Microsoft’s Cortana silenced as Siri gets new voice

Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual assistant designed to compete with Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant, is to be retired on mobile.

Instead it will focus on offering productivity help in Windows 10, Outlook and Teams.

The hashtag #RIPCortana was being used on Twitter, as people reminisced – or in some cases pointed out how forgettable the assistant had been.

Meanwhile, Apple’s Siri will no longer default to a female voice in English.

The use of a female voice for virtual assistants has long been controversial for gender-typing a helpful, virtual companion.

Cortana was unveiled in 2014 as a virtual assistant for Windows phones. It was named after the advanced artificial intelligence guide in Microsoft’s then best-selling Halo game series.

Three years later, Microsoft abandoned its smartphone operating system, although Cortana remained available for iPhones and Android devices.

The death of the voice assistant on most platforms was announced last summer and in January, Microsoft ended support for Cortana integration in the Harman Kardon Invoke speaker. It offered speaker owners who used Cortana, a $50 Microsoft gift card.

Woman using voice assistant
image captionCortana failed to catch up with the popularity of Amazon Alexa and Google’s Assistant

Ben Wood, chief analyst at research firm CSS Insight said: “There was a certain inevitability to Microsoft abandoning the consumer-centric variant of Cortana. Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant are the mass market voice assistants of choice, leaving little space for rivals. 

“Even the mighty Apple has struggled to get traction with Siri despite making huge investments to drive the platform forward.

“Microsoft has made a sensible decision to double down on Cortana as a platform to aid productivity gains, closely tied to its business-centric tools and services. Increasingly Cortana will become deeply integrated into specific Microsoft platforms, rather than being a generic voice assistant designed to be all things to all people.”

Female voice

Rival Apple has added two new voices to its assistant Siri, as well as eliminating the default female voice in the latest version of iOS. 

In 2019 a report by UNESCO suggested that using female voices by default for voice assistants “sends a signal that women are obliging, docile and eager-to-please helpers available at the touch of a button or with a blunt voice command”.

Apple said of its decision to put the onus on users to choose the voice of its assistant: “This is a continuation of Apple’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, and products and services that are designed to better reflect the diversity of the world we live in.”

In some countries and languages, Siri already defaults to a male voice.

YouTuber David Dobrik quits app after rape video claim

By Cristina Criddle
Technology reporter

YouTube star David Dobrik has stepped down from an app he co-founded, following a rape allegation about a former video contributor.

One woman who appeared in a video on Mr Dobrik’s channel says she was raped by another person involved during filming.

Mr Dobrik, who has almost 19 million subscribers on the platform, denies any wrongdoing.

But the claim has led brands and investors to “sever ties” with the influencer.

Mr Dobrik rose to fame through prank videos, sometimes in collaboration with a number of other YouTubers called the Vlog Squad.

During the coronavirus pandemic, he stepped back from posting regularly on YouTube, in order to launch his own photo app Dispo.

A recent investigation published by Kate Tenbarge at the business news website Insider, detailed the woman’s account of rape in 2018 by a – now former – Vlog Squad member.

‘Sever all ties’

Since the claims, support for the app and Mr Dobrik has collapsed.

Venture capital firm and a leading investor in the app, Spark Capital, announced it would “sever all ties” with the company. View original tweet on Twitter

Mr Dobrik then announced he would step down from the board of Dispo “to not distract from the company’s growth,” the Information news site reported. 

As a YouTube influencer, Mr Dobrik made millions of dollars through sponsorship deals.

Hello Fresh, EA Sports and HBO Max are among brands to have dropped him.

The allegations

In the account, published in Insider, a woman alleged she was raped during the filming of a Vlog Squad video in 2018.

She reportedly says she was given alcohol despite being under the legal age of 21, and became drunk to the point of unconsciousness.

Later, she said she was involved in group sex which included a Vlog Squad member, when she was too intoxicated to consent.

The video was published on Mr Dobrik’s channel, and later removed.

“While our client is appalled by any misconduct attributed to [the former member of the Vlog Squad], assuming it is true, my client denies any wrongdoing,” Mr Dobrik’s lawyer told Insider.

“Consent is something that’s super, super-important to me,” Mr Dobrik added via a recent video posted to one of his YouTube channels,

“Whether I am shooting with a friend, or I am shooting with a stranger, I make sure whatever video I am putting out, I have the approval from that person.”

The accused former Vlog Squad member has not responded to requests for comment.

Police were not informed and no charges were filed against the alleged perpetrator, Insider said.

Bain Capital invests $200 million in Chinese tech startup

Bain Capital has invested $200 million in Chinese tech startup Newlink Group, the private equity firm said on Monday, bringing the company’s total fundraising to $300 million this year.

