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The engineering daring that led to the first Chinese personal computer

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China is one of the world’s wealthiest digital economies today, with a hardware supply chain that is unrivaled and a panoply of prominent and massively profitable companies like Alibaba, Tencent and ByteDance taking a leading role in the world. Yet, all of this cutting-edge innovation rests on a 40-year-old solution to one of the great computing challenges: the development of Chinese word processing.

Beginning in the early 1980s, China dramatically expanded its computing purchases from the United States and the West, importing just 600 foreign-built microcomputers in the year 1980, as compared to 130,000 in 1985. Companies in the United States, Japan and Europe clamored to get in on this “buying binge,” as one observer called it.

There was a major problem, however, both for potential Chinese computer users and Western manufacturers: No Western-built personal computer, printer, monitor, operating system, program or otherwise was capable of handling Chinese character input or output — not in the early- and mid-1980s, anyway, and certainly not “out of the box.” Without some major overhauls, mass-manufactured personal computers were effectively useless for anyone wanting to operate in Chinese.

The major problem for both potential Chinese computer users and Western manufacturers was that no Western-built personal computer, printer, monitor, operating system, program or otherwise was capable of handling Chinese character input or output.

One of the most important reasons was the problem of memory — specifically the memory required for Chinese fonts. At the advent of Latin alphabetic computing, Western engineers and designers determined that a font for English could be built upon a 5-by-7 bitmap grid — requiring only 5 bytes of memory per symbol. Although far from aesthetically pleasing, this grid offered sufficient resolution to render the letters of the Latin alphabet legibly on a computer terminal or a paper printout. Storing the 95 printable characters of U.S. ASCII required just 475 bytes of memory — a tiny fraction of, for example, the Apple II’s then 48 KB of motherboard memory. 

To achieve comparable, bare-minimum legibility for Chinese characters, the 5-by-7 grid was far too small. When designing a bitmap font for Chinese, engineers had no choice but to increase the size of the Latin alphabetic grid geometrically, from 5-by-7 pixels to upward of 16-by-16 pixels or larger, or at least 32 bytes of memory per Chinese character. The total memory required to store just the bitmaps (in either simplified or traditional form, but not both, and with no accompanying metadata) would equal approximately 256 KB for the 8,000 most commonly used Chinese characters, or four times the total capacity of most off-the-shelf personal computers in the early 1980s. All this, even before accounting for the RAM requirements for the operating system and application software.

Draft bitmaps from the Sinotype III Chinese font, prepared prior to digitization. Image Credits: Louis Rosenblum Papers, Stanford University Special Collections

Such is the context for one of the great engineering histories of modern computing, a tale of entrepreneurial daring and engineering ingenuity that provides a unique look into the global development of the digital revolution.

This is the first of two articles on TechCrunch in which I examine the Sinotype III, an experimental machine that was among the first personal computers to handle Chinese-language input and output. Built atop a store-bought Apple II — but outfitted with a custom-programmed word processor and operating system — Sinotype III served as a “proof of concept” that demonstrated how one could “translate” Western-manufactured computers into Chinese, and thereby open up a vast new marketplace.

In this first part, I will examine the profound technical challenges around computer memory, fonts and operating systems faced by the creators of Sinotype III, and how they devised novel solutions to overcome them.

“The chutzpah of a newly minted graduate who had no immediate job prospects”

Our story begins with the Graphic Arts Research Foundation (GARF) — the organization where, arguably, Chinese computing was born. The Ideographic Composing Machine, also known as the Sinotype, was invented in the late 1950s by MIT electrical engineer Samuel Hawks Caldwell with GARF funding. Following his untimely death in 1960, the project came to a standstill. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Sinotype project was kept alive by a number of different parties, including the Itek Corporation, RCA, and finally, GARF once again.

Keyboard of Sinotype I, designed by Samuel Caldwell in the late 1950s. Image Credits: Louis Rosenblum Papers, Stanford University Special Collections

Sinotype’s homecoming was thanks in large part to one man: Louis Rosenblum. Born in 1921 in New York City, he was yet another member of the MIT family, graduating in 1942 with an undergraduate degree in Applied Math. Studying under Harold Edgerton, the world-renowned professor of electrical engineering (and who shot the famous “milk drop coronet” photo in the 1930s), Rosenblum took a job at Polaroid immediately following graduation, working with Edwin Land on a variety of projects, including the development of instant photography. In 1954, he moved to Photon — where he worked on photocomposition of non-Latin writing systems. Deeply familiar with the late Caldwell’s pioneering work on Sinotype, Rosenblum effectively adopted the project, and revived it when he joined GARF as a consultant in the mid-1970s.

Diagram showing configuration of Sinotype II system, running on a Nova 1200 CPU. Image Credits: Louis Rosenblum Papers, Stanford University Special Collections

GARF continued to work on the Sinotype project well into the early 1980s, by which point it had developed an advisory board featuring a host of renowned scholars, as well as those with deep China experience. Harvard linguist Susumo Kuno came on board; as did Richard Solomon, known for his pivotal role in Richard Nixon’s visit to the PRC in 1972 and then head of the Social Science Department at the RAND Corporation.

As stellar as this brain trust was, however, GARF’s major breakthrough on the Sinotype project — the leap from a minicomputer-based system (Sinotype II) to one based on a microcomputer (Sinotype III) — was catalyzed by a college student whose only experience at GARF to date was a brief, two-week gig working on data management for the Sinotype II project in 1979. He was Bruce Rosenblum, Louis Rosenblum’s son.

Bruce Rosenblum using the Sinotype III system. Image Credits: Louis Rosenblum Papers, Stanford University Special Collections

As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania and an aspiring photojournalist, Bruce was balancing his time between coursework and his role as photo editor for the independent student-run newspaper Daily Pennsylvanian. The paper was remarkably advanced in terms of the equipment it ran, as well as the deep expertise of the students in charge.

