TIME Uber

Toronto Cab Drivers Sue Uber for $300 Million

The Hamptons Lure Uber Top Drivers Amid NYC Slow Summer Weekends
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Class-action suit could include drivers across Ontario

Toronto cab drivers are suing the ride-hailing app Uber for over $300 million ($400 million Canadian) in damages and seeking an injunction to get the startup out of the Canadian city.

The class-action lawsuit, which specifically targets the low-cost UberX service, covers all cab drivers in Ontario, according to the law firm representing the drivers. Uber said the suit was without merit.

An earlier attempt by the city of Toronto to remove Uber from the city was rejected by an Ontario court. On Thursday Uber expanded into several new cities in southwestern Ontario, including Hamilton and London.

Toronto is just one of many cities where Uber is embroiled in municipal fights. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio had threatened to impose a cap on the number of Uber cars that could drive in the city, but tabled the initiative this week. In France the company suspended its Uberpop service at the start of July following large protests by the city’s taxi drivers.

[Reuters]

TIME apps

YouTube Is About to Look Very Different

Google Holds Event For Creators At YouTube Tokyo Space
Kiyoshi Ota—Bloomberg/Getty Images An employee holding recording equipment walks past Google Inc.'s YouTube logo displayed at the company's YouTube Space studio in Tokyo, Japan, on March 30, 2013.

On your cellphone, at least

The horror of watching a vertical YouTube video on your cellphone marred by enormous black borders will soon be behind us.

The video site announced Thursday that its redesigned mobile app features a vertical video mode that will better display such content, CNN Money reports. Vertical videos have long been the scourge of the Internet, but they better fit the aspect ratio of smartphones and have become popular among young users thanks to Snapchat, which encourages them.

In addition to improving video playback, the new app features a subscriptions tab that allows users to see a stream of new videos from channels they follow, as well as improved editing tools for shooting video directly within the app. The updated app is available now on Android and coming soon to iOS.

More than half of YouTube’s views now come from mobile devices. The Google-owned brand, which is facing ever-increasing pressure from competitors like Facebook, also revealed that its total watch time is up 60% year-over-year.

[CNN Money]

TIME apps

Google Maps Now Lets You Retrace Every Step You Take

And every move you make

In case you’ve ever wanted a comprehensive log of every step you’ve taken in the last day, week, month or year, Google now has you covered.

The search giant has announced a new feature for Google Maps called “Your Timeline,” which meticulously tracks and records the locations you travel with your smartphone. Pictures stored in Google Photos will also show up on the day and location they were taken.

The log could be useful for recalling a museum you visited on a vacation or a bar you stumbled into during a night out on the town, Google says in a blog post. It’s also easy to imagine way more awful ways this data could be used, but the feature is private and visible only to each specific user.

Your Timeline will be available on Android and desktop to users who have opted in to share their location history with Google (enabling this setting also improves Google Now, the company’s context-sensitive digital assistant). Visit this page to toggle the setting on or off.

TIME apps

Here’s What Really Makes Microsoft’s Cortana So Amazing

Key Speakers At The Microsoft Build Developer 2014 Conference
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/via Getty Images The Nokia Oyj Lumia Icon smartphone displaying the Cortana application on screen is held for a photograph at the Microsoft Developers Build Conference in San Francisco on April 2, 2014.

Not your average digital personal assistant

When Microsoft releases Windows 10 to the world on July 29, it will introduce millions of people to Cortana, its chatty, voice-activated digital assistant. But not every Windows 10 user will get to know the same Cortana: She will alter her behavior, ever so slightly, according to a user’s home country, Microsoft tells TIME. Cortana will tiptoe around points of national pride in Italy and lob wry barbs in the United Kingdom. She’ll introduce herself with a bow in Japan and present herself as an emoji-based alter-ego with darting eyes in China.

Microsoft’s Cortana team says the goal is to strike up a chatty, inoffensive rapport with users, in the hope that users will reward Cortana with their trust and open the kimono on their personal data. That data is critical to Cortana’s success, because if Microsoft wants to outwit the brainiest digital assistants on the market — Apple’s Siri and Google Now — Cortana will first need to take a good, hard look at your browser history, your emails and your web searches. With your permission, of course.

“We’re trying to forge a relationship that’s built on trust,” says Marcus Ash, Microsoft’s group program manager for Cortana. “Millions of years of evolution tell us that that relationship means personification. If you don’t put a face on it and make it emotional to people, it’s just hard to believe that people will tell us information that will make Cortana really great for them.”

To that end, Microsoft has recruited a global staff of ethnographers, voice actors and even playwrights to make a veritable United Nations of Cortanas. In a sign of how much cultural fluency matters to Microsoft, Cortana will initially launch in only seven nations where she has mastered the local etiquette — the U.S., U.K., China, France, Italy, Germany and Spain. The rest of the world will have to wait for Cortana to finish her cultural sensitivity training in a nation by nation rollout that will continue to the end of next year. So don’t hold your breath for a Burundian Cortana any time soon.

