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Facebook launches drop-in video chat Rooms to rival Houseparty

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Facebook  is co-opting some of the top video chat innovations like Zoom’s gallery view for large groups and Houseparty’s spontaneous hangouts for a new feature called Rooms. It could usher in a new era of unplanned togetherness via video.

Launching today on mobile and desktop in English speaking countries, you can start a video chat Room that friends can discover via a new section above the News Feed or notifications Facebook will automatically send to your closest pals. You can also just invite specific friends, or share a link anyone can use to join your Room.

For now, up to 8 people can join, but that limit will rise to 50 within weeks, making it a more legitimate alternative to Zoom for big happy hours and such. And more importantly, users will soon be able to create and discover Rooms through Instagram,  WhatsApp, and Portal, plus join them from the web without an account, making this Facebook’s first truly interoperable product.

“People just want to spend more time together” Facebook’s head of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky tells me. One-on-one and group video calling was already growing, but “Now in the time of COVID, the whole thing is exploding. We already had a plan to do a bunch of stuff here [so people could] hang out on video any time they want, but we accelerated our plans.” There’s no plans for ads or other direct monetization of Rooms, but the feature could keep Facebook’s products central to people’s lives.

Choosing to create a separate and extremely prominent space for discovering Room above the News Feed reveals how seriously Facebook is taking this product. It could have marooned Rooms in a standalone app or made them just another News Feed post that’s timeliness would get lost in the algorithm. Instead, it was willing to push the feed almost entirely off the start screen beneath the composer, Rooms, and Stories. Clearly Facebook sees sharing, ephemeral content, and synchronous connection as more key to its future than static status updates.

Facebook Goes All-In On Video

The launch of Rooms comes alongside a slew other video-related updates designed to shore up Facebook’s deficiency in many-to-many communication. Messenger and WhatsApp now see 700 million people using audio and video calls each day, while Facebook and Instagram Live videos now reach 800 million people per day. Facebook already owns the many-to-one feeds and has emerged as a leader in one-to-many livestreaming, but “the middle piece needed way more investment” Chudnovsky says.

Here’s a rundown of the other announcements and what they mean:

  • Virtual And 360 Backgrounds with mood lighting – Facebook will soon launch the ability to choose a virtual background to cover up what’s behind you on a video call, including 360 backgrounds that look different as you move around, plus mood lighting to make you look better on camera
  • WhatsApp expands group calls from four to eight max participants – Encompassing larger families and friend groups makes WhatsApp a more viable competitor to Zoom
  • Facebook Live With returns – It’s tough to be the center of attention for long periods, so being able to bring a guest on screen during Live calls keeps them interesting and low pressure
  • Donate button on live videos – This makes it much easier for musicians, activists, and normal people to raise money for causes during the coronavirus crisis
  • Live via audio only – With more musicians bringing their tours to Facebook Live, now you can listen while still going about your day when you can’t watch too or want to conserve data, and you can use a toll-free number to dial in to some Pages’ videos
  • Instagram Live on web – You can now watch Live videos and comment from desktop so you can multi-task during longer streams
  • Live on IGTV – Long live videos won’t have to disappear since they can now be saved to IGTV, encouraging higher quality Instagram Lives meant to last
  • Portal Live – You’ll now be able to go Live to Pages and Groups from Portal devices so you can move around while streaming
  • Facebook Dating Video Chat – Rather than going on a date where you have no chemistry, you’ll be able to video chat with matches on Facebook Dating to get a feel for someone first.

How To Use Facebook Rooms

Facebook strived to make Rooms launchable and discoverable across all its apps in hopes of blitzing into the space. You can launch a Room from the News Feed composer, Groups, Events, the Messenger inbox, and soon Instagram Direct’s video chat button, WhatsApp,  and Portal. You’ll be able to choose a start time, add a description, and choose who can join in three ways.

You can restrict your Room just to people you invite, such as for a family catch-up. You can make it open to all your friends, who’ll be able to see it in the new Rooms discovery tray above the News Feed or inbox and eventually similar surfaces in the other apps. In this case, Facebook may notify some close friends to make sure they’ll see it. Or you can share a link to your Room wherever you want, effectively making it public.