By the fall of Bruce’s junior year, the paper’s existing typesetting equipment (two Compugraphic typesetters) were on their last legs and needed to be replaced. Along with three of his student colleagues at the paper, Bruce assisted in the process of researching potential replacements, eventually settling on a combined $125,000 contract with two companies: Mycro-Tek in Wichita, Kansas, and Compugraphic, in Wilmington, Massachusetts.

As for the Sinotype project — one that Bruce was well aware of, thanks to his father, but with which he had no involvement — a pivotal moment came in early May 1981. Bruce had just completed his final exams, and stopped by the offices of the paper. His colleague Eric Jacobs was there, hard at work on a TRS-80 Model II personal computer from Radio Shack. Jacobs was contemplating how this microcomputer might be used to run the newspaper’s business operations. Bruce observed for perhaps 30 minutes, before heading on with his day. 

Those 30 minutes stuck with him, however. “It was the first time I’d ever seen anyone work on a microcomputer,” Bruce recalled by email to me, “and those few minutes were the inspiration that triggered the whole Sinotype III project and eventually my career in computers.”

Later that same week, Bruce made a somewhat off-the-cuff remark in a phone call with his father. Referencing the immense cost of the Data General hardware GARF was then using to build Sinotype II, Bruce remarked that someone could probably program something equivalent or better on a microcomputer for a fraction of the cost — perhaps with as little as $10,000 worth of hardware, as compared to the more than $100,000 price tag for the equipment GARF was currently funding.

His father was intrigued. Louis asked Bruce if he himself might be up to the task of programming such a machine. Bruce boasted no formal training in computer science, although he had worked extensively with computers in high school and taught himself both PDP-8 assembly language and BASIC. “Sure,” he responded to his father’s query with “the chutzpah of a newly minted graduate who had no immediate job prospects.”

During his world tour, Bruce Rosenblum continued to work on the Sinotype III project, including on notepaper from New Delhi. Image Credits: Louis Rosenblum Papers, Stanford University Special Collections.

In June 1981, Bruce had a formal meeting in New York with Bill Garth, Prescott Low and his father Louis to present his Sinotype III proposal. Bruce dressed for the part, arriving in a three-piece suit. In Bruce’s formal proposal, he cited a total of $7,500 in hardware costs, with an additional $5,000 for programming fees. The plan promised a Chinese word processor, running on an Apple II, delivered in approximately four months. If this worked, it would reduce the cost of such a machine by an order of magnitude.

Bruce got the job and went on to program Sinotype III from June to November 1981, balancing time between this and his full-time job as a tour guide for the National Park Service at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. During daytime breaks he would write out assembly code by hand, transcribing it at night. When Labor Day in 1981 came, and Bruce’s tour guide job ended, he dedicated two months straight to finishing the code and delivered it to GARF.

Memory hacking 

The first problem that GARF and the Rosenblums faced was that of computer memory. Developers of early Chinese personal computers explored every available option in their effort to juice as much memory as possible out of their systems. We will explore two strategies in particular, sometimes employed in isolation, but often in concert: Adaptive Memory and Chinese Character Cards.

The Sinotype III system comprised five components: a Sanyo DM5012CM 12-inch monitor; an Epson MX-70 printer; a Corvus 10 MB “Rigid Disk Storage” for storing the Chinese character bitmap database and their corresponding “descriptor codes”; an Apple Disk Drive “for storage of text files”; and the Apple II itself.

Out of the box, the Apple II came with 32 KB of RAM, extensible to 48 KB on the motherboard. “We maxed that out even before the Apple II left the store,” Bruce Rosenblum remarked by email to me. 48 KB of memory was still far too little for his purposes, however, and so Bruce opted for what, at the time, was a fully standard modification, commonly employed by so-called “power users” of the era: namely, to insert an additional 16 KB memory card in slot 0, thereby bringing the total available memory to 64 KB. 

Even this was too little, however. “I needed more RAM to store a full encoding system,” he said, “and also the 16-by-16 bitmaps for the 100 most frequent ideographs.”

He began to explore a “mod” of the Apple II that few if any others had tried before. “Somehow,” he said, “I figured out I could put a second 16 KB board in slot 2 of the Apple II, and that gave me a total of 80 KB. Completely nonstandard,” he continued, “but it worked with off-the-shelf components.”

This modification pushed the machine past its own limitations, however. The 6502 microprocessor on the Apple II was only capable of accessing 64 KB of memory directly — meaning that, even with the additional 16 KB Bruce had managed to bootstrap in with the second memory board, there was simply no built-in way for the Apple II to simultaneously access these additional addresses in memory. So “nonstandard” was this mod that, when he told an Apple engineer about it during one of his many conversations, the Apple rep was shocked — he had never heard of, or thought of, doing such a thing. 

To enable the Apple II to access 80 KB of memory, rather than just 64 KB, Bruce dispensed with the out-of-the-box operating system and programmed his own in assembly language. Key to his custom-designed program was the possibility of “selecting between two banks of 16 KB that overlap each other.” In other words, although only 64 KB worth of memory locations would be accessible at any one instant, by rapidly oscillating between the two memory expansion cards, he could in effect trick the computer into accessing both at speeds that, from the perspective of the user, would have been negligible. That squeezed 25% more memory out of the system, enabling the inclusion of perhaps as many as 400 more Chinese characters in on-board memory.

Bruce delivered the final code to GARF the week before Thanksgiving, and then set out on a world backpacking tour that would take him across Europe and Asia. From this point on, development of Sinotype III would be largely in the hands of Louis Rosenblum and GARF, although Bruce continued to serve as a consultant, exchanging frequent correspondence with his father from wherever in Europe, China, India or elsewhere he found himself at the moment.

