AntiToxin sells safetytech to clean up poisoned platforms

The big social networks and video games have failed to prioritize user well-being over their own growth. As a result, society is losing the battle against bullying, predators, hate speech, misinformation and scammers. Typically when a whole class of tech companies have a dire problem they can’t cost-effectively solve themselves, a software-as-a-service emerges to fill the gap in web hosting, payment processing, etc. So along comes AntiToxin Technologies, a new Israeli startup that wants to help web giants fix their abuse troubles with its safety-as-a-service.

It all started on Minecraft. AntiToxin co-founder Ron Porat is cybersecurity expert who’d started popular ad blocker Shine. Yet right under his nose, one of his kids was being mercilessly bullied on the hit children’s game. If even those most internet-savvy parents were being surprised by online abuse, Porat realized the issue was bigger than could be addressed by victims trying to protect themselves. The platforms had to do more, research confirmed.

A recent Ofcom study found almost 80% of children had a potentially harmful online experience in the past year. Indeed, 23% said they’d been cyberbullied, and 28% of 12 to 15-year-olds said they’d received unwelcome friend or follow requests from strangers. A Ditch The Label study found of 12 to 20-year-olds who’d been bullied online, 42% were bullied on Instagram.

Unfortunately, the massive scale of the threat combined with a late start on policing by top apps makes progress tough without tremendous spending. Facebook tripled the headcount of its content moderation and security team, taking a noticeable hit to its profits, yet toxicity persists. Other mainstays like YouTube and Twitter have yet to make concrete commitments to safety spending or staffing, and the result is non-stop scandals of child exploitation and targeted harassment. Smaller companies like Snap or Fortnite-maker Epic Games may not have the money to develop sufficient safeguards in-house.

“The tech giants have proven time and time again we can’t rely on them. They’ve abdicated their responsibility. Parents need to realize this problem won’t be solved by these companies” says AntiToxin CEO Zohar Levkovitz, who previously sold his mobile ad company Amobee to Singtel for $321 million. “You need new players, new thinking, new technology. A company where ‘Safety’ is the product, not an after-thought. And that’s where we come-in.” The startup recently raised a multimillion-dollar seed round from Mangrove Capital Partners and is allegedly prepping for a double-digit millions Series A.

AntiToxin’s technology plugs into the backends of apps with social communities that either broadcast or message with each other and are thereby exposed to abuse. AntiToxin’s systems privately and securely crunch all the available signals regarding user behavior and policy violation reports, from text to videos to blocking. It then can flag a wide range of toxic actions and let the client decide whether to delete the activity, suspend the user responsible or how else to proceed based on their terms and local laws.

Through the use of artificial intelligence, including natural language processing, machine learning and computer vision, AntiToxin can identify the intent of behavior to determine if it’s malicious. For example, the company tells me it can distinguish between a married couple consensually exchanging nude photos on a messaging app versus an adult sending inappropriate imagery to a child. It also can determine if two teens are swearing at each other playfully as they compete in a video game or if one is verbally harassing the other. The company says that beats using static dictionary blacklists of forbidden words.

AntiToxin is under NDA, so it can’t reveal its client list, but claims recent media attention and looming regulation regarding online abuse has ramped up inbound interest. Eventually the company hopes to build better predictive software to identify users who’ve shown signs of increasingly worrisome behavior so their activity can be more closely moderated before they lash out. And it’s trying to build a “safety graph” that will help it identify bad actors across services so they can be broadly deplatformed similar to the way Facebook uses data on Instagram abuse to police connected WhatsApp accounts.

“We’re approaching this very human problem like a cybersecurity company, that is, everything is a Zero-Day for us” says Levkowitz, discussing how AntiToxin indexes new patterns of abuse it can then search for across its clients. “We’ve got intelligence unit alums, PhDs and data scientists creating anti-toxicity detection algorithms that the world is yearning for.” AntiToxin is already having an impact. TechCrunch commissioned it to investigate a tip about child sexual imagery on Microsoft’s Bing search engine. We discovered Bing was actually recommending child abuse image results to people who’d conducted innocent searches, leading Bing to make changes to clean up its act.

AntiToxin identified publicly listed WhatsApp Groups where child sexual abuse imagery was exchanged

One major threat to AntiToxin’s business is what’s often seen as boosting online safety: end-to-end encryption. AntiToxin claims that when companies like Facebook expand encryption, they’re purposefully hiding problematic content from themselves so they don’t have to police it.

Facebook claims it still can use metadata about connections on its already encrypted WhatApp network to suspend those who violate its policy. But AntiToxin provided research to TechCrunch for an investigation that found child sexual abuse imagery sharing groups were openly accessible and discoverable on WhatsApp — in part because encryption made them hard to hunt down for WhatsApp’s automated systems.

AntiToxin believes abuse would proliferate if encryption becomes a wider trend, and it claims the harm that it  causes outweighs fears about companies or governments surveiling unencrypted transmissions. It’s a tough call. Political dissidents, whistleblowers and perhaps the whole concept of civil liberty rely on encryption. But parents may see sex offenders and bullies as a more dire concern that’s reinforced by platforms having no idea what people are saying inside chat threads.

