else's computer on the internet, so long as it is running Windows XP. Even with Windows XP though, when a truly nasty bug comes out, Microsoft can choose to go back and patch it like they did last year for the WannaCry ransomware. With a nasty hardware vulnerability, that may not even be an option.
So what can be done? Hopefully, the hacking community will not become enthralled with searching for hardware vulnerabilities. They might not. It is hard and requires rare expertise that is not as easy to come by as software hacking. If we are not so lucky, then defending the herd by responding quickly to the first attack may no longer be a viable approach — but herd immunity comes in many forms.
Perhaps it will be from increased diversity of chip designs or perhaps approaches to slow the spread of information from hacker genius to amateur. Perhaps it will be from improved perimeter defenses, although hardware at the perimeter may be just as vulnerable as the rest.
Time and again, the adaptability of the world's smartest engineers have overcome the most dire threats to computing and the internet. The safe money is on them to win the day again, but with hardware vulnerabilities it may require a whole new approach for defending the herd.
Posted: 01 May 2018 02:56 PM PDT
Facebook is adding support for in-app purchases to its Instant Games platform, the company announced during a session on gaming at its F8 developer conference this afternoon. The feature will allow game developers to add another form of monetization beyond advertising to their games on select platforms, but not on iOS.
Instead, support for in-app purchases will be available to Instant Games on Android and on Facebook.com on the web.
First launched in 2016, Facebook opened up Instant Games to all developers last month. The platform allows developers to build mobile-friendly games using HTML5 that work across both Facebook and Messenger. The idea is to give game developers access to another sizable platform for their work, in addition to the existing app stores run by Apple and Google.
Facebook has had in-app purchases on its roadmap for Instant Games for some time, and began testing the feature with select developers around six months ago.
Similar to the app stores, the revenue share model for Instant Games is 70/30 on Facebook.com. However, on mobile, the games will follow the in-app billing terms from each platform, the company notes. That means purchases made in games running on Android devices, the 30 percent revenue share will apply after the standard mobile platform revenue share — aka Google’s own 70/30 cut.
That’s not ideal, of course. And all the hands in the pie may lead to game developers pricing their in-app purchases higher, as a result.
Facebook seems to acknowledge this concern in its blog post announcement, saying: “Our primary goal is to build [in-app purchases] in a way so that our developer partners can sustain and grow, and we’ll continue to evaluate rev/share with that goal in mind.”
Facebook wouldn’t confirm if or when support for in-app purchases is coming to iOS.
In addition to helping developers generate revenue outside of using ads in their games, in-app purchases in games could prove beneficial to Facebook as well. The company’s payment revenue has dwindled over the years, with things like Messenger payments never really seeing significant attention. Plus, Facebook made it possible for third-parties like PayPal to operate over Messenger, which signaled its disinterest in the payments space in general.
In-app purchases in games turns things around, a bit.
The submission process for in-app purchases will open up to developers on May 7, allowing them to implement the monetization features on Android and the web. In the meantime, Facebook is offering documentation about the feature here.
Posted: 01 May 2018 02:49 PM PDT
Founder and CEO Amy Chang has compared the product to a digital chief of staff or personal assistant, giving executives the context they need before conversations and meetings. Cisco plans to incorporate Accompany technology into its collaboration products, for example by introducing company and individual profiles into Webex meetings.
Cisco says it will pay $270 million in cash and stock in the deal.
The company probably didn’t have to search too hard to find Accompany, since Chang (who previously served as the head of product for Google’s ad measurement and reporting) has been on Cisco’s board of directors since October 2016. As part of the transaction, she’s resigning from the board, effective immediately.
In addition, Chang will be taking over the company’s Collaboration Technology Group. Rowan Trollope, who currently leads the collaboration group, is departing to become CEO at cloud software company Five9.
“Amy has proven to be an effective and innovative leader through her years as an entrepreneur, an engineer, and CEO, and I couldn’t be more pleased to have her and the Accompany team join Cisco,” said Cisco chairman and CEO Chuck Robbins in the announcement. “Together, we have a tremendous opportunity to further enhance AI and machine learning capabilities in our collaboration portfolio and continue to create amazing collaboration experiences for customers.”