Speeding toward real-time Chinese typing

Even with his ingenious mod, however, Louis and Bruce estimated that a mere 600 to 1,000 Chinese characters would be able to fit in on-board memory. When accounting for the size of Sinotype III’s operating system, program applications and the memory requirements of each Chinese character, the vast majority of Chinese characters in the machine’s lexicon would need to be stored somewhere else, whether on floppy disks, an external hard drive or via some other hardware solution. 

Sinotype III Computer Monitor. Image Credits: Louis Rosenblum Papers, Stanford University Special Collections

Early on, Bruce briefly contemplated using PROM (programmable read-only memory) chips — but this idea quickly revealed itself to be a dead end. Circa 1981 and 1982, the largest PROM chips on the market maxed out at 2 KB of memory, which translated into a mere 28 to 51 Chinese characters. In order to store 7,000 Chinese characters in this fashion, then, Bruce would have needed either 138 or 250 PROM chips. “That’s a lot of chips,” he remarked.

Bruce then considered the possibility of storing characters on floppy disks. This, too, proved unworkable, not only because of the large number of disks it would have required, but also the slow access and retrieval speeds involved in fetching character bitmaps from floppy drive storage. GARF opted instead for a third solution: to outfit Sinotype III with an external hard drive, which at the time was an almost unheard-of microcomputer accessory. In order to overcome the profound memory limitations, GARF would store thousands of lower-frequency Chinese characters “off-site” in the system’s external hard drive: a 10 MB Corvus “Rigid Disk Storage.”

This had negative implications for the operating speed of Sinotype III, however. Within the space-time continuum of computing, in which most operations take place at blazing subsecond speeds, hard drives were cumbersome beasts. Particularly at this time, they relied on rigid magnetic disks — “platters” — that rotated within the device, not unlike a record player. The contents of various “tracks” were read by a head, similar to how the grooves on a record are read by the needle. Retrieval speeds depended upon the location of the head, and the particular rotational position of the disk at the moment of the retrieval request. Not unlike arriving at the stop to find that the bus has just departed, one had no option except to wait until the bus came back around again.

In concrete terms, retrieval times for Chinese characters stored on the hard drive were 10 times slower than those stored in RAM. Specifically, the retrieval time for those Chinese characters stored in RAM could be achieved in approximately 100 milliseconds per character — a unit of time imperceptible by human cognition. As for the characters stored in external storage, however, the input of any of these characters required as much as a full second to access and retrieve — a unit of time well within the threshold of human perception.

A one-second input time would have proven devastatingly slow within the context of mid-1980s personal computing, where users in English-language contexts were quickly becoming accustomed to real-time typing. In addition, one second is, obviously, 10 times as long as 100 milliseconds, meaning that the average user would be able to feel this differential each and every time they wished to input lower-frequency characters.

In order to mitigate this problem, Louis Rosenblum hit upon an idea that he referred to as “adaptive temporary storage.” Sinotype III would be able to adjust the set of characters stored in RAM depending upon what the user had recently inputted. Upon initial boot, Sinotype III’s on-board RAM would be outfitted only with a predetermined set of high-frequency characters. The inputting of any hard-drive-based infrequent character would take up to one second, as noted above. However, “as each of the less frequent ideographs is keyboarded,” he explained in a letter at the time, “its code and dot matrix pattern will be noted in the random access memory.” In other words, such characters would be temporarily copied from the hard drive to on-board RAM cache, thereby reducing subsequent retrieval times.

Internal GARF document showing Sinotype III character database and metadata. Image Credits: Louis Rosenblum Papers, Stanford University Special Collections

Chinese-on-a-Chip

Even with recourse to toggling and adaptive memory, there remained many thousands of characters that fell beyond the limits of such strategies. While high-frequency Chinese characters accounted for a large percentage of overall usage, the production of any kind of technical or specialist content would have certainly brought the user repeatedly into the “off-site” repository of Chinese characters. More of these “low-frequency” characters needed to be brought “on-site” if the experience of Chinese computing was ever going to approach the same feeling of instantaneity enjoyed by English-language counterparts. 

Engineers in the late 1970s and early 1980s began to explore a different hardware solution, referred to as “Chinese Character Cards” (Hanka), “Chinese Cards” (Zhongwenka), “Chinese Character Generators,” “Chinese Font Generators” (Hanzi zimo fashengqi) or, as one article delightfully referred to them, “Chinese-on-a-Chip.” Much like memory cards and graphic cards, “Chinese character cards” were designed to be installed directly into motherboard expansion slots. Hardwired into these cards were thousands of Chinese bitmaps and input encodings. In effect, they served the same role as an external hard drive, but at far faster speeds and with more reliable performance. 

“Chinese-on-a-chip” cards were not the focus of research at GARF. Rather, they grew out of the earlier era of custom-designed Chinese systems, all prior to the personal computing revolution. These included systems such as the Ideographix IPX, by Chan Yeh, and the Olympia 1011, which were outfitted with microprocessors whose sole purpose was the generation of character bitmaps and the storage of input descriptors. On the Olympia 1011 Chinese word processor — basically a single-purpose electric Chinese typewriter — one of the three Intel 8085 processors was dedicated exclusively to Chinese character generation.

During the early 1980s, such character generators were commoditized and turned into salable products themselves. No longer did one need to buy a full-fledged word processor, such as the Olympia 1011, to gain access to this kind of on-board character generator. Instead, one could purchase a “Chinese Character Card” and then install it on one’s personal computer of choice. 

Among the earliest centers of Chinese computing to focus on Chinese Character Cards was Tsinghua University, where researchers developed an early card capable of storing approximately 6,000 Chinese bitmap patterns in 32-by-32 dot matrix format. By the mid- and late-1980s, there were dozens of different “Hanka” on the market, manufactured and marketed by companies across Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the United States and elsewhere.

By the mid- and late-1980s, the “Chinese-on-a-chip” approach became so important and common that practically all computers boasting Chinese or Japanese-language capabilities featured a character generator card of one sort or another.