What seems clear is that the status quo has got to go. Shaming, exclusion, sexism, grooming, impersonation and threats of violence have started to feel commonplace. A culture of cruelty breeds more cruelty. Tech’s success stories are being marred by horror stories from their users. Paying to pick up new weapons in the fight against toxicity seems like a reasonable investment to demand.

A closer look at the best new iOS, macOS and watchOS features from WWDC

As expected, there was a lot at yesterday’s big WWDC keynote. In fact, you got the sense watching the whole thing unfold that Apple had to race through a number of its new features to cram everything into the two-hour-plus event.

For many, the new Mac Pro was the star of the show, but for Apple, the clear the focus was on software. The company is keenly aware as hardware sales slow that its future is all about software, services and content. This week at the show, we got a guided look through the best new features iOS, macOS and watchOS have to offer.

No surprise, iOS 13 brings the biggest changes of the bunch. Dark Mode is the highlight so to speak. The feature has the same selling points as it does on other operating systems — namely being easier on the eyes and the battery. With a touch in settings, users can turn set it as a constant or have it switch when the sun goes down.

The feature swaps in dark wallpapers and will work with all of Apple’s native apps. Third-party supports is coming as well and will be a part of its development platforms like Swift, going forward.

Apple Maps, a major underdog at launch, continues to get some key upgrades. Most notable is Lookaround — a competitor to Google’s longstanding Street View, which brings seamlessly stitched photographs to help users better navigate around. The feature was extremely smooth in our brief demo. It’s hard to say how it will behave on cellular networks out on the street, but the preview was certainly impressive.

Imaging is a key part of every iOS upgrade, and this one’s no different. Photo editing has been much improved, with more pro-style control over aspects like white balance, contrast, sharpening and noise reduction.

There are some handy dummy proof additions as well, like the ability to adjust saturation without impacting flesh tones. iOS’s editing tools are coming to video as well, this time out, with the ability to adjust settings and even rotate orientation. The photos app also gets a new dynamic view that groups images by occasions like birthdays, giving you another opportunity to mark the unwavering march of time.

This year’s show marked a big moment for iPad as well, as the tablet’s operating system broke free from iOS. For users, that primarily means more functionality on the larger screen, including the ability to to open up multiple windows of the same app for additional multitasking. That joins various other features like improved gesture based highlighting and cut and paste that help iPadOS behave more like a PC.

Far and away the most exciting addition here, however, is actually on the mac side. macOS Catalina brings Duet/Luna style second screen functionality to the tablet, letting it serve as an external monitor. The feature can be used wirelessly (over bluetooth) or tethered.

Our demo was the latter (WWDC is a busy place for wireless signals), but operated pretty flawlessly in spite of some complicated demands. With an iPad Pro, users can draw with the Apple Pencil. There’s also a handy Touch Bar-style menu tray at that populates the bottom of the iPad display.

A couple of watchOS additions are worth mentioning, as well. The most significant is native menstrual cycle tracking. The feature, which is also coming to iOS, gives users a way to keep track of another key aspect of health.

Other additions to the wearable operating system include a native app for audiobooks and a noise app that uses the watch’s built in mics to alert wearers of loud sounds that can lead to hearing loss.

FCC slaps robocaller with record $120M fine, but it’s like ’emptying the ocean with a teaspoon’

Whoever thought we would leave telemarketing behind in this brave new smartphone world of ours lacked imagination. Robocalls are a menace growing in volume and even a massive $120 million fine leveled against a prominent source of them by the FCC likely won’t stem the flood.

The fine was announced today during the FCC’s monthly open meeting: a Mr Adrian Abramovich was responsible for nearly 100 million robocalls over a three-month period, and will almost certainly be bankrupted by this record forfteiture.

“Our decision sends a loud and clear message,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a statement. “This FCC is an active cop on the beat and will throw the book at anyone who violates our spoofing and robocall rules and harms consumers.”

That sounds impressive until you hear that these calls took place in 2016, and meanwhile there were 3.4 billion robocalls made last month alone. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel applauds the fine, but questions the practicality of pursuing damages when actions need to be taken to prevent the crimes in the first place.

“Let’s be honest,” she wrote in a statement, “Going after a single bad actor is emptying the ocean with a teaspoon.”

She points out that a set of rules designed to prevent robocalls was overturned a couple months ago, and that 20 petitions to the FCC under those rules for legal exemptions and such have yet to be addressed. And a technology designed to prevent robocalls altogether, recommended in a report more than a year ago and currently set to be implemented in Canada in 2019, has no such date here in the States.

As someone who gets these robocalls all the time, I fully support both this fine and the more serious measures Rosenworcel suggests. And the faster the better, I literally got one while writing this story.

Google Pay’s app adds boarding passes, tickets, p2p payments and more

Google Pay got a big upgrade at Google I/O this week. At a breakout session, Google announced a series of changes to its payments platform, recently rebranded from Android Pay, including support for peer-to-peer payments in the main Google Pay app; online payments support in all browsers; the ability to see all payments in a single place, instead of just those in-store; and support for tickets and boarding passes in Google Pay’s APIs, among several other things.

