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Weekly Bytes | Ask Alexa for COVID-19 vaccine info, Facebook’s tool for transferring posts, and more

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Here’s our curated list of important tech news from this week in byte size.

(Subscribe to our Today’s Cache newsletter for a quick snapshot of top 5 tech stories. Click here to subscribe for free.)

Ask Alexa for COVID-19 vaccine information

Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, can help people by answering questions about vaccine availability and eligibility requirements for more than 85 countries, the company said in a blog post, and added that it can also help them find and connect with nearby vaccination sites. People can just say, “Alexa, where can I get tested for COVID-19?” to find their nearest COVID-19 testing locations, or just ask, “Alexa, where can I get a COVID vaccine?” to locate the nearby vaccination sites. They can also say, “Alexa, call the first one,” to connect to a particular site directly. In another update, Amazon launched Fire TV Cube that offers hands-free Alexa voice control in India for ₹12,999.

Facebook users can now transfer their posts, notes

Facebook has expanded data portability options enabling users to transfer their Facebook posts and notes to Google Docs, Blogger and WordPress.com, the company noted in a release. Facebook’s Data Portability Tool now renamed as “Transfer Your Information,” already allows people to transfer their photos and videos to Dropbox, Google Photos and Koofr. Users can access the tool in Facebook settings under ‘Your Facebook Information’, and follow the on-screen prompts to transfer their data. Users will be asked to re-enter their password before the transfer starts and encrypt their data as it moves between services, the firm noted. Facebook said it plans to continue expanding the data types and partners in the future. This week, Facebook also said it has made changes to its advertising tools, a week ahead of Apple’s iOS 14.5 software update.

Xbox cloud gaming on iOS, PC

Microsoft said on Monday it has started testing Xbox cloud gaming limited beta for Windows 10 PCs and Apple phones and tablets via web browsers. The company has begun sending out invites to select Xbox Game Pass Ultimate members, and will send additional invites on a continuous basis to players in all 22 supported countries, it added. “Our plan is to iterate quickly and open up to all Xbox Game Pass Ultimate members in the coming months,” Catherine Gluckstein, VP, Project xCloud at Microsoft, said in a blog post. Invitees will be able to play over 100 Xbox Game Pass titles on xbox.com/play using a compatible Bluetooth or USB-connected controller via Edge, Chrome, or Safari browser. In another gaming update, with lockdowns brewing, here are all the latest games to keep you indoors, safe and sane — as well as games you can look forward to in the next few months.

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New Zoom Meetings, Chat features

Zoom has introduced some new features on its platform to help people collaborate, and manage their communications better. People can use the Vanishing Pen feature to highlight text or objects on the shared screen without having to undo or erase highlight annotations in Zoom Meetings and Video Webinars, according to a company blog post. Additionally, the Whiteboard Auto-shapes feature allows users to create straight lines and perfect shapes when annotating on the Zoom mobile app. The firm has also added more emoji reactions to Meetings. Further, the platform now provides an option to account owners and admins to add a user’s manager to appear on an employee’s Zoom profile, the firm noted. Finally, using InformaCast, Zoom Phone users can trigger and receive mass notifications. Recently, Microsoft had introduced several new enhancements to Teams to improve the meeting, chat and collaboration experience of its users.

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Convert old Galaxy smartphones into smart home devices

Samsung has announced Galaxy Upcycling at Home, an initiative that gives new life to older Galaxy smartphones by converting them into a variety of Internet of Things (IoT) devices through a simple software update. The programme enables users to easily turn their old Galaxy devices, into smart home devices like a childcare monitor, a pet care solution and other tools that meet individual lifestyle needs. Users can transform their old Galaxy devices, including all S, Note, and Z series released from 2018 running Android 9 and above, to provide enhanced sound and light-control features, by repurposing built-in sensors through SmartThings Labs, a feature within the SmartThings app. Samsung has implemented the beta service for Galaxy Upcycling at Home in the US, the UK and Korea, it said in a statement. In another update, Samsung is recycling its old Galaxy smartphones into healthcare equipment for underserved people in India, Morocco, Vietnam and Papua New Guinea.