According to Crunchbase, Accompany has raised around $40 million in funding from investors including CRV, Cowboy Ventures, Iconiq Capital and Ignition Partners.
Cisco also announced today that it’s selling off some of its NDS video assets.
Posted: 01 May 2018 02:48 PM PDT
The feed is the greatest psychological and mental manipulation tool that has ever been invented. Every day, billions of people open apps and scroll through algorithmically selected content designed to emotively engage us. Through the feed, we enter an intellectual stupor, downloading information to our brains without critical thought, without filters. Who ultimately controls those feeds, and can they use that control to change not just the emotions of their audience, but our very understanding of reality?
The feed and its discontents is the theme undergirding Bandwidth, the latest science fiction novel by Eliot Peper, released today by Amazon Publishing imprint 47North. The novel, the author's sixth, is the story of Dag Calhoun, a lobbyist who gets caught up in a war over climate change and the world's response to it. In this telling, activists fight not through picket signs and petitions, but instead with the modern weaponry of algorithms — controlling the feeds of global leaders to change their very understanding of the world.
The book is straight out of the Peper oeuvre, combining a thriller plot with a deeper introspection of technology and its effect on our actions and our futures. It's an engaging, electric read, but also one that forces us to confront the state of the world today and our impact as an industry on politics.
The book is also the latest milestone in the entrepreneurial writing career of Peper, who migrated from the startup and VC worlds to pursue his creative passions full-time. He describes his background as "a bit of a pinball career path," studying international environmental policy, working at a plasma arc startup in the clean energy space and then working at a venture firm.
Yet through all of those experiences, something was gnawing on him about the content that he was reading, particularly about business. "Folks don't want to publicize some of their less overtly positive experiences," Peper said. "They don't want to throw shade on other people, so business books sometimes miss some of the human experiences."
Peper, who has been a voracious reader his entire life, thought he could offer that missing link by writing speculative fiction. "Writing fiction, you have to synthesize your ideas about the world," he explained, and "put that all in a story that is compelling and illuminates something about the world for readers." That led to his first trilogy of novels called the Uncommon Stock series, which are thrillers set against the backdrop of a fast-growing startup and show the sorts of highs and lows (and danger!) you don't get in the business shelves.
Over time though, Peper has grown more philosophical about technology and its role in society, using his plots to explore ever more complicated connections of accelerating technological change. "We live in this world where our institutions and the tools we use every day are changing fast," he explains, arguing that "my grandparents wouldn't understand many, many things about my life today." Peper often gets ideas for novels from the news and general events happening, and uses the medium of the novel to explore their nuances in-depth.
That sort of thinking shows up in Cumulus, his fourth novel about an eponymous company that utilizes its vast user data to provide better transportation services called Fleet, but also uses that data to attempt to block criticism of the company. Peper, who is a native of Oakland, California, integrates the vast inequality that technology has created in Silicon Valley into the core of the plot.
For Bandwidth, Peper wanted to respond to the challenges of the 2016 election, and the challenges of managing one's own media diet. "In 2016 with the presidential campaign running in full swing, it felt that there was so much news that it was almost hard to escape from," he said. "I really wanted to take more agency in the ideas and the stories I was inviting into my own heart."
That thinking led Peper to start speculating on what would happen if you controlled that intake. "If you could personally curate the media diet of someone else, could you control their thinking … could you change their world view? That was the seed of Bandwidth," he said.
Bandwidth is the first work in a trilogy, although each novel will be independent, set in the same universe but with different characters and themes. The next book is called Borderless, and will focus on the decline of the nation-state, and comes out October 30th.
Posted: 01 May 2018 02:03 PM PDT
Snapchat’s redesign was a disaster. It cratered ad views and revenue and led Snapchat’s user count to actually shrink in March. That’s why CEO Evan Spiegel just announced a big reversal of the redesign’s worst part:
Spiegel relayed that user behavior on iOS is starting to stabilize, but “performance regressions” on Android related to the redesign have contributed to the app’s overall growth troubles.