Some of Google Pay’s expansions were previously announced, like its planned support for more browsers and devices, for example.

However, the company detailed a host of other features at I/O that are now rolling out across the Google Pay platform.

One notable addition is support for peer-to-peer payments which is being added to the Google Pay app in the U.S. and the U.K.

And that transaction history, along with users’ other payments, will all be consolidated into one place.

“In an upcoming update of the Google Pay app, we’re going to allow you to manage all the payment methods in your Google account – not just the payment methods that you used to pay in-store,” said Gerardo Capiel, Product Management lead at Google Pay, during the session at I/O. “And even better, we’re going to provide you with a holistic view of all your transactions – whether they be on Google apps and services, such as Play and YouTube, whether they be with third-party merchants, such as Walgreens and Uber, or whether they’re transactions you’ve made to friends and families via our peer-to-peer service,” he said.

The company also said it would allow users to send and request money, manage payment info linked to their Google accounts, and see their transaction history on the web with the Google Pay iOS app, too.

And because I/O is a developer conference, many of the new additions were in the form new and updated APIs.

For starters, Google launched a new API for incorporating Google Pay into other third-party apps.

“Via our APIs, we’re going to enable these ready-to-pay users [who already have payment information stored with Google Pay] to also checkout quickly and easily in your own apps and websites,” Capiel said.

The benefit to those developers who add Google Pay support is an increase in conversion rates and faster monetization, he noted.

Plus, Google added support for tickets and boarding passes to the Google Pay APIs, where they joined the existing support for offers and loyalty cards.

This allows companies such as Urban Airship or DotDashPay to help business clients distribute and update their passes and tickets to Google Pay users.

“It shows an even stronger commitment on Google Pay’s part to make the digital wallet a priority,” Sean Arietta, founder and CEO of DotDashPay, told TechCrunch, following the presentation. “It also reinforces their focus on partners like DotDashPay to help build connections between consumers and brands. The fact that they are specifically highlighting a complete experience that starts with payments and ends with an NFC tap-to-identify, is really powerful. It makes the Google Pay story now complete,” he added.

Urban Airship was also touting the changes earlier this week, via a press release.

“We help businesses reinvent the customer experience by delivering the right information at the right time on any digital channel, and mobile wallets fill an increasingly critical role in that vision,” Brett Caine, CEO and president of Urban Airship, said in a statement. “Google Pay’s new support for tickets and boarding passes means customers will always have up-to-date information when they need it most – on the go.”

Some of Google’s early access partners on ticketing include Singapore Airlines, Eventbrite, Southwest, and FortressGB, which handles major soccer league tickets in the U.K. and elsewhere.

In terms of transit-related announcements, Google added a few more partners who will soon adopt Google Pay integration, including Vancouver, Canada and the U.K. bus system, following recent launches in Las Vegas and Portland.

The company also offered an update on Google Pay’s traction, noting the Google Pay app just passed 100 million downloads in the Google Play store, where it’s available to users in 18 markets worldwide.

Soon, Google said it will launch many of the core features and the Google Pay app globally to billions of Google users worldwide.

Necto looks to help individuals get their own local ISP businesses off the ground

If you live in a city, you’re probably deciding between a handful of major broadband or wireless carriers — maybe something like Comcast or AT&T. But there’s a good chance that there are a bunch of local carriers that are looking to get off the ground, and Benjamin Huang wants to help make sure there are even more options/.

That’s the idea behind Necto, a startup looking to create a sort of ISP school to help people get started with their own internet service provider founded by Huang and Adam Montgomery. Typically that’s a pretty tall order, but Necto works with individuals to learn how to build a network, get the right equipment, and deploy it in order to get consumers access to a new internet service provider that’s an alternative to the larger carriers. There are already emerging providers like Sonic in San Francisco, which aims to offer quick internet for a cheaper price, but there’s a whole group of individuals waiting in the wings that are trying to build their own ISP and the associated business behind it, Huang said. Necto is launching out of Y Combinator’s winter 2018 class.

“Ultimately, we want to see so many ISPs that net neutrality isn’t an issue,” Montgomery said. “It’s cheaper than ever and easier to start an internet service provider. People didn’t know they could do this, and networking engineering is the highest cost. You have to have a lot of stuff to build out. We remove that and bundle it as an ISP starter kit service. We give guidance to the operators, these are the customers you have, this is the equipment you need buy, here’s how to construct them. It’s more like constructing Ikea furniture. The hard part we remove which is automatically configuring these routers.”

Necto started off as its own attempt at an internet service provider, but Huang and Montgomery found that trying to get wholesale fiber was a high barrier to entry. The pair started looking into wholesale wireless, and Huang said that technology is getting to the point where it’s just as fast as typical broadband and an option for resale. The challenge then is getting the equipment into the hands of individuals that want to ramp up their own ISP and showing them how to get started. Then, they’re off to the races and work to build a business around that, including customer service and other facets of it.

Necto essentially charges for the guidance of how to start an ISP, including a class that individuals go through in order to get one off the ground. Then the company continues to ship software to ensure that it’s not as difficult to keep the equipment up and running, as well as provide ongoing support for those individuals. The equipment is all off the shelf, Huang said, in order to lower the barrier to entry for these providers.