Thus, from the 1950s with Caldwell’s Sinotype to the duo father-son Rosenblum team and GARF around Sinotype III in the 1980s, solving the memory problems associated with Chinese characters was the linchpin to opening the Chinese market to computing. Hacking computers with more memory, creating adaptive memory algorithms for prioritizing characters, and building dedicated hardware bridged the problem and initiated the computer revolution in China.

Yet, the next step was how to expand beyond the computer itself to everything that might connect to it. In part two of this series, coming up shortly on TechCrunch, our discussion will continue with a deep dive into the challenges of designing and programming early computer monitors, printers and other peripherals capable of handling Chinese text output. 

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/06/29/the-engineering-daring-that-led-to-the-first-chinese-personal-computer/

Techcrunch

This Week in Apps: PayPal launches ‘super app,’ Twitter adds crypto tips, Apple won’t take Fortnite back

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Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Epic Games dares Apple to let Fortnite for iOS back in the App Store

Image Credits: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Following the judge’s ruling in the Epic-Apple antitrust lawsuit, Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney asked Apple to reinstate Epic’s developer account. But as Epic said, it aims to appeal the court’s ruling, Apple informed the company that it won’t be reinstating Epic’s account until the appeals have been resolved. In effect, that means Fortnite may not return to iOS for years, if Epic is forced to wait for the appeal’s decision to be made final.

Sweeney made the request public by tweeting out a letter he sent to Apple making the request and the company’s response. The letter promises Apple that Fortnite would play by the rules — something that it didn’t do before, when it breached its contract with Apple by implementing its own payments to force the lawsuit. The letter also noted it had already disabled Epic payments server-side since it can’t update the app on users’ devices. And it said it paid Apple the $6 million in fees ordered by the court, which had been gained as a result of routing around Apple’s in-app purchases with its own system.

But what makes the letter interesting is that it’s not just Epic asking for re-entry. It’s daring Apple to follow the current court order.

The judge’s decision deemed Apple “not a monopoly,” which Apple then jubilantly celebrated, saying it’s something “we’ve known all along,” quoting the judge’s statement that Apple’s success was “not illegal.” However, the one part of the case where Epic won was where the judge declared Apple’s current in-app purchase (IAP) system anticompetitive. The court’s decision was that Apple would now have to accommodate developers by giving them the choice to include buttons or links to other places where users could pay for their in-app purchases outside the App Store, in addition to Apple’s IAP option.

Sweeney’s letter tells Apple Fortnite will play by the rules if Apple will. That is, if Apple follows the court’s guidelines to allow buttons and external links to other purchasing mechanisms, then Epic would resubmit the Fortnite app. In other words, Epic is ready to take advantage of the now legal option to route around Apple’s IAP system.

Apple, though, wasn’t having it. Apple’s legal team called Epic’s behavior in the past “duplicitous” when it breached its contract, and Apple saw no reason to reinstate the account until the court’s decision is made final. And of course, Sweeney tweeted that too, noting that appeals may take up to five years. (So bad news, Fortnite players.)

Apple’s decline may help to signal to other developers not to try to break its rules, but for Epic it sets the stage for the next battle — one where it’s not just daring Apple to let it back in based on the new terms, but one where it’s also daring Congress to act, too. After all, Epic’s position seems to be, if Apple can boot out a multibillion-dollar company that made amends for breaking rules it believed to be illegal, then what hope would smaller developers have to ever fight back against the tech giant? And once kicked out, there is no other path to iOS. This seems to try to position Apple as the monopolist that the court said it wasn’t — which is what the appeal is all about.

Apps to have a record Q3, with $34B in consumer spending 

Image Credits: App Annie

A new forecast from (the recently busted) App Annie indicates the third quarter will be another good one for the app economy. Consumers worldwide will spend $34 billion on apps and games in Q3, a 20% year-over-year increase in spending. The jump indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on consumer habits and behavior is having a lasting effect when it comes to how people are now using apps for entertainment, shopping, work and education. Consumer spending on iOS apps grew 15% year over year to $22 billion, and 15% year-over-year on Google Play, to reach around $12 billion. Most of this revenue is generated by gaming apps, which account for 66% of the spend across both app stores. In terms of non-gaming apps, iOS commands 76% of consumer spending

Downloads in Q3 will also grow by 10% year-over-year to reach a record high of 36 billion, driven by Google Play and particularly downloads in emerging markets like India and Brazil, and others.

Apple Updates & News

  • Apple released the public versions of iOS 15, iPadOS 15 and watchOS 8. iOS 15 adds a number of new features, most notably Focus modes, which allow you to personalize your experience based on your current context (work, sleep, driving, etc.); a revamped (and sort of controversial) Safari update; improvements to Apple’s core apps; and more.
  • Apple also released to developers iOS 15.1, beta 1. The new beta adds SharePlay, the co-viewing feature for FaceTime, which did not make it in time for the public release of iOS 15. It also allows users to store their vaccination records in the Health app by taking a photo. (Or, if your health provider syncs your medical records, it may be in there already.)
  • But! New data from Mixpanel indicates users are taking longer to upgrade to iOS 15 compared with iOS 14 at launch. In its first two days, iOS 14 had been adopted by 14.5% of users, compared with 8.5% for iOS 15.
  • Apple rolled out StoreKit 2 and new in-app purchase capabilities. StoreKit 2 adds new Swift-based APIs that allow developers to determine product entitlements and eligibility for offers, get a user’s history of in-app purchases, find out the latest status of a subscription, provide a way to request refunds and manage subscriptions from within an app, and more. An App Store Server API is also in production for getting users’ IAP history and subscription status. App Store server notifications, which provide real-time updates on IAPs to enable developers to create customized experiences, are coming soon.
  • iOS 15 brings a major ASO update to the App Store. Now, the store will hide the screenshots for the apps you already have installed on your phone, which allows other apps and games to gain more visibility. This will be particularly important for those that appear in searches for major brands.