Of course, not all of Cortana’s attributes divide along national boundaries. Microsoft intensively surveyed users on their ideal personal assistant, and a few qualities emerged as universally desirable. Respondents worldwide preferred a female to a male assistant, ideally in her 20’s, 30’s tops — not one surveyed population expressed enthusiasm for a middle-aged assistant. She should be professional, but not a stiff, solicitous, but not a pest, cheeky, not biting. At one point, the Cortana team considered tapping a staff writer from The Late Show With David Letterman, but decided a whip-smart joke machine might alienate some users.

In short, she has to be just so. Think James Bond’s Moneypenny, incidentally the reported code name of Facebook’s virtual assistant project.

Probe a little deeper into these preferences, however, and national fissures start to emerge. Take, for instance, the universal demand for humor. Americans expressed a distaste for slapstick, Germans have a penchant for the absurd and the Japanese responded to wordplay. Brits, in what will come as no surprise to anyone who has watched a BBC sitcom, couldn’t get enough of self-deprecation, and Cortana aims to please. “Dryness and irony really appear subtly there,” says Susan Hendrich, a principal program manager who is spearheading Cortana’s cultural training.

It takes upwards of 11 months to get Cortana’s voice just right for each nation, time spent auditioning actors, writing scripts and recording local idioms. Spaniards expressed a preference for a husky female voice, while the English preferred a more chipper, sing-songy assistant. Chinese users posed a puzzle for Hendrich. “They wanted a voice that sounded as if it was smiling,” she said. “I can listen to Chinese voices and have no idea what they’re saying and know when these attributes come out.” See for yourself if you can hear the difference:

China

Q: Cortana, give me a Spring festival couplet.
A: Wish you a happy family, wish you a shining spring

Spain

Q: Kiss me.
A: Hold on, let me search in my audio files…

United Kingdom

Q: Tell me something interesting.
A: Fancy a cuppa? Every day in the UK over 165 million cups of tea are brewed.

Cultural fluency is just Cortana’s entry point. Over time, she’ll engage users in deeper conversations about their personal tastes. Machine learning algorithms will track users’ activity across the web, observing if they have a thing for sushi restaurants, for instance, and notifying them if she detects a pattern in their behavior. This is the critical juncture in the relationship, when Cortana can either “delight,” as the team likes to say, or weird a user out. One misstep, and a user may choke off her machine learning algorithms. After all, Microsoft has given users access to Cortana’s “notebook” where everything she tracks and learns is on display. A flip of the switch can wipe her memory bank clean.

Personality can go a long way toward maintaining a positive relationship between man and machine. “People are generally more forgiving toward a system that has personality attributes than one that doesn’t,” says Ash. And to ensure Cortana doesn’t overstep personal boundaries, Microsoft has engineered her to “forget” uncannily precise details, just as a human assistant would. “I personally love Molly Moo’s ice cream,” says Hendrichs, “but a personal assistant wouldn’t observe the exact time and date I went to Molly Moo’s.”

And if Cortana can skirt the line between intimacy and invasion, Microsoft expects her artificial intelligence to pay dividends to both its users and its shareholders. As Ash says: “The idea of this unbounded, ‘I know so much about you I can help you in ways you don’t quite expect, I can see patterns that you can’t see.’ That’s the magic.”

TIME windows 10

Microsoft Will Sell Windows 10 on a USB Stick

Microsoft's Windows 8.1 Goes On Sale
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images The logo for Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system is displayed at a launch event for the Windows 8.1 operating system in Tokyo, Japan, on Friday, Oct. 18, 2013.

Those iconic installation discs may be a thing of the past

Microsoft has confirmed it will make Windows 10 available for purchase via a USB stick, replacing the iconic disc packages that have defined the brand’s image for decades.

A Microsoft spokesperson told VentureBeat that Windows 10 on USB would start at $119 for the Home version and $199 for Windows 10 Pro. Microsoft will also release the operating system as a free online upgrade to current users of Windows 7 and up.

 

The Windows 10 USB stick appeared with little fanfare on Amazon’s preorder page, following weeks of speculation that Microsoft may give customers the option to ditch the DVD.

[VentureBeat]

TIME Video Games

An Angry Birds Sequel Is Officially Happening

Angry Birds
Rovio Angry Birds

And developer Rovio desperately needs it

Despite the spinoffs, merchandise and a television show, there’s never actually been a sequel to the wildly successful mobile game Angry Birds. That changes later this month.

On Thursday, game developer Rovio announced that Angry Birds 2 will launch on July 30. The company didn’t reveal any details about the new title, but it’s likely it will involve flinging birds at large edifices in order to destroy pigs — you know, the classic stuff.