The challenge here, however, will be ensuring that not only individuals know they can get an ISP off the ground, but getting their — and consumers’ — attention in the first place. Necto hopes to take a hyper-local strategy, Montgomery said, like traveling to farmers’ markets and working with local operators to ensure they can track down the right people that are looking to build a business around ISPs. There are still going to be plenty of challenges as it continues to work with wholesale wireless providers in order to get these businesses off the ground.

Free stock trading app Robinhood rockets to a $5.6B valuation with new funding round

Robinhood started off as a dead-simple stock trading application that had no transaction fees — but since it’s continued to grow, and especially as it starts to dive into cryptocurrency, investors are getting pretty excited about its prospects and are pouring a ton of new funding into it.

And it’s that tantalizing prospect of creating a next generation way of trading assets and cryptocurrency is now sending Robinhood to a $5.6 billion valuation in a new financing round that the company is announcing today. Robinhood says it’s closed a $363 million Series D financing round, with DST Global led this new round and Iconiq, Kleiner Perkins, Sequoia and Capital G participated. Robinhood had a $1.3 billion valuation last year when it had around 2 million users, and Robinhood says it now has 4 million users and has passed $150 billion in transaction volume.

“It’s the only place right now where you can trade crypto, stocks, and options all in one place,” CEO Vlad Tenev said. “For us to construct an experience that feels seamless and natural for customers, that for example want to sell an equity and use the proceeds to buy crypto, seamlessly, that’s been challenging not just from a product and design standpoint, but also infrastructure standpoint. There’s complexity under the hood, and our goal is to make it as seamless as possible in the process and make that complexity go away.”

Those 4 million users — and that valuation — indicates that Robinhood has clearly exposed a lot of demand for an easier way to users to dip their toes into financial services without having to work with firms that have trading fees like Scotttrade or E*Trade. And while there are a lot of services that offer robo-advisory services like Betterment and Wealthront, which make it easier to start investing small amounts of money, Robinhood offers users the opportunity to do these things at a more granular level.

And, of course, there’s the cryptocurrency aspect that is clearly spurring a lot of interest in the company. At the time, 1 million users waitlisted for access in just the five days after Robinhood Crypto was announced. Robinhood has premium services like Robinhood Gold, where the company can find additional ways to generate revenue that offset the requirements of running a system that allows users to trade stocks for free. Robinhood has raised $539 million to date, as diving into financial services can be an expensive prospect, as well as getting enough users on board to the point that it can scale to a level that the business starts to increasingly make sense.

Robinhood’s crypto trading service came out in February and by today, the company says it’s available in 11 states. The company also rolled out a web version and stock option trading, trying to become a more robust financial services company that’s still tuned to a younger generation that wants an easier way to get into investing without needing a big balance to invest. Most of Robinhood’s users, too, aren’t so-called “day traders” and are instead holding stocks for a while after they buy them.

“If you look at the data and the statistics, people that are active day traders are actually a very small percentage of our space,” Tenev said. “People that are actually transacting on that cadence are the minority of our customers. Most of our customers engage in more of these buy and hold accumulation strategies. We really see a lot of unique things because we don’t charge trading commissions. There are customers that deposit money regularly twice or once a month and then buy stocks as soon as those deposits come in. We don’t see a lot of customers that are doing rapid buying and selling.”

Still, as it tries to further expand — especially into products like crypto and new regions — it’s going to increasingly find itself trying to jump hurdles that financial services companies find when going abroad. And there’s always a chance that the trading platforms will try to become a little more competitive (and companies like Square are even getting into Bitcoin trading). That’s going to require a robust amount of funding to try to outmaneuver well-capitalized companies that might already have those relationships in place to more easily expand.

“The political climate is uncertain, it sort of affects everyone, it doesn’t affect us uniquely,” Tenev said. “We’re a crypto business now. Not a lot of people have a ton of clarity on what that’s gonna look like in the future, it’s a new space that’s evolving really rapidly. I think that we’re confident we can adapt and evolve, and we’re operating the business in a responsible way. There’s only so much you can do, but I feel like we’ve done a lot to address any concerns.”

Fantasmo is a decentralized map for robots and augmented reality

“Whether for AR or robots, anytime you have software interacting with the world, it needs a 3D model of the globe. We think that map will look a lot more like the decentralized internet than a version of Apple Maps or Google Maps.” That’s the idea behind new startup Fantasmo, according to co-founder Jameson Detweiler. Coming out of stealth today, Fantasmo wants to let any developer contribute to and draw from a sub-centimeter accuracy map for robot navigation or anchoring AR experiences.

Fantasmo plans to launch a free Camera Positioning Standard (CPS) that developers can use to collect and organize 3D mapping data. The startup will charge for commercial access and premium features in its TerraOS, an open-sourced operating system that helps property owners keep their maps up to date and supply them for use by robots, AR and other software equipped with Fantasmo’s SDK.

With $2 million in funding led by TenOneTen Ventures, Fantasmo is now accepting developers and property owners to its private beta.