Android Updates & News

Image Credits: Google

  • Google’s Android Automotive OS will come to Honda vehicles in 2022. The integrated version of Android Auto is already available in select Ford, GM and Volvo vehicles.
  • Google booted a game and suspended a developer’s account for using sexually explicit ads to direct users to their app. The ads were causing outrage across social media, including Twitter and TikTok, due to the nature of the ads, which encouraged players to commit sexual assault.

E-commerce/Food Delivery

  • Amazon is shutting down its Amazon Go app. The app allowed shoppers to go checkout-free at Amazon’s high-tech convenience stores where cameras and shelf sensors track what you buy. The functionality provided by Amazon Go is now being integrated into Amazon’s main app, the company said.
  • Uber Eats added a new map feature that allows users to search for food nearby by typing in either words or an emoji. That is, you could type in an emoji of a hamburger 🍔, and the map would display the exact distance from your location. The company said the change was introduced because a majority of users would switch to other map apps to find nearby food. Users will also be able to see delivery and pickup options within Uber Eats and the Uber app itself.

Image Credits: Uber Eats

Fintech

  • PayPal launched its new “super app,” which combines a variety of fintech tools under the hood. The app offers direct deposit with the ability to get paid up to two days early, improved bill pay, a digital wallet, peer-to-peer payments, messaging, shopping tools ported over from its acquisition of Honey, crypto capabilities and a “high-yield” savings account (well, it’s 0.40% APY) powered by Synchrony Bank. Some of the features are arriving now, others in the weeks and months ahead. And the rollout itself is staggered so you might not see the update right away, either.

Image Credits: PayPal

  • Following the threat of an SEC lawsuit, Coinbase canceled its planned launch of a “Lend” product which would have allowed users to lend their crypto holdings back to the exchange for the promise of earning interest rates that are much higher than traditional savings accounts offer. This sort of functionality is already offered by other platforms, like Gemini, which is why Coinbase was proceeding toward a launch before the SEC’s intervention.
  • Robinhood has begun quietly testing a new crypto wallet feature and cryptocurrency transfer features in a beta version of its app.
  • European fintech app Revolut launched commission-free stock trading in the U.S. to compete with Robinhood and others.
  • Square’s payment processing app glitched last weekend, which caused its automatic tipping screen to disappear for hours. The bug hurt restaurant workers, baristas and small business owners who lost out on what would have otherwise been hundreds of thousands in tips.
  • China banned crypto. The country’s central bank said all cryptocurrency-related activities are now prohibited and overseas exchanges providing services in China are now illegal.

Social

Image Credits: Twitter

  • Twitter continued to accelerate its product releases with this week’s introduction of even more features, including those in the crypto space. The company added support for Bitcoin tipping in its recently launched “Tip Jar” feature, which allows users to receive one-time payments through third-party services. Now, users will be able to add a Bitcoin Lightning wallet (via Strike’s API) or their Bitcoin address to accept crypto tips. Twitter also plans to support NFT authentication so creators could connect their crypto wallets to Twitter to showcase their NFTs. And Twitter said it’s planning to roll out recording to Spaces, launch a creator fund and other safety features, among other things.
  • Tumblr launched its subscription service Post+ into open beta in the U.S. The product has been controversial, as users worried about how it could impact the site’s culture. Some users were concerned it gave the appearance of something akin to Twitter’s verified badge, offering an elevated status. Tumblr has since responded to user feedback by removing the blue Post+ badge that appeared next to the names of users who enabled the feature.

Image Credits: Tumblr

  • Facebook’s stock tumbled after the company announced Apple’s privacy changes would have a bigger impact in Q3 and noted it had been underreporting iOS web conversions by approximately 15%. The latter had greatly panicked advertisers into thinking Apple’s ATT changes were even worse than feared. Investors didn’t respond well to the admission of the forecast, however, and the stock dropped several points after the announcement was made.
  • Pinterest partnered with Albertsons to make recipe pins shoppable. The grocery chain is looking to drive recipe hunters from pins to checkout.

Photos

  • Apple said it would add a new setting to its iPhone 13 that would allow users to turn off automatic camera switching to the macro camera when users get too close to their subject. There was already a setting that would disable the switching for video recording, which indicated that Apple knew that some people would prefer manual control over the switching.

Messaging

  • Telegram added a host of new features, including interactive emoji that display full-screen when tapped, new chat themes and livestream recording in an effort to continue to better compete with Messenger, WhatsApp, iMessage and other messaging apps. The latter new addition could be particularly useful for creators, as admins will be able to record video and audio directly from a livestream or video chat. The recorded sessions are then stored in the Saved Messages section.

Image Credits: Telegram

Streaming & Entertainment

  • Apple’s Podcasts app in iOS 15 added personalized recommendations to its “Listen Now” tab, in an effort to improve podcast discovery. Sections titled “If you Like [Show Name]” will suggest other sows that listeners like you are engaging with, while other recommendations will be based on topics you like. A new Shared with You section in Listen Now will display recommendations from friends and family.

Image Credits: Apple

  • TikTok celebrated the return of Broadway shows in New York with a slate of live programming produced by artists, Broadway partners and creators, including performances from Broadway casts; backstage tours showing off costumes, props and practice spaces; costume and makeup tutorials; and tips and tricks from theater professionals; and more.
  • Discord started testing YouTube integration just weeks after YouTube cracked down on popular Discord music bots. The feature, called Watch Together, lets Discord members watch YouTube videos (including music videos) together, either via a playlist or by pasting in YouTube links.
  • Clubhouse announced Wave, a new way to casually talk with friends on the app. The feature will replace starting private rooms with friends. After you “wave” at people who follow you, anyone who accepts will be able to join your private room as a speaker.
  • Clubhouse also hired Chelsea Macdonald as head of entertainment partnerships. She previously worked in similar roles at Community, Red Bull and Instagram.