Facebook apparently watched the PR disaster that emerged from Zoombombing, and purposefully built security into Rooms. The host can lock the room to block people from joining via URL, and if they boot someone from a Room, it automatically locks until they unlock it. That ensures that if trolls find your link, they can’t just keep joining from the web.

Naturally, Chudnovsky tried to downplay the influence of Zoom and Houseparty on Rooms. “We’re glad there are many other apps people can use when they want to see each other and stay close to each other. I don’t think we necessarily learned anything that actually became part of this product” he insisted. It’s also convenient that Rooms is essentially a non-exclusive video version of Clubhouse, the voice chat app that’s the talk of Silicon Valley right now

The Uncopyable Copier

Facebook has been quietly working on Rooms since at least 2017, exploring how to make group chats discoverable. It tried a standalone app for group video chat discovery called Bonfire that year. In fact, Facebook launched a standalone app called Rooms back in 2014 for anonymous forums.

The genius of this launch is how it combines three of Facebook’s biggest strengths to build a product that copies others but is hard to copy itself.

  • The ubiquity of its messaging apps and web compatibility make Rooms highly accessible, without the friction of having to download a new app.
  • The frequency of visits to its feeds and inboxes where Rooms can be found by the family of apps’ 2.5 billion users plus Facebook’s willingness to bet big by sticking Rooms atop our screen like it did with Stories could unlock a new era of spontaneous, serendipitous socializing.
  • The social graph we’ve developed with great breadth across Facebook’s apps plus the depth of its understanding about who we care about most allow it to reach enough concurrent users to make Rooms fun by intelligently ranking which we see and who gets notifications to join rather than spamming your whole phone book.

No other app has all of these qualities. Zoom doesn’t know who you care about. Houseparty is growing but is far from ubiquitous. Messaging competitors don’t have the same discovery surfaces.

Facebook knows the real engagement on mobile comes from messaging. It just needed a way to make us message more than our one-on-one threads and asynchronous group chats demanded. Rooms makes video calls something you can passively discover and join rather having to actively initiate or be explicitly pulled into by a friend. That could significantly increase how often and long we use Facebook without the deleterious impacts of zombie-like asocial feed scrolling.

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How to transfer all your Facebook photos and videos to Google Photos

You have probably uploaded tons of photos and videos on Facebook, and you probably have forgotten most of them until they show up as Memories. But what if you want to download all those content and store them on a free cloud storage platform like Google Photos for safekeeping? Let us show you how.

The method can be done via the web browser or from the app. But for this guide, we’re going to use the former.

Step 1: Log in to your Facebook account and go to Settings.

Step 2: Click on the ‘Your Facebook Information’ tab on the left.

Step 3: Look for ‘Transfer a Copy of Your Photos or Videos’ then click on ‘View.’

Step 4: Enter your password to continue.

Step 5: Choose a destination where a copy of your photos or videos will be transferred to. In this case, click on Google Photos.

Step 6: Choose to transfer a copy of either your photos or videos you’ve uploaded to Facebook. After selecting, click on ‘Next.’

Step 7: Log in to your Google account and give Facebook access.

Step 8: Confirm transfer.

At this point, Facebook will proceed with uploading a copy of your photos or videos to your Google Photos. The photos are organized based on the name of the albums you have on Facebook. The transfer time might take a while depending on how much photos or videos are being transferred, so check back on this later.

You can also choose to stop the transfer. Take note that it will not pause the transfer so if ever you want to resume, you’ll have to start all over again.

And that’s it. We hope that you find this guide helpful. If you have tips or recommendations, let us know in the comments below.

Spotify adds fundraising features and a COVID-19 news hub to address the health crisis

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Spotify this morning announced a series of new initiatives to address the COVID-19 health crisis across its platform. The company is launching a financial relief effort for those in the creative community who have been heavily impacted by the virus, which includes the addition of a public donations feature on its website. The company is also working to add a new feature that will allow artists to fundraise directly from their fans via their Spotify artist profile pages. Meanwhile, for listeners, Spotify is adding a COVID-19 news and information hub in its app to help keep users informed.

