Google announces host of updates and improvements

Google announces host of updates and improvements
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Updated 29 September 2022

Google announces host of updates and improvements

Google announces host of updates and improvements
  • Company said during annual Search On event that the new features will be rolled out across its Search, Maps and other services

DUBAI: Google on Wednesday announced a host of updates and improvements to its Search, Maps and Shopping services.

The enhancements, announced during the company’s annual Search On virtual event, are “just the start of how we’re transforming our products to help you go beyond the traditional search box,” said Prabhakar Raghavan, a senior vice president at Google.

Some of the biggest updates are to Google Search, including multisearch, which enables users to search using text and images simultaneously. First introduced in beta mode in the US, it is now available in English worldwide and is being rolled out in 70 other languages.

Google will also introduce, initially only in the US, “multisearch near me,” which allows users to take photos of items and search for suppliers near them.

Every month, people use Google to translate text contained in images more than a 1 billion times across more than 100 languages, said Cathy Edwards, Google’s vice-president and general manager for Search.

“With major advancements in machine learning, we’re now able to blend translated text into complex images so it looks and feels much more natural,” she added. This improved experience will launch later this year.

In addition, shortcuts will be placed under the search bar that make it easy for users to shop their screenshots and translate images of text taken with their camera, among other things. This initially will be available on the Google app for iOS.

Google said its research has found that 40 percent of people already have a dish in mind when they search for food, so to help people find exactly what they are looking for, users will soon be able to search for any dish and find local establishments that have it on the menu.

These and other features, such as continuous scrolling, are designed to improve the search experience for users by making it quicker and more intuitive, the company said.

Improvements to Google Maps include new features such as a “neighborhood vibe check,” which will highlight popular landmarks and hot spots in a given area. The information will be based on a combination of artificial intelligence and photos and reviews uploaded by Google users.

This year, Google introduced Immersive View, which provides multi-dimensional views of an area along with information about the weather, traffic and businesses. Building on this feature, the company is launching more 250 photorealistic aerial views of global landmarks such as the Tokyo Tower and the Acropolis of Athens.

Using predictive modeling, Immersive View automatically learns and uses the historical trends for a location to determine what it will be like in the future. This means that users can search for additional information about each landmark, such as weather, nearby restaurants and parking, on specific future dates.

Neighborhood vibe check will be rolled out globally in the coming months while Immersive View will be launched in Los Angeles, London, New York, San Francisco and Tokyo on iOS and Android devices.

Other improvements to Maps include the expansion of the Live View search feature, and of eco-friendly routing to third-party developers.

The growth of online shopping in the past two years has resulted in many digital and social platforms creating tools designed to make the buying experience more seamless. Google is no exception, after launching almost 10 new features at this year’s event.

Most of them will only be available in the US at first and are aimed at enabling shopping from within Google products. For instance, users can choose to “shop the look,” with Google offering suggestions on complementary pieces in an outfit within Search.

Other features include trending products, 3D images, buying guides, new filters, page insights, and a “discover” section in the Google app that features shoppable styles and looks.

The updates aim to make the shopping experience on Google more intuitive, fun and easier, according to Lilian Rincon, senior director of product, shopping.

“Regardless of where you end up buying, these tools can help you find what you want more quickly and maybe even discover the next thing you’ll love,” she added.


Taliban silence Voice of America broadcasts in Afghanistan

Taliban silence Voice of America broadcasts in Afghanistan
Updated 01 December 2022

Taliban silence Voice of America broadcasts in Afghanistan

Taliban silence Voice of America broadcasts in Afghanistan
  • Voice of America and Radio Free Europe are funded by the US government, though they claim editorial independence
  • Afghanistan has lost 40 percent of its media outlets and 60 percent of its journalists since the Taliban takeover