Newlink was founded in 2016 and helps drivers in China to find gas stations and vehicle charging points through an online platform which includes the apps “Tuanyou” and “Kuaidian”.

Its diverse group of investors includes smartphone developer Xiaomi Corp and bank China International Capital Corp.

Newlink also plans to convert some independent gas stations into Newlink-branded hubs that include gas stations, electric vehicle charging piles, auto maintenance services and convenience stores.

“We hope Newlink can help accelerate the digitisation efforts of China’s energy ecosystem and support China’s transition to a low-carbon economy by improving efficiency and promoting the shift to electric vehicles,” said Drew Chen, managing director of Bain Capital Private Equity.

China seeks to rein in mobile apps’ collection of personal data

(Reuters) – China’s cyber watchdog said on Monday mobile app providers cannot deny users basic access to their services even if they decline to share non-essential personal information, in the government’s latest attempt to curb the sprawling technology sector.

In a statement on its verified WeChat account, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), did not name any app providers in particular but said the requirement was aimed at regulating their access to personal data and protecting the information of individuals.

China has increased scrutiny of its technology sector in recent months, including drafting anti-monopoly rules for tech firms following a dramatic suspension last year of Alibaba-backed Ant Group’s planned $37 billion initial public offering.

Many app providers in China, especially on Android systems, require that users share non-essential information with them, such as picture albums or cameras, in order to access their services. Users who decline to share the information can be denied access.

The CAC statement gave a list of examples on what is deemed essential information.

It said, for example, that it is essential for ride-hailing apps to have access to a user’s phone number, location and payment information.

In another example, it said online payment apps need the registered user’s phone number or other ID information, as well as the bank card numbers of both payer and payee.

Google Play store to cut fees for Android app developers

Google plans to reduce the fees it charges to feature Android apps within its Play store.

From 1 July, it will take a 15% cut from the first $1m (£720,000) in sales each year of the apps and any digital goods and services sold within them, rather than its current 30% commission.

It follows a similar step announced by Apple in November.

Regulators are investigating both of the big tech companies following claims of anti-competitive practices.

The situation for Google is slightly different in that it allows rival app stores to work on its mobile platform, and also makes it easier to install software by other means.

However, the fact that the Play store remains most Android phones’ default option may be judged to give it an unfair advantage.

Games developer Epic is among those to have argued that both Apple and Google charge “exorbitant” fees.

Play Store
image captionGamers can buy books and movies about the game Fortnite, but not download the app itself from Google’s Play store because of a row over fees

Bigger payouts

In a blog, Google’s vice president of product management defended its charges on the grounds that the company provided marketing tools and other resources to help developers succeed.

But Sameer Samat acknowledged taking developers’ “input into account” over the matter.

The firm said 99% of global Android developers did not earn over $1m a year, so would benefit from a 50% reduction in fees.

Those that do earn more should find the scheme to be more generous than Apple’s, it added.

Google’s 15% rate will apply to the first $1m of sales a developer makes each year regardless of their total earnings, with the remainder subject to the 30% fee.

By contrast, Apple only offers a 15% rate if a developer’s net sales fall below $1m. As soon as they surpass that limit, all earnings are subject to the higher charge.

Apple issued the latest defence of its own practices on Monday, when it said more than 330,000 jobs in the UK alone were supported by its App Store.

Presentational grey line
Analysis box by Rory Cellan-Jones, technology correspondent

It’s a fast-growing industry, key to the infrastructure of the digital economy – and dominated by two giants which control access and prices. 

In any other business than mobile apps – say electricity or communications networks – you would expect such a duopoly to be subject to strict regulation. 

But until recently Google and Apple have felt free to do what they want.

Now they have had to respond to pressure from developers for a better deal – though it’s doubtful if they’d have acted if regulators, particularly in the EU, had not begun to show an interest. 

Google appears to have outbid Apple when it comes to cutting fees for developers. But both companies can easily afford to be more generous. 

It’s estimated that mobile app revenues grew by 30% in 2020 – and the tech giants took a healthy slice of that. 

Don’t expect the Brussels regulators to step back and say “job done”.

Clubhouse says reviewing data protection practices after report points to flaws

(Reuters) – U.S. audio app Clubhouse said it is reviewing its data protection practices, after a report by the Stanford Internet Observatory said it contained security flaws that left users’ data vulnerable to access by the Chinese government.

The app said in a response to the study, published by the research group at Stanford University, that while it had opted not to make the app available in China, some people had found a workaround to download the app which meant the conversations they were a part of could be transmitted via Chinese servers.