Directly competing with Google’s own Visual Positioning System is an audacious move. Fantasmo is betting that private property owners won’t want big corporations snooping around to map their indoor spaces, and instead will want to retain control of this data so they can dictate how it’s used. With Fantasmo, they’ll be able to map spaces themselves and choose where robots can roam or if the next Pokémon GO can be played there.

“Only Apple, Google, and HERE Maps want this centralized. If this data sits on one of the big tech company’s servers, they could basically spy on anyone at any time,” says Detweiler. The prospect gets scarier when you imagine everyone wearing camera-equipped AR glasses in the future. “The AR cloud on a central server is Big Brother. It’s the end of privacy.”

Detweiler and his co-founder Dr. Ryan Measel first had the spark for Fantasmo as best friends at Drexel University. “We need to build Pokémon in real life! That was the genesis of the company,” says Detweiler. In the meantime he founded and sold LaunchRock, a 500 Startups company for creating “Coming Soon” sign-up pages for internet services.

After Measel finished his PhD, the pair started Fantasmo Studios to build augmented reality games like Trash Collectors From Space, which they took through the Techstars accelerator in 2015. “Trash Collectors was the first time we actually created a spatial map and used that to sync multiple people’s precise position up,” says Detweiler. But while building the infrastructure tools to power the game, they realized there was a much bigger opportunity to build the underlying maps for everyone’s games. Now the Santa Monica-based Fantasmo has 11 employees.

“It’s the internet of the real world,” says Detweiler. Fantasmo now collects geo-referenced photos, scans them for identifying features like walls and objects, and imports them into its point cloud model. Apps and robots equipped with the Fantasmo SDK can then pull in the spatial map for a specific location that’s more accurate than federally run GPS. That lets them peg AR objects to precise spots in your environment while making sure robots don’t run into things.

Fantasmo identifies objects in geo-referenced photos to build a 3D model of the world

“I think this is the most important piece of infrastructure to be built during the next decade,” Detweiler declares. That potential attracted funding from TenOneTen, Freestyle Capital, LDV, NoName Ventures, Locke Mountain Ventures and some angel investors. But it’s also attracted competitors like Escher Reality, which was acquired by Pokémon GO parent company Niantic, and Ubiquity6, which has investment from top-tier VCs like Kleiner Perkins and First Round.

Google is the biggest threat, though. With its industry-leading traditional Google Maps, experience with indoor mapping through Tango, new VPS initiative and near limitless resources. Just yesterday, Google showed off using an AR fox in Google Maps that you can follow for walking directions.

Fantasmo is hoping that Google’s size works against it. The startup sees a path to victory through interoperability and privacy. The big corporations want to control and preference their own platforms’ access to maps while owning the data about private property. Fantasmo wants to empower property owners to oversee that data and decide what happens to it. Measel concludes, “The world would be worse off if GPS was proprietary. The next evolution shouldn’t be any different.”

Review: Huawei’s P20 Pro is a shiny phone with a strong personality

It’s been a month since Huawei unveiled its latest flagship device. I’ve played with this phone for a few weeks and it’s one of the most interesting Android phones currently available.

The P20 Pro is a solid successor to the P10 and a good alternative to other flagship phones, such as the iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy S9.

But it isn’t the perfect phone either. Some features are missing for no apparent reason. Some of Huawei’s choices are also questionable.

Looking for the perfect Android phone

A few years ago, many Android phones paled in comparison with the latest iPhone. Most of them were made out of plastic. And Android was simply too clunky back then.

2018 is a completely different story as you have a lot of options. Maybe you like Samsung devices or the pure Android experience of the Pixel 2. And maybe you’ve been looking at Huawei devices from afar. But if you live in the U.S., you won’t be able to buy the P20 Pro any time soon.

Let’s start with the overall design of the phone. It features a gigantic 6.1-inch OLED display with a now familiar notch at the top. It’s not as prominent as the one in the iPhone X, but it’s clear that Apple has started the next trend in smartphone design.

The frame of the design is made out of polished aluminium. It’s shiny and looks like stainless steel — but it’s lighter than steel. It feels good in your hand and is a great indication of what an iPhone X Plus could be.

The glass back comes in multiple colors. My review device had the twilight back. It’s a nice gradient from purple to blue that makes the P20 Pro stand out from the crowd. It’s much more distinctive than unified (boring) colors.

You can also use the P20 Pro as a portable mirror to fix your makeup or your hair when you’re on the subway. But the back of the device is so shiny that it was covered in fingerprints most of the time. That’s increasingly the case when you have a smartphone with a glass back.

Below the display, you’ll find a good old fingerprint sensor. In my experience it works well and I like having it on the front of the device when my phone is resting on a table. Unfortunately, it makes the phone quite tall overall.

Why stop at two when you can have three cameras

Everybody laughed when smartphone manufacturers started putting two camera sensors at the back of their devices. And yet, many people upgrade their phone to get a better camera. Some people even choose their next phone based on the camera exclusively.

And Huawei went a bit crazy on this front as the company integrated three cameras at the back of the device. There’s a 40 megapixels lens combined with a 20 megapixels monochrome lens and an 8 megapixels telephoto lens. And the phone supports super slow-motion videos at 960 frames per second.