Snap had previously tested this change, and also tried creating separate tabs for Chat and chronologically sorted Stories inside the Friends section on the left side of the app. Below you can see the new version of Discover, which shows preview tiles of friends’ Stories up top, sorted by who you interact with most. It’s reminiscent of Instagram Stories, which also uses a horizontal scrolling row of Stories.
I think this design is still a mess. It takes Snapchat’s pioneering Stories product and buries it amongst all the professional content inside Discover. Essentially, Snapchat has taken its redesign philosophy too far. Originally it pulled brands and social media stars out of the Stories list and put them in Discover because it didn’t want your friends’ Stories to have to compete with the pros. But now those Stories and the pro content are all crammed into one screen.
What Snap needs to do is create tabs for relevancy sorted Stories and chronologically sorted messages in the friends side of the app, and keep all professional content in the Discover section, but with the option to subscribe to your favorite creators to move them over to the Friends’ story lists.
Spiegel says he expects users metrics to stabilize as people get used to the redesign. But Snapchat doesn’t have time to be patient. Its losses are mounting and the growth of WhatsApp Status is explosive. That Facebook-owned Stories clone now has 450 million daily users. Snapchat needs to stuff its pride and philosophy and drill down into what users actually want. Spiegel has always gone by his gut, but this awful earnings report should give him indigestion.
Posted: 01 May 2018 01:37 PM PDT
Apple ended up with a pretty decent report for its second quarter, beating analyst expectations on most of its metrics — but it is making a huge move in terms of returning capital to investors.
The company said it is announcing a new $100 billion buyback program and increasing its dividend by 16%. That means that Apple investors are going to get more of an opportunity to snap up the value the company has created over time as it’s continued to grow significantly. While Apple in the past several months a lot of the momentum that carried it to a market cap nearing $1 trillion, the company’s stock has still risen around 80% in the past two years. Not surprisingly, the stock today is soaring (by Apple standards) in extended trading, with shares rising nearly 5% after the report.
Last quarter Apple CFO Luca Maestri said the company expected to be “net cash neutral” over time, signaling that it might start returning more capital to shareholders through its dividend and share buyback programs. That’ll be important for the company, which thanks to the tax bill last year will be able to repatriate a significant amount of the cash it holds outside of the U.S. These kinds of returns are pretty common with larger companies that generate a ton of cash — Apple already had some buyback programs in place, for example — but investors have always dinged Apple for not deploying its massive pile of cash.
This quarter, however, Apple’s pile of cash actually fell. Apple continued to add more and more cash to its reserves, though a significant amount of it was overseas. This quarter it fell to $267.2 billion, down $17.9 billion from the last quarter. From August 2012 to March 2018, Apple has returned around $275 billion in capital to Wall Street. That included a collective $200 billion in share repurchases. Apple has had some of these programs in place, but this is still a substantial addition to its capital return plans.
The rest of the line was a pretty solid beat on expectations Apple’s services revenue continues to grow as it looks to create a steady additional revenue stream. All that’s important too, of course, but the big news here is the set of buybacks. Here’s the bottom line:
That big capital return program is likely to keep investors happy for some time while it continues to sort out its new iPhone lineup. Last year, the company released the iPhone X — which was widely praised, but also carried a substantial $999 price tag for the cheapest model. Apple has worked to create programs to pay for those phones over time, but it’s still an extremely high ticket price. That’s especially true internationally, where consumers might not tolerate high prices for those phones. As a result, the reception on Wall Street was pretty muted, and Apple seems to have to figure out some other way to restart that iPhone growth engine.
Toward the end of last year, it seemed like Apple was inching closer to being a company with a market cap over $1 trillion. That’s a completely symbolic number, but nonetheless would be a significant milestone for the iPhone maker that looks to figure out what a next-generation smartphone looks like. Apple’s stock has by no means been in a tailspin, but it hasn’t really done anything either as expectations start to drop a bit following the launch of the iPhone X.