Fitbit announces ‘Luxe’ fitness tracker

Fitbit has announced a fashion-forward fitness and wellness tracker, dubbed ‘Luxe’. The device has a slim form factor and offers a wide range of health and wellness features, including automatic activity and sleep tracking, as well as wellbeing insights in the Fitbit app with the Health Metrics dashboard which tracks breathing rate, heart rate variability, resting heart rate, and skin temperature variation. The sleek tracker with a colour touchscreen can help people stay connected with customisable call, text and smartphone notifications across a broad range of Android and iOS devices. Luxe provides up to five days of battery life and can be paired with a wide range of stylish accessories. Luxe is available for pre-order for $149.95 (about ₹11,200), with worldwide availability later this year, the Google-owned firm said. This week, we delved into the intricacies of Apple’s AirTag; from design to the ultra wideband technology to the inevitable privacy concerns.

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NASA picks SpaceX to land humans back on Moon

NASA has selected SpaceX to continue the development of the first commercial human lander that will safely carry the next two American astronauts to the lunar surface as part of the Artemis programme. The space agency plans to launch four astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft for a multi-day journey to lunar orbit. There, two crew members will transfer to the SpaceX human landing system (HLS) to travel to the surface of the Moon. After approximately a week-long lunar exploration the astronauts will use the HLS to come back to orbit where they will return to Orion before heading back to Earth. SpaceX’s HLS Starship leans on the company’s tested Raptor engines and flight heritage of the Falcon and Dragon vehicles. Starship includes a spacious cabin and two airlocks for astronaut moonwalks. In another update, SpaceX launched four astronauts into orbit on Friday using a recycled rocket and capsule, the third crew flight in less than a year for Elon Musk’s rapidly expanding company.

AWS, DISH team up to build cloud-based 5G O-RAN

Amazon Web Services (AWS) and DISH Network Corporation have partnered to reinvent 5G connectivity and innovation. DISH will leverage AWS infrastructure and services to build a cloud-based, 5G Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN) in the U.S. that delivers consistent, cost-effective performance from core to the edge, according to an Amazon release. Both companies will also work to transform how organisations and customers, including AWS and Amazon, order and consume 5G services or create their own private 5G networks. AWS will also power DISH’s fully automated Operation and Business Support Systems that will enable the company to provision and operate its customers’ 5G workloads and monetise its network. “Together, we’re opening the door to new technologies that will transform factories, workplaces, entertainment, and transportation in ways people have only dreamed,” AWS CEO Andy Jassy, said in a statement. This week, Amazon said it has secured an agreement with space launch firm, United Launch Alliance, to support the deployment of its Project Kuiper satellites.

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You can read more at thehindu.com/technology

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Facebook-Meta Earns the ‘Worst Company of 2021’ Title in This Survey

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Facebook has had its share of controversies this year. The company was under more scrutiny after whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked a series of internal documents.

Facebook parent Meta has been named the Worst Company of the Year (2021) by Yahoo Finance respondents. According to the publication, an “open-ended” survey was published on Yahoo Finance on December 4 and 5, where 1,541 respondents participated. Facebook received 8 percent of the write-in vote, but respondents were seemingly mad about the Robinhood trading app as well. Electric truck startup Nikola, which was named last year’s worst company by the same publication also faced respondents ire.

Yahoo Finance notes, “Facebook has had its share of controversies this year.” Starting in January, Meta-owned WhatsApp got caught up in a huge controversy after the messaging app announced a new privacy policy (Terms of Service). WhatsApp said it would collect user information and share it with third-party apps for a better user experience. However, the app gave users no choice but later made modifications to the policy under pressure. Similarly, the company was under more scrutiny after whistleblower and former Facebook employee Frances Haugen leaked a series of internal documents showing the company’s problematic practices. It was revealed that Meta-owned Instagram had a negative impact on teenage girls, but the company did almost nothing to rectify the problem.

Yahoo Finance even highlights, “At the same time, some critics, including conservatives, say Facebook over-policed the platform’s speech and stifled their voices.” Critics also blame Facebook and other social media platforms for not curbing hate speech that led to Capitol Building riots.