On paper, it sounds like a bit too much. But it’s true that those three cameras are the most important and remarkable feature of the P20 Pro.

I used both an iPhone X and the P20 Pro on my last vacation to Cambodia. And here’s a gallery of some sample photos:

Let’s be honest, I’m not a great photographer. So I wanted to use the P20 Pro in the most normal use case. The P20 Pro has so many options and manual triggers that it feels a bit overwhelming for a normal user. But Huawei keeps saying that the P20 Pro is smart and can automatically capture the best shot for you.

If you use the normal photo mode, the camera tries to detect the content of the photo and adjust the settings automatically. For instance, if you’re shooting a portrait of a person, the P20 Pro automatically switches to Portrait mode. If you’re shooting at night, the phone will take a night mode photo by capturing multiple under- and overexposed photos and recompositioning the scene.

In my experience, the camera performed extremely well. It was quite hard to get a blurry, unfocused shot. But it was also something completely different from the iPhone X camera.

Colors are oversaturated in most cases. It looks too bright, too shiny and quite far from reality. And that wasn’t just the case on the smartphone itself (by default, the color profile of the display is quite saturated too). It was particularly true with nature shots. And I prefer the more natural tone of iPhone X photos.

When it comes to night photos, the P20 Pro is the best performing smartphone I’ve used. It performed incredibly well and it’s quite impressive that you can shoot these photos with a smartphone.

You can feel the strong personality of the P20 Pro when you’re taking selfies too. The camera app has a built-in beautifying effect that makes you look better. It is enabled by default, and you can’t disable it completely. Even when you set it to 0, it’ll make your skin smoother.

Overall, I’m impressed with the P20 Pro camera. But that doesn’t mean I like it better than the iPhone X. In some ways, it feels too complicated to get the perfect shot. In other ways, it corrects photos with software features that make them look a bit fake.

Many people will love the P20 Pro camera. It just depends on what you’re looking for.

Fine prints

Let’s go through some miscellaneous items. The P20 Pro doesn’t feature wireless charging. While it’s not a dealbreaker, it’s hard to go back to plugging a cable if you were already using wireless charging.

The system-on-a-chip is a Kirin 970 made by Huawei. Instead of boring you with benchmarks, let’s just say that it was perfectly fine and I didn’t feel limited at any moment. The P20 Pro is on par with other flagship Android devices. But it was particularly well optimized for power consumption. Battery life on the P20 Pro was very good.

The P20 Pro doesn’t have a microSD slot, but comes with 128GB of internal storage by default. There’s a single USB Type-C port (no headphone jack) and you’ll find both USB Type-C earbuds and a USB Type-C to headphone jack adapter.

My device had two SIM slots, but be careful if you plan on buying the P20 Pro. Huawei said that some versions of the device will only have one SIM slot.

When it comes to software, the P20 Pro runs Android 8.1 with Huawei’s EMUI custom skin. I’m not a fan of EMUI as the company regularly pushes you to create a Huawei account. The company has also developed its own version of many of Google’s apps.

It can be confusing if you’re just looking for Google’s own apps. But this is understandable as all Google services are still blocked in China. Chinese users need Huawei’s alternatives.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the P20 Pro. It ticks all the right boxes to become a strong Samsung Galaxy S9 contender.

But more importantly, Huawei didn’t just build a safe phone. The P20 Pro has a strong personality and the company made some polarizing choices. You can see it across the board, from the back of the device to the beautifying effect when you’re taking selfies.

Huawei has been using the camera as the main element of its advertising campaign for the P20 Pro. The company is right to brag about its camera as it performs incredibly well. But software correction and saturated colors sometimes go too far, depending on your taste.

For years, most people looked at the new Samsung Galaxy S phone and the new iPhone to see what’s next in the smartphone world. But Huawei is now also pushing the needle forward with this phone.

Snapchat hosts first Creators Summit after years of neglect

Social media stars have always been treated like nobodies instead of VIPs on Snapchat. Despite pioneering the Stories and creative tools they love, the lack of support saw many drift to YouTube’s ad dollars and Instagram’s bigger audience. Now Snap CEO Evan Spiegel is finally stepping up to win back their favor and their content.

Last night, Spiegel joined 13 top Snapchat stars, ranging from the U.S. to as far as Lebanon, for dinner at the company’s first Creators Summit in LA. Flanked by a dozen Snap execs and product managers, Spiegel tried to impress upon the assembled artists, comedians and storytellers that the company is turning over a new leaf in how it will treat them. Today the creators sat with Snap VP of Content Nick Bell to give the company an unfiltered understanding of the tools they need and give input on Snapchat’s product roadmap.

“The goal of our first creator summit was to listen and learn from them about how we can continue to strengthen opportunities for them on Snapchat — and continue to empower our community to express themselves and have fun together,” Bell told TechCrunch. “We are grateful to each of them for coming to the table with candid feedback and are excited about the possibilities ahead.” Snapchat confirms to TechCrunch it plans to hold more of these Creator Summits.

Mike Metzler, one of the popular Snappers in attendance, told us, “It’s been refreshing. Snap seems very genuinely interested in listening to what we have to say, and committed to making this an important initiative.” But another questioned whether Snapchat was actually going to make changes or was just playing nice.