Gaming

  • The Pokémon Company offered a sneak peek at the upcoming Pokémon Trading Card Game Live, which will be available on iOS, Android, PC and Mac devices. In addition to the classic card trading game, the new mobile game will also offer customization options and accessories for your trainer.
  • Outfit7’s newly launched My Talking Angela 2, a pet simulation game in its popular Talking Tom franchise, jumped to No. 1 by global downloads for its debut, while Genshin Impact reclaimed the No. 2 spot.
  • Pokémon Unite reached the No. 1 spot in game downloads in over 62 Countries on Day 1 (September 21st, 2021) of its release on the iOS App Store.

Health & Fitness

  • A report claims disgruntled Noom users said they felt misled by the diet app which had claimed to be an “anti-diet” lifestyle app, but whose plans were really just calorie restriction — like any other diet app. They were also frustrated by its expensive pricing and canned responses sent by burned-out diet coaches.
  • Apple’s Research app was updated with the option to transfer study progress data to other devices via iCloud backup.

Productivity

  • Google updated its suite of apps for iOS 15, adding support for new features like Focus Mode, Spotlight integrations and iPad widgets.

Government & Policy

  • TikTok parent company ByteDance added time limits for kids under 14 for the Chinese version of TikTok, called Douyin. Now, teens under 14 will be able to access Douyin only between the hours of 6 AM and 10 PM and will be limited to 40 minutes per day of usage. The changes follow a broader crackdown by the government on the tech industry, which includes reducing the time kids spend online, which it views as harmful.
  • An Indian antitrust probe determined Google abused its dominant position in the country to illegally hurt competitors by reducing device manufacturers’ ability and incentive to sell devices running their own version of Android. It also found that Google’s requirement to pre-install its own apps is in violation of India’s competition law.

Security & Privacy

  • Apple improved its Face ID security with iOS 15 to make it more difficult to spoof by using a 3D model for someone’s face.
  • Apple patched a new zero-day bug that was exploited in the wild by attackers to hack into iPhones and Macs running older versions of iOS and macOS. Successful exploitation of the bug leads to arbitrary code execution with kernel privileges on compromised devices. Meanwhile, a researcher has published a complaint that Apple has been non-responsive to their reports of other zero-days.
  • A report from The Washington Post dug into the shady ways apps were tracking users in the post-IDFA era. For instance, the game Subway Surfers was shown to be sending specific data points to Chartboost, which could then potentially use the data to uniquely identify your iPhone, a technique known as fingerprinting. This continues even if the user has asked the app not to track them.

Image Credits: Lightricks

💰 Facetune maker Lightricks raised $130 million in Series D funding, which included $100 million in primary and $30 million in secondary funding, and values the company at $1.8 billion. The new round was co-led by New York-based VC firm Insight Partners and Hanaco Venture Capital and will be put toward further product growth across its line of editing and creativity apps, as well as acquisitions.

💰 Digital bookkeeping app FloBiz raised $31 million in Series B funding led by Sequoia Capital India, Think Investments and its existing investors Elevation Capital and Beenext. The app has been downloaded more than 5 million times and has a heavier presence in regions like Maharashtra, Delhi NCR, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.

💰 London-based grocery delivery app Jiffy raised $28 million in Series A funding led by family-owned investment company Heartland. The app has over 20,000 customers across six London-area delivery zones and promises fresh groceries in 15 minutes.

📈 Seattle fintech Remitly, available on web and mobile, priced its IPO at $43 per share, above the expected range of $38 to $42, valuing the business at $6.9 billion.

💰 Pakistan fintech TAG raised $12 million in funding from investors, including New York-based Liberty City Ventures and Canaan Partners, valuing the company at $100 million. Pakistan is the third-largest unbanked market with 100 million users without a bank account, which is driving demand for digital banking services.

💰 Livestream shopping app NTWRK raised $50 million from Goldman Sachs and luxury group Kering. NTWRK had previously raised a $10 million Series A, according to Crunchbase data.

Lounge (iOS, Mac, web)

Image Credits: Lounge

Lounge launched a remote work app into open beta which creates a more social environment for smaller, fully remote teams. The app introduces the concept of virtualized “desks” showing the time of day for that individual. It also offers “rooms” that can be organized by the company’s org chart or projects, or the rooms can be virtual representations of physical spaces — like a meeting room for gatherings or company cafeteria, where employees could hang out virtually. Desks and rooms can be locked and made private or they can be unlocked and open. Lounge also adopts features from consumer social apps like photo-sharing and drop-in audio for virtual “desk visits,” and displays employee’s participation in company-wide events, like steps or meditation challenges. Lounge is entering a public beta, which means you’ll have to request access for entry. (Read the details on TechCrunch)

Pokémon Unite (iOS and Android)

Image Credits: The Pokémon Company

The strategic battle game that first arrived on Nintendo Switch this summer has now arrived on mobile. Pokémon Unite offers the same free-to-start multiplayer online battle arena game, with the same maps and monsters as on the Switch. It also introduces Unite Squads for teaming up Trainers, who can create either their own squads or search for existing ones. With the mobile launch, the game supports cross-platform play, allowing users to continue their Switch game on their smartphone, and to play along with others regardless of which device is being used. Both Android and iOS are supported. Following its debut, Pokémon Unite reached the No. 1 spot in game downloads in over 62 Countries on Day 1 (September 21st, 2021) of its release on the iOS App Store, App Annie found. (Read the details on TechCrunch)

Amplosion

Image Credits: Amplosion

With iOS 15, there are a number of new and improved Safari extensions now available. But one worth checking out is Amplosion, created by Christian Selig, also the developer of popular Reddit client app Apollo. The extension allows you to easily redirect from Google AMP pages to their normal, non-AMP counterparts. If, however, you prefer the AMP versions of some websites, you can add them to an in-app Allowlist. The extension will show you how many pages it’s blocked via an in-app counter and home screen widgets. There’s even an Easter egg in the form of a digital dog named Lord Waffles that lives in the app who has his own widget too. The extension is also fully open source for transparency. The app is a $2.99 download on the App Store.