The new Spotify COVID-19 Music Relief Project will recommend verified organizations that are offering financial relief to those in the music community who are in need, worldwide. At launch, Spotify is partnering with MusiCares, PRS Foundation, and Help Musicians, and says it’s planning to add more partners in time.

The company says it will also match dollar-for-dollar the public donations made through the Spotify COVID-19 Music Relief page up to a total contribution of $10 million. Industry professionals in need of financial assistance will go to the partners’ sites for information to apply for relief funds.

“While streaming still gives artists a way to connect with their fans, so many other sources of revenue have been put on hold by this crisis,” notes the company on the Relief project’s page. “To play our part, we’re working with a growing list of organizations offering financial relief to creators around the world to find ways to support our community,” it says.

And though not yet launched, Spotify says it’s working to add a new fundraising feature for artists that will allow them to drive their fans to a fundraising destination of their own choice. This would allow artists to directly fundraise for other artists in need or another separate initiative of their own choosing. This feature will be optional for the artists to use and no changes to their profile pages will occur unless the artist wants to participate. And unlike the fundraising efforts on other sites, Spotify says it won’t take a cut of the funds.

Of course, offering personal fundraisers in a time of crisis can also be problematic, as there are a number of scammers now trying to capitalize on crisis with fake fundraisers. Artists, like anyone else, could fall for these scams and then rally their fans towards the cause — potentially redirecting money away from true relief organizations at a time when it’s critical.

This is worsened by the fact that personal fundraisers generally need vetting to ensure they in and of themselves aren’t scams or engaging in some kind of fraud. Even Facebook, operating at the scale it does, is warning users that it currently has fewer people on staff to review personal fundraisers due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. It says fundraisers may not even be able to be reviewed at all and if they are, they’ll take longer than usual. And yet Spotify is readily the rollout of fundraisers at this time when staffing reductions and disruptions to schedules are in place. The staff works from home. But COVID-19 has disrupted every business and no entity is immune from that.)

In addition, Spotify is adding a new feature to connect listeners with news and information about COVID-19. Through a new in-app hub, the company is pointing users to news and podcasts from the media, including ABC News, BBC World Service, CNN, Foreign Policy, and NPR.

And, like most companies, Spotify is also offering advertising space to governments and nonprofits for health information and PSAs.

The new COVID-19 Music Relief Project and COVID-19 hub are live today. Artists fundraisers are in the works.

Samsung gives foldables another go with the Galaxy Z Flip

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Samsung did a surprisingly good job keeping the Galaxy Fold under wraps, surprising the world with its first foldable this time last year during the Galaxy S10 unveil. When it came to the Galaxy Z Flip, on the other hand, the company just went ahead and showed the whole thing off during an Oscar ad buy. (Not to mention numerous Samsung employees playing around with the handsets in their seats this morning, ahead of unveil). Crazy world, these mobile phones.

Of course, that’s not to say we haven’t know about the Flip for a while now. Samsung teased out the Moto Razr-style form factor before it even officially announced the Fold. Samsung wanted to make it perfectly clear that the foldable wasn’t just a one and done situation for the company.

The company kicked today’s event off by unveiling the new foldable, which it claims is “like nothing you’ve ever seen before.” Which, well, isn’t exactly true.

Certainly the Z Flip form factor seems a more logical one, harkening back to pre-smartphone days of clamshell devices. Of course, the Razr has been running into its own issues after its recent release. Between that and — even more notable — the Fold’s myriad problems, the Z Flip will no doubt been under as much scrutiny as any handset in recent memory.

When opened, the screen is 6.7 inches, with a hole punch camera up top. When closed, there isn’t much of a display, beyond a quick bar that offers time, notifications and battery life. Users can also snap selfies with the case closed. The clam shell comes in three colors: black, purple and gold.

One assumes that Samsung learned plenty of lessons the original Fold, after having to go back to the drawing board when multiple reviewers wound up with broken units. Samsung claims the device can handle 200,000 flips, courtesy of foldable glass — which should give it some extra durability.

Samsung claims the device can handle 200,000 flips, courtesy of foldable glass — which should give it some extra durability. In an offhanded reference to earlier issues, the company noted that the hinge is designed to keep debris out, one of the major downfalls of the first gen Fold, which allowed dust and particles behind the screen, damaging it when users pressed down. The new phone has a kind of brush system inside to keep stuff out.