“With the help of researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory, we have identified a few areas where we can further strengthen our data protection,” the company said in a statement published here by the research group on Friday.

“Over the next 72 hours, we are rolling out changes to add additional encryption and blocks to prevent Clubhouse clients from ever transmitting pings to Chinese servers. We also plan to engage an external data security firm to review and validate these changes.”

Clubhouse did not immediately respond to a request from Reuters for further comment on Saturday.

Launched in early 2020, the app saw global user numbers soar earlier this month after Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev held a surprise discussion on the platform.

Masses of new users joined from mainland China, taking part in discussions on topics that included sensitive issues such as Xinjiang detention camps and Hong Kong’s National Security Law. But their access to the app was blocked last week, triggering frustration and fears of government surveillance.

The Stanford Internet Observatory said that it had confirmed that Chinese tech firm Agora Inc supplied back-end infrastructure to Clubhouse, and that Agora would likely have access to users’ raw audio, potentially providing access to the Chinese government.

It also said it observed room metadata relayed to servers it believed were hosted in China and audio to servers managed by Chinese entities. It added, however, that it believed the Chinese government would not be able to access the data if the audio was stored in the United States.

Agora did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment while the Cyberspace Administration of China, which regulates the country’s internet, did not respond to calls for comment made during China’s Lunar New Year holiday.

“SIO chose to disclose these security issues because they are both relatively easy to uncover and because they pose immediate security risks to Clubhouse’s millions of users, particularly those in China,” the report said.

Data analytics firm Sensor Tower said the app, which is only available on Apple’s iPhone, had about 3.6 million users worldwide as of Feb.2, with 1.1 million registered in the prior six days.

Bumble: Female-founded dating app tops $13bn in market debut

No bumbling here: Dating app Bumble, which made its name by putting women in charge of making contact with potential mates, has soared to a market value of $13bn after listing its shares.

Its Wall Street success made 31-year-old boss Whitney Wolfe Herd a rare self-made female billionaire.

Bumble, which also owns Badoo, is one of less than two dozen publicly listed firms with female founders in the US.

On Thursday shares in the firm debuted at $43 apiece, valuing it at over $8bn.

But in opening trade they shot up to more than $76 each, making the firm worth more than $13bn (£9.4bn).

‘Make the first move’

Ms Wolfe Herd launched Bumble in Texas in 2014, with backing from Russian billionaire Andreey Andreev, the founder of European online dating site Badoo.

She has said she was inspired to create a platform where women “make the first move” by her frustration with archaic gender norms controlling dating.

Unlike most dating apps, only female users can make the first contact with matched male users, while in same-sex matches either person can send a message first.

“I have experienced firsthand how unequal relationships negatively impact all areas of life,” she wrote in a letter to investors ahead of the share listing. “I wanted to change this.”

Ms Wolfe Herd, the youngest woman to take a company public in the US, also co-founded dating app Tinder, but left the firm alleging sexual harassment. 

Tinder’s parent company Match Group Inc, which denied the claims and later tried unsuccessfully to acquire Bumble, paid about $1m to settle the dispute.

Ms Wolfe Herd has led Bumble and Badoo since 2019 when Mr Andreev sold his stakes in both businesses. The two apps combined have 40 million active users, including more than 2.4 million paying customers.

Bumble IPO

Pandemic effect

Bumble, whose apps are available in more than 150 countries, has said it is poised for growth, pointing to the rising number of single people globally, increased adoption of online dating and signs that users have become more willing to pay. 

The firm is also expanding into new areas, like business networking.

But despite an uptick in use, the pandemic has hurt the business, which makes money primarily from subscriptions and in-app purchases.

In 2019, revenue jumped more than 35% and it turned a profit of $68.6m.

In the first nine months of 2020, however, its growth rate sank to roughly 15% year-on-year, and it posted a loss of $116m.

In recent months, investors have displayed strong appetite for shares of new listings, sending companies such as Airbnb and Doordash to sky-high valuations in their market debuts.

Source: BBC Tech News

Romance fraud on rise in coronavirus lockdown

Romance fraud – scamming someone out of money by pretending to want a relationship – has been on the rise during lockdown.

More than 2.3 million people across Britain used dating apps during the initial coronavirus lockdown according to the Online Dating Association

According to UK Finance, there was a 20% increase in bank transfer fraud linked to romance scams in 2020 compared to 2019.

And £68m was lost to such scams in 2020, said the UK’s Action Fraud – another increase on the previous year.

Organisations warned people to be vigilant ahead of Valentine’s Day.