Creators cast aside

A week after Snapchat launched Stories in 2013, I asked “Who will be the first Snapchat Stories celebrity?” Apparently the young company hadn’t thought that through. It had concentrated entirely on the average American teen, to the detriment of power users and the international market.

Snapchat’s jankily engineered app crashed constantly for stars with too many followers. There were no advanced analytics about who was watching them or easy ways to prove their audience to brand sponsors. There was no support from Snapchat if they got hacked or locked out of their account. There was no ad revenue share. There was no promotion to help people discover their accounts.

Without a direct alternative, creators gritted their teeth and dealt with it. But when Instagram Stories came along, with its massive audience, Explore page and experienced outreach team for dealing with high-profile accounts, some jumped ship. Others focused their attention on Instagram, or YouTube, where they could at least get a cut of the ad money they generated. Users drifted too, leading many stars to see their view counts drop.

The situation came to a head on Snap’s November 2017 Q3 earnings call. With user growth slumping to a new low, Spiegel announced a change of course. “We have historically neglected the creator community on Snapchat that creates and distributes public Stories for the broader Snapchat audience. In 2018, we are going to build more distribution and monetization opportunities for these creators,” Spiegel admitted.

Snap began rolling out its verification badge, an emoji next to the user name, to social media stars instead of just traditional celebrities. With its recent redesign, it began promoting creators for the first time if they made something engaging enough to become a”Popular Story.” And in February it finally launched analytics for creators, which would help them secure sponsorship deals.

Still, Snap hadn’t done much soft diplomacy. While top creators frequent the offices of YouTube and Instagram, few had been to Snapchat HQ. They needed a face to connect the efforts to.

Spiegel and the stars

“[Spiegel] stopped by last night and was so happy to meet us, get to know us, take a selfie,” says CyreneQ, a prolific Snapper and master of its illustration tools. While he didn’t make any grand remarks, apologies, or proclamations, his presence signaled that the push to help creators was more than just talk. When asked how the Summit went, musician/comedian Shonduras told me, “we collaborated on a lot of ideas and it feels solid.”

Snapchat’s redesign moved creators into the Discover section

The biggest concern amongst the creators was growing their view counts. The recent redesign moved stars, brands and other popular people who don’t follow you back out of the friends Stories list and into the Discover section alongside professionally produced editorial content. One creator said that helped them find more fans, but another who asked not to be named said “It hasn’t been kind to my views.”

Bell and Snapchat listened, and informed the group that it’s going to develop a range of “tools and programs to help the creator community,” CyreneQ told me. Pressed for more details, she demurred, “I wish I could tell you but they’ll send ninjas after me.”

Monetization options should be high on Snapchat’s list. As long as creators are essentially producing content for free, they’ll be susceptible to the pull of other products. And if Snap can’t speed up its total user growth, it must find ways to get teens addicted to stars that boost the time they spend in its app.

Snap can’t afford to screw this up. With its user count actually shrinking in March, it needs their dynamic, personal, niche content to keep teens loyal to Snapchat. The whole point of Snapchat was to create a more personal form of social media. It’s tough for movie actors and rock stars to come off feeling vulnerable and approachable. But creators, who were just normal people a few years ago, could help Snapchat bridge the divide between raw intimacy and polished entertainment.

Facebook united

Facebook was a mess. The independence it dangled to close acquisition deals with Instagram and WhatsApp turned the company into a tangle of overlapping products. Every app had its own messaging and Stories options. Economies of scale were squandered. Top innovators led mature products already bursting at the seams with features while new opportunities went unseized.

Facebook was effectively drowning in its own success because the different arms couldn’t coordinate to paddle in the same direction.

But today Facebook announced its biggest reorganization ever, which could cut the redundancy, apply talent to fresh problems and unite the company under a common banner.

Putting the family first

Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, will fly that flag. He now oversees the “Facebook Family of Apps,” including Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp. Messenger’s VP of Product Stan Chudnovsky will take over as head of Messenger, replacing David Marcus, who’s moving to lead a new blockchain group at Facebook (more on that later).

Facebook’s head of News Feed Adam Mosseri is taking the Instagram VP of Product role, taking over for Kevin Weil, who’s going to Marcus’ project. Mosseri is replaced by Facebook VP of Product Management John Hegeman. Meanwhile, Facebook’s head of Internet.org Chris Daniels will take the lead role at WhatsApp, recently vacated by Jan Koum as he departed the corporation altogether.

Image via Recode

These changes could reduce the autonomy of Instagram and WhatsApp, at least in philosophy if not in formal hierarchy. That might make them less appealing places to work, after WhatsApp veterans like Nikesh Arora were passed over in favor of an installed Facebook exec. It could spook future acquisition candidates, who might see the reorganization as Facebook reneging on its promise of independence. And it could hinder the apps’ role as hedges against harm to Facebook’s core brand. Many users don’t realize they’re owned by Facebook, and therefore didn’t extend to them the backlash about recent privacy scandals.