Posted: 01 May 2018 01:19 PM PDT
Snapchat face-planted in its Q1 2018 earnings report amidst a rocky redesign and sustained competition from Facebook, unable to keep up its comeback from last quarter. Snapchat reached only 191 million daily active users, up from 187 million, with its growth rate sinking to 2.13 percent — its slowest ever, compared to 5.05 percent in Q4 and a disastrous 2.9 percent in Q3. It pulled in $230.7 million in revenue with an adjusted EPS loss of $0.17. That’s compared to Wall Street’s estimates of $244.5 million in revenue and an adjusted EPS loss of $0.16.
It seems that Snapchat’s sudden growth spurt last quarter was a fluke, with Snap adding just 1 million users in its core North American market this quarter. It’s actually worse than it looks. CEO Evan Spiegel wrote in his prepared remarks that compared to its 191 million users quarterly average, “our March average was lower, but still above our Q4 average.” The idea that Snapchat actually shrank last month should terrify investors.
Snapchat is going to have ongoing trouble significantly increasing its user count with over 300 million daily users on Instagram Stories, and 450 million on WhatsApp Status — both clones of Snapchat. Wall Street hates weak user growth, and Snap’s share price fell about 15 percent in after-hours trading to $12.
Snap’s losses grew to $385.7 million, up from $350 million last quarter. That’s another spot Snap was hoping to improve with cost-cutting layoffs, but those were too little too late. COO Imran Khan warned that “as we think about our year-over-year revenue growth rates, we are planning for our Q2 growth rate to decelerate substantially from Q1 levels.” That’s another reason investors are bolting.
One of the few bright spots of the earnings report was the reveal of Snap Pro For Busines and Creators. It’s an app for public figures and businesses to run their Snapchat presence. Khan wrote that the product will make it “easier to manage a public profile, create and distribute content, understand audience insights, and ultimately, advertise with us.” Rollout is still very early, though.
Snap also saw an unprecedented decline in its average revenue per user in North America. It’s standard for the holiday Q4 to rake in more cash than the following Q1. But Snap’s ARPU in the US and Canada slipped to $2.10, down from $2.75 in Q4, but also down from $2.17 in Q3. That indicates serious problems monetizing that could be due to fewer Stories or Discover ad views during Q1.
“Our redesign created some headwinds in our revenue this quarter by disrupting user behavior and creating some apprehension among our advertising partners” Spiegel admitted. That’s why Snapchat is now rolling out a big re-redesign that jams Stories into the Discover page, which still seems worse than the original design. What I think Snap needs is tabs for chronologically-sorted messages and relevancy-sorted Stories in the friends side of the app, and all professional content in the Discover section.
Snapchat spent the year’s first quarter trying to capitalize on Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal while overhauling the design of its own app. Initial app store reviews were predominantly negative, but first-time installs and its App Store rank increased. Celebrity backlash and anecdotal declines in usage for some people have pushed Snap to waffle on the changes, in some cases changing the app to work more like the old version.
Snap just launched version 2 of its Spectacles camera sunglasses, but we’ll have to wait until next quarter to see any revenue from that. The question will be whether Snapchat’s layoffs of over 120 staffers will start to make a dent in its big losses, because it certainly didn’t show up this quarter.
During the call, Spiegel said he’s hoping that separating creators from friends will help Snap build an audience for them so they make it the favored home for their content. But even if it improves creator discovery, it’s hard to compete with the sheer size of Instagram and WhatsApp. CFO Drew Volero meanwhile said that Snap is trying to get to break-even, but there’s no timeline for that/ Producing $385 million more in revenue per quarter is going to be a massive challenge without significant user growth, especially with reduced headcount from layoffs.
As I wrote early this year, “The popularity of Snapchat messaging amongst western teenagers means it won't disappear overnight. But it may be time for it and the world to face the fact that Snapchat could be a world-changing product without ever becoming a world-dominating business.”
Honestly, Snap is in serious trouble. Its slowest-ever growth rate, declining revenue per user, and expanding losses point to a company in crisis. Even if users eventually acclimate to the redesign, by then Instagram and WhatsApp will have soaked up much of Snap’s international growth opportunity. And with Spectacles 2 merely a good iteration rather than a revolution, and true augmented reality glasses still years away, it’s unclear what Snap could do to save itself.