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However, around 30 percent of Yahoo Finance readers said that Facebook or Meta could redeem itself. One respondent suggested that the company could issue a formal apology for negligence and donate a sizable amount of its profits to a foundation to help reverse its harm.

On the other hand, respondents chose Microsoft as the Company of the Year (2021). The Satya Nadella-led company touched the trillion-mark this year and introduced notable upgrades. The most notable is the Windows 11 OS update that succeeds Windows 10.

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Facebook pays 1.7 Cr fine to Russia after failing to delete content Moscow deems illegal

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In the latest legal tussle with Russia over controversial social media regulation laws, Facebook paid 17 million roubles (Rs 1.7 Crore) for failing to remove content deemed illegal by Moscow. With a threat of potential larger fines looming, Facebook parent company Meta, owned by Mark Zuckerberg, is scheduled to face court next week over repeated violations of Russian legislation on content, Interfax News Agency reported. As per the latest updates, the social media giant could be fined a percentage of its annual revenue.

In October, Moscow sent state bailiffs to enforce the collection of 17 million roubles. Meanwhile, as per Interfax report citing a federal bailiffs’ database, on Sunday, there were more enforcement proceedings against the company. Apart from the popular social media app, Telegram has also paid 15 million roubles in fines for failing to comply with the Russian social media legislations that came into force in 2016.

Facebook pays $53k to Russia for refusing controversial social media laws

It is pertinent to mention that Facebook has locked horns with Moscow earlier in November, resulting in it paying 4 million roubles ($53,000) over its refusal to adhere to Russian data localisation laws, the Moscow Times reported. The Moscow court on November 25 had said that Facebook paid the fine levied in February, following which all proceedings against the US-based social media giant. The payment comes against the litigation filed against the company in 2018, alongside Twitter. The tech companies were also forced to pay an additional 3000 rubles ($40) for failing to comply with user data sharing rules as per the law. The Russian authorities have also previously blocked LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft, for failing to abide by the laws.

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Russian social media laws

As per Moscow Times, under the Russian social media regulation laws, all foreign technology companies are required to store data related to Russian customers and users on servers located in Russia. Additionally, the Russian tech companies will also have to share encryption data with the federal authorities as well as record user calls, messages and civil society group conversation records. The apparatus is said to be a severe breach of privacy rights and unfettered back-door access to personal data that could be used to harass Kremlin critics.

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Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses

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Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses

Meta has announced the arrival of a new Split Payments feature in Facebook Messenger. This feature, as the name suggests, will let you calculate and split expenses with others right from Facebook Messenger. This feature essentially looks to bring an easier method to share the cost of bills and expenses — for example, splitting a dinner bill with friends. Using this new Split Payment feature, Facebook Messenger users will be able to split bills evenly or modify the contribution for each individual, including their own.

The company took to its blog post to announce the new Split Payment feature in Facebook Messenger. 9to5Mac reports that this new bill splitting feature is still in beta and will be exclusive to US users at first. The rollout will begin early next week. As mentioned, it will help users share the cost of bills, expenses, and payments. This feature is especially useful for those who share an apartment and need to split the monthly rent and other expenses with their mates. It could also come handy at a group dinner with many people.

With Split Payments, users can add the number of people the expense needs to be divided with and, by default, the amount entered will be divided in equal parts. A user can also modify each person’s contribution including their own. To use Split Payments, click the Get Started button in a group chat or the Payments Hub in Messenger. Users can modify the contribution in the Split Payments option and send a notification to all the users who need to make payments. After entering a personalised message and confirming your Facebook Pay details, the request will be sent and viewable in the group chat thread.

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Once someone has made the payment, you can mark their transaction as ‘completed’. The Split Payment feature will automatically take into account your share as well and calculate the amount owed accordingly.


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Tasneem Akolawala is a Senior Reporter for Gadgets 360. Her reporting expertise encompasses smartphones, wearables, apps, social media, and the overall tech industry. She reports out of Mumbai, and also writes about the ups and downs in the Indian telecom sector. Tasneem can be reached on Twitter at @MuteRiot, and leads, tips, and releases can be sent to tasneema@ndtv.com.

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