We have to agree, this is waaaay better than “bug fixes:” 

Yes, it is:

Image Credits: David Barnard on Twitter (opens in a new window)

PlatoAi. Web3 Reimagined. Data Intelligence Amplified.
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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/09/25/this-week-in-apps-paypal-launches-super-app-twitter-adds-crypto-tips-apple-wont-take-fortnite-back/

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Techcrunch

When the biggest Disruption is to just sit down and focus

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Welcome to Startups Weekly, a fresh human-first take on this week’s startup news and trends. To get this in your inbox, subscribe here. 

And just like that, TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 has come to an end. I’m exhausted, but it’s hard not to feel optimistic for the future after spending three days hearing vulnerable thoughts from some of the brightest minds in tech, from Canva CEO Melanie Perkins to comic-turned-creator Alexis Gay.

If I had to distill a singular takeaway from the hours of programming, demo floor and Startup Battlefield, it would be this: Disruption needs direction. We’re in the middle of unprecedented times, and while that’s been good news for some entrepreneurs (and bad news for very many), focus may be what leads us out of it.

The theme kept popping up in the panels that I hosted or tuned into. For example, when I bugged BBG Ventures’ Nisha Dua about how to best spend first-check capital, she kept homing in on the need for entrepreneurs to invest their north star, aka the most defensible and innovative part of their business, over flashier alternatives. When I bugged Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn about where his now-public company is going next, he drew a line that stopped right before disrupting the college degree. And of course, when I asked Reid Hoffman about how early-stage founders can better attract capital, he outlined why it’s important to have an opinion and stick by it — controversy preferred. Even Nth Cycle, the runner up of TC Battlefield, wants to revolutionize metals processing by complementing existing processes, not ignoring them altogether.

It was refreshing to hear grounded yet inventive perspectives throughout the week. For those who missed it, we’ll be publishing recaps of all panels over the next week. Here are some of my favorite panels so far:

And of course, check out our podcast about TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield, where we go behind the scenes and talk about the finalists.

Thanks to all of you that came out to learn, listen and support. As always, you can find me on Twitter @nmasc_. In the rest of this newsletter, we’ll get into bootstrapping and a crypto crackdown that you should probably be paying attention to.

Bootstrapping 101

Young woman standing on top of tall green bar graph against white background

Image Credits: Klaus Vedfelt (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Mailchimp’s sale sparked a conversation about bootstrapping, so my colleagues Anna Heim and Alex Wilhelm dug into what it means to skip capital and grow off of revenues (imagine!). In their latest collab, the duo explained what bootstrapping is like today — in a world of infinite APIs, well-trained techies and ample demand for better software services.

Here’s what to know: They argue that the money is reaching farther than it ever has in the past.

But startups that don’t need — or perhaps simply do not want — to raise expensive equity capital while scaling have more tools within arm’s reach than ever before. Revenue-based financing is now an established concept. Some companies are taking it even further. Pipe has built a marketplace where companies can sell revenue — or perhaps we should describe it as a marketplace where revenue can be traded. A more active market for the buying and selling of revenue should help with price discovery, perhaps resulting in more attractive prices for founders and a more liquid market for their future receipts; the more capital that founders can access by selling top line instead of shares, the more viable bootstrapping may prove.

Beyond this:

China’s latest crackdown

crypto

Image Credits: Robinhood

China’s central bank said that all cryptocurrency-related transactions are illegal in the country and must be banned. The crackdown, within the world’s most populated nation, will limit internal, financial and payment companies from facilitating trading on their platforms, reports Manish Singh.

Here’s what to know, according to Singh: “Regulators in China have been weighing a ban on crypto mining for several years. But in recent quarters, several local firms have started to embrace crypto. Chinese app maker Meitu bought Bitcoin and Ether worth $40 million in March.” It’s unclear if this ban will be different from other tensions, or if the home of the largest crypto mining services will soon be chilled.

Crypto digest:

Around TC

Thanks to all who attended TechCrunch Disrupt 2021. It was heartwarming to see such an engaged, disruptive and genuinely fun audience come out to our virtual stage. In classic TC fashion, though, one event done, another one to go!

Next up we’re going to have TechCrunch Sessions: SaaS 2021. It’s our debut event that is laser focused on software as a vertical, and given how booming the subsector is, the timing couldn’t be better. Buy discounted passes to the event and check out the agenda for a sneak peek at some announced speakers.

Across the week

Seen on TechCrunch

California makes zero-emission autonomous vehicles mandatory by 2030

Attack of the $200M robotic raises

Clubhouse announces Wave, making it easier to start casual private rooms

A rewards program for your rent payments? Meet Bilt

The iPhone 13 Pro goes to Disneyland

Freshworks, Toast go public and we have takes

Seen on Extra Crunch

Dear Sophie: What’s the difference between IEP and the latest proposed startup visa?

It turns out fintech is worth as much as SaaS

Indications of a hot market abound as Freshworks, Toast price IPOs

PlatoAi. Web3 Reimagined. Data Intelligence Amplified.
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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/09/25/when-the-biggest-disruption-is-to-just-sit-down-and-focus/

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Why my new NFT is worth nearly $400 and other observations from a fascinating week in tech

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Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s inspired by what the weekday Exchange column digs into, but free, and made for your weekend reading. Want it in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here

Hello everyone! Disrupt was this week, which meant that I spent more time than usual with my feet up, watching panels and startup pitches. It was good fun, but also meant that I had fewer calls than I might in a more regular week. So, what follows is an abbreviated newsletter that is a touch more observational than reported, if you follow. Let’s have some fun!