The advice includes:

  • online daters should not send any money, allow the other person to access their bank account, transfer money or take out a loan on the other person’s behalf
  • hand over copies of personal documents such as their passport or driving licence
  • invest money on the other person’s advice
  • receive or send parcels on the other person’s behalf
  • fraudsters may also use fake profile photos. Performing a reverse image search on a search engine can help to show whether a photo has been copied from elsewhere
  • contact your bank immediately if you think you have fallen for a scam and report it to Action Fraud

In both 2019 and 2020, the amount of money lost to romance fraud outstripped that stolen by online shopping fraud, according to Action Fraud, which is the main reporting body in the UK.

In 2020, online shopping and auction fraud accounted for £63m compared to £68m for dating scams.

The Covid-19 pandemic has added to the problem.

“The national lockdowns, and other restrictions on our social lives, implemented because of the coronavirus outbreak, have meant more people have been seeking companionship online and this has undoubtedly affected the number of reports we have seen,” said Pauline Smith, head of Action Fraud.

“Romance scams can leave customers out of love and out of pocket,” added Katy Worobec, managing director of economic crime at trade association UK Finance.

Money laundering

Woman at a laptop
image captionA widow lost her life savings after being used as a “money mule” by a man she fell in love with

Victims of romance scams lose money via money transfers, and sending fraudsters gift cards and vouchers or presents such as phones and laptops. Some even provide access to their bank account or bank card.

Fraudsters can be very convincing, using emotive language and stories to manipulate people, for instance saying they need money for medical bills.

And increasingly, victims are at risk of prosecution as well as having their bank account emptied – as it is revealed that some scammers are now asking them to unwittingly launder money for criminal gangs.

ABC News reported on an Australian woman who thought she was falling in love with a US army officer but ended up laundering A$150,000 (£83,000) for such a gang.

Identity fraud

According to data from Lloyds Bank, people aged 55 to 64 are particularly at risk.

Like Anna (not her real name) who is in her 50s and a widow: she became prey to her scammer – who called himself Tim – after meeting him on a dating website, initially using its chat facility before switching to WhatsApp. 

After a few weeks, Tim told Anna he was travelling to Romania to work on a transport project, and asked her to send money. First he asked for small amounts, and then larger ones, eventually defrauding her of £320,000.

Romance fraud often starts on online dating websites but quickly switches to social media or old-fashioned texting, so there is no evidence of the scam.

Sometimes the scammer is more subtle than just asking for money, seeking instead to garner personal information, which can later be used to commit identity fraud.

Many victims do not report romance scams because they are embarrassed or ashamed. But for those who do, there is some recourse. In 2019 banks agreed to a voluntary code which said that if someone “has taken reasonable care and has any element of vulnerability” they are more likely to receive a refund.

In Anna’s case for example, she was able to recover half of what she lost.

TeamViewer forecasts further growth, firm margins in 2021

German software company TeamViewer forecast that its business would grow by up to a third this year while profit margins would hold firm, as the remote connectivity specialist reported a strong end to 2020.

Billings are forecast in a range of 585-605 million euros ($707-$731 million) after growing by 44% last year to 460 million euros, the company said, confirming preliminary results published in January.

TeamViewer provides “anytime, anywhere” solutions that make it possible to operate applications remotely. Since floating in Sept. 2019, it has actively pursued acquisitions and added new features to its product range.

“We will expand our solution scope across more verticals, grow our global enterprise footprint and increase use cases for Augmented Reality and Internet of Things broadly,” CEO Oliver Steil said in a statement.

Fourth-quarter billings grew by 32% at constant currency to 128 million euros, continuing to grow strongly even as a demand surge arising from a shift to home working during the coronavirus pandemic ebbed.

TeamViewer, based in Goeppingen, southwest Germany, forecast billings growth of 29-33% this year at constant currency, while adjusted core profit margin would be between 55% and 57% – touching last year’s outturn at the top end of its guidance.

The company set a mid-term target of increasing billings to 1 billion euros in 2023.

($1 = 0.8280 euros)

Covid-19: NHS app has told 1.7 million to self-isolate

The NHS Covid-19 app has told 1.7 million people in England and Wales to self-isolate to date.

Health ministers have also revealed they believe it has prevented about 600,000 cases of the disease.

In a further disclosure, internal data indicates that about 16.5 million people are currently actively using its contact-tracing tool.

That figure is 24% below the app’s latest download tally, which is the government’s preferred measure.

The discrepancy is likely to be down to people uninstalling the app, turning off its contact-tracing capabilities, or simply failing to have activated it in the first place.

Each handset actively taking part sends a digital “heartbeat” once a day to the Amazon computer server involved, allowing the current usage figure to be calculated.