But Facebook will gain the ability to execute a more coherent strategy. Mosseri, a long-time member of Mark Zuckerberg’s inner circle, will bring to Instagram his experience turning News Feed into one of the world’s most popular inventions as Instagram is hoping to ramp up monetization now that it’s achieved utter dominance over Snapchat in photo sharing. Few know the Facebook playbook better than Mosseri, who could help Instagram get out ahead of problems he’d been in the thick of, like fake news and declines in original sharing.

Daniels’ days connecting the developing world fits well at WhatsApp, whose users across the globe often deal with slow mobile networks. This also leaves room for new blood at Internet.org. It’s now connected 200 million people to some form of the internet, but its Free Basics app has been banned in several countries over net neutrality concerns and partners have pulled out over sustainability concerns. WhatsApp, too, is ready to monetize, having recently launched its WhatsApp for Business product, and Daniels’ background in biz dev and partnerships at Facebook around the IPO could serve him well.

Mark Zuckerberg discusses the Facebook family of apps at F8 2015

But more important than their siloed efforts is what a more unified family under Cox could accomplish. Over 2016 and 2017, all four apps launched isolated Stories products. While Instagram’s and WhatsApp’s took off, Facebook’s and Messenger’s felt absurdly redundant and underpopulated. It took until late 2017 for Facebook to realize it should synchronize Stories across Instagram, Facebook and Messenger so users could post once to their audiences everywhere.

The reorg could prevent Facebook from haphazardly tripping over itself in an attempt to seize on emerging trends. As visual communication becomes the new Facebook mandate, the company could similarly align its efforts in augmented reality, ephemeral and encrypted messaging and e-commence tools. Mosseri and Daniels can implement the Facebook strategy and shield their apps from the same old pitfalls. Instagram and WhatsApp have instituted themselves in their respective markets, and now have the leaders to make them well-oiled cogs in the Facebook machine.

Move fast and shake things up

Few hires have had the impact at Facebook of Marcus and Weil. The former president of PayPal, Marcus has brought Messenger from 200 million monthly users in 2014 to more than 1.3 billion now. He successfully managed the forced migration of users off Facebook’s chat feature to Messenger, laid the foundation for advertising and business tools and turned the app into a platform for games and useful utilities (beyond the initially half-baked bots).

Weil, formerly SVP of Product at Twitter, where changes came at molasses pace, turned Instagram into a rapid-fire launcher of new features. Most significantly, he implemented Zuckerberg and Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom’s plan to copy Snapchat’s Stories. Instagram was growing stale, showing just the occasional highlights of users’ lives. Instagram Stories solved that, and Weil grew it to more than 300 million daily users — much bigger than Snapchat’s whole 191 million user audience. Meanwhile, using Stories to spark conversation, Instagram Direct grew into one of the most popular messaging apps.

But today, Messenger and Instagram have begun to feel bloated. Marcus had to announce a plan to simplify the chat app at the start of 2018 after its version of Stories, called Messenger Day, steamrolled the rest of the product’s design. The camera, games and bots got as much space in the navigation bar as the core chat product. Last week Messenger revealed a redesign that refocuses on… messaging, giving the app a sensible roadmap. Instagram, now having effectively won the Stories war with Snapchat and having acclimated users to an algorithmic feed, left Weil without as many urgent changes to make.

If Facebook wasn’t careful, it could have lost these leaders to the CEO or COO role of a growing startup, or seen them leave to launch something of their own. Marcus had already taken a board seat at crypto giant Coinbase, while Weil took one at exercise community Strava.

Kevin Weil (Instagram) at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017

That’s why it was so wise to give Marcus the latitude to build a new team of fewer than a dozen, including Weil, focused on finding how Facebook could take advantage of the blockchain. It’s a massive, open new problem space in which to operate. One that needs visionaries in both product and business.

It’s unclear what they’ll build together, but there are plenty of opportunities.

They could explore payments facilitated by the blockchain’s lack of transaction fees. Messenger and Instagram both added native payment systems recently. Cutting out the credit card companies could be a lucrative shot for Facebook. And micropayments could open new ways to tip creators or compensate news outlets. Cloud storage based on blockchains could help Facebook cut its massive server bills. And the decentralized nature of the blockchain might unlock new paradigms for social networking with increased autonomy that might threaten Facebook if invented elsewhere.

Perhaps they’ll conclude Facebook doesn’t need the blockchain. That’s fine. The risk would be leaving the space unmined and ripe for someone else’s taking.

Facebook has lasted this long by identifying new threats of disruption, and thwarting them with its build, buy or copy strategy. Streams like FriendFeed and Twitter? Facebook built News Feed. Photos and chat? Facebook bought Instagram and WhatsApp. Ephemeral content? Facebook copied Snapchat.

The reorganization recognizes how Facebook had become a danger to itself — disruption through internal redundancy and wasted chances. It saw the discombobulated wings of Google lead it to massive failure in messaging, with a half-dozen chat apps all competing while confusing users. And it saw how internet giants like Microsoft and Apple ignored social because it was outside their wheelhouse, only to end up sharing the titan’s table with Facebook.

Zuckerberg loves to say the journey is 1 percent finished. Today Facebook proved it’s always looking for a new finish line.