Obviously we can’t quite speak to durability just yet (though I, for one, am excited to get my hands on the thing), but at $1,380, it’s priced — well, it’s less expensive than the $2,000 Galaxy Fold, at least. That puts it more in line with the new Razr, not to mention, Samsung’s just now introduced Galaxy S20 Ultra.

The Flip will be available on Valentine’s Day.

A Thom Browne Edition, meanwhile, will bring the iconic designer’s touch to the device, which will be highlighted in more detail at a special event tomorrow in New York as part of Fashion Week. 

Xiaomi launches Mi Watch, its $185 Apple Watch clone

Xiaomi,  which competes with Apple for the top position in the wearable market, today made the competition a little more interesting. The Chinese electronics giant has launched its first smartwatch called the Mi Watch that looks strikingly similar to the Apple Watch in its home market.

The Mi Watch, like the Apple Watch, has a square body with a crown and a button. It sports a 1.78-inch AMOLED display (326 ppi) that offers the always-on capability and runs MIUI for Watch, the company’s homegrown wearable operating system based on Google’s Wear OS.

Inside the metal housing — aluminum alloy with a matte finish — are microphones on two sides for recording audio and taking calls, and a loudspeaker on the left to listen to music or incoming calls. The Mi Watch, which comes in one size — 44mm — has a ceramic back, which is where the charging pins and a heart rate sensor are also placed.

The Mi Watch is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Wear 3100 4G chipset with four Cortex A7 cores clocked at 1.2GHz, coupled with 1GB of RAM and 8GB storage. The company says its first smartwatch supports cellular connectivity (through an eSIM), Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth, and NFC for payments. The Mi Watch should last for 36 hours on a single charge on cellular mode, the company claimed.

The Mi Watch will also help users track their sleep, performance while swimming, cycling and running, and also measure their heart rate.

Over 40 popular Chinese apps such as TikTok and QQ Messenger are available for the Mi Watch on day one. The company’s own XiaoAI assistant is the default virtual digital assistant on the watch.

The Mi Watch is priced at CNY 1,299 ($185) and will go on sale in the country next week. There’s no word on international availability just yet, but if the past is any indication, Xiaomi will likely bring the device to India, Singapore, Indonesia and other markets in coming quarters.

The company says a variant of the Mi Watch that sports a sapphire glass and stainless steel will go on sale next month in China. It is priced at CNY 1,999 ($285).

Xiaomi is no stranger to the wearable market. The company’s fitness trackers — that cost under $25 and sport colorful displays and last for weeks on a single charge — are incredibly popular in Asian markets.

This is also not the first time Xiaomi has been accused of taking too much inspiration from Apple. The early smartphones from Xiaomi looked very similar to the iPhones. But in recent years, its products have carried a little more independence and originality. Well, most smartphones — not all. Also this year, the company was accused of cloning Apple’s cartoony Memoji.

You can now try Microsoft’s web-based version of Visual Studio

Earlier this year, at its Build developers conference, Microsoft announced that it was working on a web-based version of its Visual Studio IDE. At the time, Visual Studio Online went into a private preview, open to a select number of developers. Now, at its Ignite conference, the company has opened the service to all developers who want to give it a spin.

With Visual Studio Online, developers will be able to quickly spin up a fully configured development environment for their repositories. From there, they can use the web-based editor to work on their code.

“Visual Studio Online brings together Visual Studio, cloud-hosted developer environments and a web-based editor that’s accessible from anywhere to help developers be more productive than ever,” Microsoft notes in its press materials. “As development becomes more collaborative and open source workflows, like pull requests, become more pervasive, developers need to be able to switch between codebases and projects quickly without losing productivity.”

In its current form, the service is deeply integrated with Microsoft’s GitHub (no surprise there), but the company notes that developers can also attach their own physical and virtual machines to their Visual Studio-based environments. Developers also can create these online environments right from Visual Studio Code, the company’s increasingly popular free code editor for Windows, Mac and Linux.

The cloud-based environments, as well as extension support for Visual Studio Code, are now in preview.