And while the number of total downloads has slowly grown from 20.2 million to 21.7 million over the past two months, the number of phones pinging the server has been more or less flat.

Risking lives

This represents the first detailed data released about the app’s use since it was made widely available to people in England and Wales in September.

Scotland, Northern Ireland, Jersey and Gibraltar have their own separate apps.

Baroness Dido Harding, executive chair of the NHS Test and Trace programme, had been under pressure to release the figures for months, and the BBC unsuccessfully attempted to obtain some of the figures via a Freedom of Information request in November.

App advert
image captionThe app could reduce the number of infections once lockdowns end and people spend more time outside their homes

The intention in releasing the data now is to reassure the public that the app can save lives, and in doing so encourage more people to both install it and follow its advice ahead of lockdowns being eased.

“People who are not following the app’s instructions are risking themselves and their colleagues and their families,” Baroness Harding told the BBC.

“The more you follow the instructions of the app, the fewer outbreaks you’ll have in your workplace and the safer it will be.”

A spokeswoman added that these instructions include circumstances in which it is recommended to pause the contact-tracing function.

Anonymised findings

The app uses Bluetooth logs to retrospectively warn users if they were at high risk of contagion from someone infected with the virus, who was recently in their vicinity.

Alerts can be served within 15 minutes of an infected person approving use of their positive test result. But the system’s decentralised nature means neither the person who triggered the warning, nor the authorities, can identify who receives the notifications.

Some anonymised data is, however, collected.

For the first time, it has been revealed that:

  • 1.4 million people have reported symptoms into the app. The software may order users to stay at home as a result, but does not cascade alerts to others
  • 825,388 people have entered a positive test result into the app. This has led to more than 1.7 million self-isolate alerts being sent
  • the app’s QR barcode-based venue check-in feature has been used more than 103 million times
  • 253 venues have been determined to be at risk as a consequence of the QR code facility since 10 December, triggering alerts to visitors to monitor their symptoms
QR code
image captionRestaurants are among venues each to have been given a unique QR barcode

Tier-driven data

Researchers from the Oxford Big Data Institute worked with the Alan Turing Institute to provide further analysis of the app’s impact.

They estimate that 600,000 cases have been averted because of the technology.

And they forecast that for every additional 1% of the population that uses the app, the number of Covid cases should fall by 2.3%.

The academics have benefited from the fact that the app was retooled in October to take account of the tier system introduced at the time in England, which operated on a local authority basis.

This allowed anonymised usage data to be compared between two neighbouring council areas where the spread of the pandemic was similar, but uptake of the app differed.

The researchers took account of other factors – including poverty levels – to calculate the degree to which suppression of the virus’s spread could be linked to the app.

However, they acknowledge that they cannot be certain that usage of the app caused all of the effects being attributed to it. And while they are publishing their work, it has yet to be peer-reviewed.

Even so, the firm involved in developing the app said confidence was growing that it is indeed making a difference. 

“The data suggests that we have made a dent in the overall infection rate,” Wolfgang Emmerich, chief executive of Zuhlke UK, told the BBC.

“What we really have to do now, particularly as we’re preparing to come out of lockdown, is to drive that adoption rate back up and to get people to switch [the app] back on again.”

Mr Emmerich also revealed that his team had put plans to extend the app to older iPhone models on the back burner, in order to prioritise other new features, but declined to say what they are.

Presentational grey line
Analysis box by Rory Cellan-Jones, technology correspondent

Soon after the NHS Covid-19 app was launched last September, we learned one important piece of data – that over 20 million people had downloaded it. 

That was a pretty good result compared with take-up of similar apps elsewhere, but what we didn’t know until now was something far more important – did it work? 

Now these figures do appear to show that plenty of people have been pinged by the app and sent into isolation. 

More impressively, research appears to show that in areas where take-up of the app was high, the infection spread more slowly than in places where it was lower. 

But other scientists will want to drill down for themselves into whether other factors were at play in the link between high take-up and low infection rates. 

Plus the private nature of the app means there are some key questions that can’t be answered:

  • how many people obeyed the ping on their phone telling them to self-isolate?
  • how many of them had been separately contacted by the manual track and trace operation anyway?
  • how many of those alerts were false positives or negatives, meaning people who were not at risk were told to self-isolate while the reverse was true of others?
  • how many people have grown bored with the app and switched off Bluetooth or uninstalled it? 

Still, using a Bluetooth app to trace people who might be infected with Covid-19 was always an experiment with an untested technology.

And the scientists who have been working on this project for many months now feel they’ve proved that it has made a significant contribution to the fight against the virus.