Angry Birds 2 could be a lifeline for the struggling Rovio, which has seen its franchise usurped by freemium games packed with in-app purchases like King’s Candy Crush Saga. The Finland-based Rovio generated just $170 million in revenue and $11 million in operating profit in 2014, down from the year before. The company was forced to cut more than 100 jobs last year as well.

TIME apps

Muslims Everywhere Applaud Snapchat’s Live Stream of Ramadan Prayers in Mecca

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Issam Madkouk—Getty Images/arabianEye

"Mecca Live" was a hit with Muslims across the globe

Video messaging app Snapchat’s decision to live-stream Ramadan prayers in Mecca was an instant hit with over a million people tweeting about the #Mecca_live event as coverage went viral.

Every year, around 100 million Muslims make the pilgrimage to the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca, also known as Makkah, and Snapchat marked Tuesday’s observance for the holy month of Ramadan with a 300-second “live” story documenting prayers in the sacred city.

Snapchat Live curated snaps about Mecca from around the network and placed them in one feed, Al-Jazeera reports. It was the first time the firm had covered the event, and many Muslims are thrilled with the response.

Mecca Live featured worshippers breaking their fasts over iftar meals, panoramic views of Mecca, prayers and even haircuts.

According to Al-Jazeera, the feed has been lauded by some for bringing positive attention to the annual pilgrimage made by Muslims around the world and changing the negative global narrative surrounding Islam.

Some tweeters even went so far as to say that they would consider converting to Islam after watching the video.

Others Muslims were unimpressed with the effusive support for the religion.

And it wouldn’t be a true viral phenomenon without a few cats popping up as well.

[Al-Jazeera]

TIME apps

Snapchat’s New Layout Is All About Branded Content

FRANCE-US-IT-INTERNET-SECURITY-SNAPCHAT
LIONEL BONAVENTURE—AFP/Getty Images The logo of mobile app "Snapchat" is displayed on a tablet on January 2, 2014 in Paris.

'Discover' is no longer buried

A new change to Snapchat’s layout offers a pretty clear sign the ephemeral messaging service wants to direct more eyes to promoted content from its media partners.

The Wall Street Journal notes that Snapchat tweaked its layout Monday, putting its “Discover” section in a more prominent spot where it can be viewed more easily by the service’s growing user base — Snapchat says it has 100 million daily active users and counting. The Discover section — which features promoted content from media partners such as CNN, ESPN, and Comedy Central — is now displayed at the top of each user’s “Stories” list, whereas users once needed an extra swipe to access the section.

The change prioritizes the Discover section, and its branded content and advertisements, above some content from users’ own personal contacts. WSJ reports the layout redesign comes after Snapchat recently renegotiated its agreements with some of its media partners.

The Discover section launched earlier this year with 11 media partners, who also include Vice, Cosmopolitan and People (which, like Fortune, is owned by Time Inc.). The media platform is part of Snapchat’s plan to turn its popular messaging service into a moneymaker that can justify the company’s recent $16 billion valuation.

TIME Mobile

How Apple’s New Emoji Could Anger China

A simple flag can be a big political statement

Apple is adding a new emoji to its iPhone operating system that could anger leaders in one of its most important markets.

The Taiwanese flag will be available on Apple keyboards for the first time when iOS 9 launches in the fall, according to Emojipedia, a website that tracks emoji updates. The sovereign status of Taiwan is a hotly contested issue in Asia, as China has identified the independently run state as a “renegade province” that needs to be reunified with the mainland. China openly opposes any references to Taiwanese independence.

The new flag could strain relations between Apple and China, which has in the past used its state broadcaster to call the iPhone a security threat. China is also well-known for its strict censorship policies on digital communications.

Apple generated nearly $17 billion in sales in Greater China (which includes Taiwan) in the first three months of 2015, making it the company’s second most important region by revenue generation after the Americas.

TIME Video Games

Microsoft’s New Halo 5 App Is Finally on iPhone and Android

343 Industries / Microsoft

The Halo franchise's news and video portal is finally available for iOS and Android devices.

The Halo Channel app is Microsoft’s portal to all things Halo, from news and community activities to video vignettes like The Sprint and The Bulletin. It’s been available since last year, but only on Xbox One, Windows PCs and Windows tablets, which in today’s app-verse means it’s been living on something like a backwater planet.

That changes now: Microsoft just rolled out iOS and Android versions of its Halo-filled portal, and says a Windows Phone version should be available by the time Windows 10 arrives on July 29.

What’s more, if you download the app and watch a video–any will suffice–you’ll unlock a “unique Promotional REQ pack,” which includes an emblem for use in Halo 5: Guardians when the game ships on October 27.

The app’s not showing up in Apple App Store searches yet, so I haven’t been able to fiddle with it, but here’s hoping these new versions fare better than the Xbox One implementation, afflicted with bouts of hair-tearing sluggishness.

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