Posted: 01 May 2018 01:09 PM PDT
On the heels of Facebook announcing its intent to add a dating element to its platform, dating company Match’s stock is suffering. Match is the brand behind dating services like Tinder, Match, OK Cupid and Plenty of Fish.
At the time of publication, Match’s stock was trading down about 22 percent.
Facebook’s entrance in this space brings it into direct competition with Match’s bread and butter. According to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the dating functionality will be a standalone feature that will focus on legitimate long-term relationships, rather than just hookups.
Though, Match Group CEO Mandy Ginsberg says she is flattered by Facebook’s entrance into its space.
"We're flattered that Facebook is coming into our space – and sees the global opportunity that we do – as Tinder continues to skyrocket,” Ginsberg said in a statement to TechCrunch. “We're surprised at the timing given the amount of personal and sensitive data that comes with this territory. Regardless, we're going to continue to delight our users through product innovation and relentless focus on relationship success. We understand this category better than anyone. Facebook's entry will only be invigorating to all of us."
Meanwhile, the parent company of Match threw some shade at Facebook. In a statement provided to TechCrunch, IAC CEO Joey Levin said,
Bumble is another competitor that may be affected by Facebook’s new service, but the company says it’s “thrilled” about today’s news.
“Our executive team has already reached out to Facebook to explore ways to collaborate,” a Bumble spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch. “Perhaps Bumble and Facebook can join forces to make the connecting space even more safe and empowering."
Posted: 01 May 2018 01:04 PM PDT
Oculus made good on a lot of their promises from last year at today’s F8 keynote. One of the big ones that we heard a lot more about was Oculus Venues, an app the company has developed to house live sporting events, comedy shows and concerts shot in VR.
The unified app will feature content from a bunch of different partners, including stuff from startups like NextVR, which has been among the most prolific in terms of streaming sporting events from its own partnerships with the NBA, NFL, NHL and WWE. They have also streamed concerts via a partnership with Live Nation.
"Oculus Venues is a bold move to provide profound social VR engagement and we are honored to deliver such an important part of this new product release from Oculus," NextVR CEO David Cole said in a statement. "NextVR has built a passionate fan base around leading VR content experiences. Venues will satisfy our fans who want to enjoy this type of content on a massively social scale."
The app is launching May 30 on Oculus Go and the Gear VR.
Posted: 01 May 2018 12:47 PM PDT
Facebook made a small but interesting announcement at the end of its F8 keynote today: You’ll soon be able to post 3D photos to your news feed. For now, we know very little about this feature — or even how you’ll capture these photos — but chances are you’ll see them pop up in your friends’ status updates in the coming months.
How exactly Facebook will pull off this 3D effect, which looked pretty good in today’s demos, but also quite limited in how “3D” these photos actually are, remains to be seen. What’s most likely, though, is that Facebook will use some of its machine learning smarts to power some of this, especially given that the company also announced its (somewhat odd) 3D memories feature today, which uses machine learning to recreate the scenes of old photos in VR.
Facebook already supports 360-degree photos and video in the news feed, so the addition of 3D photos makes perfect sense in this context. For now, though, we’ll have to wait and see how exactly this will work.
Posted: 01 May 2018 12:40 PM PDT
Among all of the other announcements that surfaced today during the F8 keynote, only one of the announcements involved Boggle.
Oculus announced a bug update to its social platform, Oculus Rooms, which brings a redesigned space with cool new features designed to keep people coming back to the app.
This is a big update to Rooms, which takes a lot of the cool features from other social VR apps (including Facebook Spaces) and brings them all together. What’s most impressive is how much they are able to accomplish inside a space you can only control with a simple controller.
You can bring friends into the environment and navigate through your giant video screen, on which you can watch videos, full-length movies and more.
What’s actually quite fun is that Oculus has partnered with Hasbro to start bringing board games into its VR social space so that users can play games while they chat or watch videos in VR. Rooms will be starting with the game Boggle, and will soon be adding Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit experiences to the app. This comes in addition to non-branded games like chess and checkers, which are also available.
The updated app is available now.
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