Observation one: NFT speculation is good fun

I recently dipped a single toe into the world of NFTs. After covering the space, it was time to participate in a very minor fashion as you can learn a lot more by doing than merely reading. Of course I try to avoid any and all possible ethical quandaries, but I don’t think that my owning two-figures’ worth of crypto so that I could attempt to purchase a low-cost JPEG will really upset the apple cart.

It all went to hell, but an NFT that a kind Twitter user sent me is racking up bids. While I have not derived much pleasure from the particular image that I now own the digital signature to on a particular blockchain more than, say, most other online images, it has been sporting to watch folks try to buy it off me.

Several bids worth hundreds of dollars have cropped up (the latest sitting at $382.94), which made me sit back and wonder who really wants my image. I presume that I’m seeing speculation over value collection in the offers, but I do now better understand why NFT fans are stoked by their cottage industry. After all, who doesn’t want to magically generate real-world value from an image that, until recently, would have had essentially zero value? It feels like cheating. (To be clear, I am not selling my NFT as I don’t want to bother with the taxes, and it does seem like selling it for profit would generate some sort of ethics issue. So I guess I will hodl? Forever?)

Observation two: This is a great moment for fintech IPOs

The scalding public-market reception for Boston-based fintech unicorn Toast this week showed the world that it is possible to get software-like valuations for payments revenues, provided a sufficiently quick growth rate. Our read was that the warmth with which Toast was welcomed to the stock market indicated that it’s a great time for fintech unicorns to get off their collective duffs and go public.

I stand by that. But what I had perhaps missed was just how much value is sitting by the sidelines. Not in terms of valuation — we already know those numbers — but in terms of user numbers. Observe the following tweet:

I wouldn’t have guessed that Chime was in fifth place, but those figures imply simply huge payment flows which, as we have recently seen, are currently valued like rivers of gold. So NuBank and Chime and Dave and others, let’s do this thing? Please?

Observation three: Chinese tech is increasingly toxic

News this week broke that the Zoom-Five9 deal could be in for regulatory issues over the acquiring company’s Chinese roots. If Zoom having R&D operations in China means that it’s megabuy of Five9 goes poof, it would be an indicator not only of increasing distance between the two globally leading economies, but also a door-closing moment on a possible source of tech liquidity.

Also this week Lithuania warned that hardware from Chinese smartphone giant Xiaomi is able to detect and block certain terms that China’s government likes to censor. Now, maybe that’s just how Xiaomi makes all its phones, but it’s not a great look. The country has “told its civil servants to jettison their Chinese-made smartphones after experts found they contained automatic censorship software and other security flaws,” The Times reported.

Again, toxic.

Alex

PlatoAi. Web3 Reimagined. Data Intelligence Amplified.
Click here to access.

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/09/25/2208197/

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Why my new NFT is worth nearly $400 and other observations from a fascinating week in tech

Published

on

Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s inspired by what the weekday Exchange column digs into, but free, and made for your weekend reading. Want it in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here

Hello everyone! Disrupt was this week, which meant that I spent more time than usual with my feet up, watching panels and startup pitches. It was good fun, but also meant that I had fewer calls than I might in a more regular week. So, what follows is an abbreviated newsletter that is a touch more observational than reported, if you follow. Let’s have some fun!

Observation one: NFT speculation is good fun

I recently dipped a single toe into the world of NFTs. After covering the space, it was time to participate in a very minor fashion as you can learn a lot more by doing than merely reading. Of course I try to avoid any and all possible ethical quandaries, but I don’t think that my owning two-figures’ worth of crypto so that I could attempt to purchase a low-cost JPEG will really upset the apple cart.

It all went to hell, but an NFT that a kind Twitter user sent me is racking up bids. While I have not derived much pleasure from the particular image that I now own the digital signature to on a particular blockchain more than, say, most other online images, it has been sporting to watch folks try to buy it off me.

Several bids worth hundreds of dollars have cropped up (the latest sitting at $382.94), which made me sit back and wonder who really wants my image. I presume that I’m seeing speculation over value collection in the offers, but I do now better understand why NFT fans are stoked by their cottage industry. After all, who doesn’t want to magically generate real-world value from an image that, until recently, would have had essentially zero value? It feels like cheating. (To be clear, I am not selling my NFT as I don’t want to bother with the taxes, and it does seem like selling it for profit would generate some sort of ethics issue. So I guess I will hodl? Forever?)

Observation two: This is a great moment for fintech IPOs

The scalding public-market reception for Boston-based fintech unicorn Toast this week showed the world that it is possible to get software-like valuations for payments revenues, provided a sufficiently quick growth rate. Our read was that the warmth with which Toast was welcomed to the stock market indicated that it’s a great time for fintech unicorns to get off their collective duffs and go public.

I stand by that. But what I had perhaps missed was just how much value is sitting by the sidelines. Not in terms of valuation — we already know those numbers — but in terms of user numbers. Observe the following tweet:

I wouldn’t have guessed that Chime was in fifth place, but those figures imply simply huge payment flows which, as we have recently seen, are currently valued like rivers of gold. So NuBank and Chime and Dave and others, let’s do this thing? Please?

Observation three: Chinese tech is increasingly toxic

News this week broke that the Zoom-Five9 deal could be in for regulatory issues over the acquiring company’s Chinese roots. If Zoom having R&D operations in China means that it’s megabuy of Five9 goes poof, it would be an indicator not only of increasing distance between the two globally leading economies, but also a door-closing moment on a possible source of tech liquidity.

Also this week Lithuania warned that hardware from Chinese smartphone giant Xiaomi is able to detect and block certain terms that China’s government likes to censor. Now, maybe that’s just how Xiaomi makes all its phones, but it’s not a great look. The country has “told its civil servants to jettison their Chinese-made smartphones after experts found they contained automatic censorship software and other security flaws,” The Times reported.

Again, toxic.

Alex

PlatoAi. Web3 Reimagined. Data Intelligence Amplified.
Click here to access.

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/09/25/2208197/

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