WASHINGTON: The Voice of America said Wednesday that Taliban authorities have banned FM radio broadcasts from VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Afghanistan, starting Thursday.
VOA said Taliban authorities cited “complaints they have received about programming content” without providing specifics.
VOA and RFE are funded by the US government, though they claim editorial independence.
The Taliban overran Afghanistan in August 2021 as American and NATO forces were in the final weeks of their pullout from the country after 20 years of war.
Despite initially promising a more moderate rule, they have restricted rights and freedoms and widely implemented their harsh interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia.
Abdul Qahar Balkhi, the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Thursday that Afghanistan has press laws and any network found “repeatedly contravening” these laws will have their privilege of working in the country taken away.
“VOA and Azadi Radio (Radio Liberty) failed to adhere to these laws, were found as repeat offenders, failed to show professionalism and were therefore shut down,” he said.
The advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said recently that Afghanistan has lost 40 percent of its media outlets and 60 percent of its journalists since the Taliban takeover.


YouTube reveals year’s top-trending regional creators and content

YouTube reveals year’s top-trending regional creators and content
Updated 01 December 2022

YouTube reveals year’s top-trending regional creators and content

YouTube reveals year’s top-trending regional creators and content
  • The video-sharing platform unveiled five lists covering general videos, music videos, short-form videos, top creators and breakout creators in the Middle East and North Africa

DUBAI: YouTube has released five lists that reveal the top-trending videos, music videos, shorts and creators in the Middle East and North Africa region over the past year.

The growth of popularity in short-form video platforms such as TikTok prompted YouTube to launch Shorts, its own version of the format, globally in 2020 and in MENA in 2021. The platform said more than 1.5 billion logged-in users watch Shorts each month, with an average of more than 30 billion daily views.

This year, for the first time, YouTube has released a top shorts list, which was topped by Omani football freestyler, Mohammed Alnoufali.

Meanwhile, YouTube’s top-trending videos list is based on a range of factors, including total views, engagement, shares and likes, that the platform said indicate how “trending” a video is.

A video by comedy creator Abdo Asalsily, which has racked up 20 million views, topped this list.

The top music video in the region this year was “Aleky Eyoun” by Ahmed Saad, followed by “El-Bakht” by Egyptian rapper Wegz, and “Hatha El-Helo” by Lebanese singer Myriam Fares.

The list revealed a growing interest in regional performers, with North African rap and hip-hop artists, including Mc Artisan, Didine Canon 16, and Marwa Loud, taking almost half of the spots.

Entertainment and gaming creator AboFlah was not only the top creator for a second year in a row but also appeared in Asalsily’s top-trending video of the year. Football specialist Mohamad Adnan took second spot, followed by cooking channel Afnanrecipes in third.

The top creators list includes producers active all formats — shorts, long-form and multiformat — and is based on the number of subscribers acquired during 2022 in the MENA region.

The final list unveiled by YouTube was its Breakout Creators list, which ranks channels that have at least tripled in size based on number of subscribers gained in the region this year compared with 2021.

With nearly 2 million subscribers, Mr. Beast in Arabic topped the list, followed by UAE-based Husam Kwaik in second place and Egypt-based Omar Migo in third.

“Every year, the YouTube End-of-Year Top Lists give us a glimpse into emerging trends and the diverse interests of people in the Middle East and North Africa,” said Tarek Amin, director of partnerships at YouTube MENA.

“Whether it’s the growing North African rap scene or creators helping people fall in love with learning and reading, one thing is for certain — no matter what your interest or curiosity is there is probably a community on YouTube for it.”

YouTube said it has has paid more than $50 billion to creators, artists and media companies in the region in the three years up to June 2022.


As crypto collapses in US, is Middle East going through digital renaissance?

As crypto collapses in US, is Middle East going through digital renaissance?
Updated 01 December 2022

As crypto collapses in US, is Middle East going through digital renaissance?

As crypto collapses in US, is Middle East going through digital renaissance?
  • NFT startups in region seem to think so

DUBAI: OasisX, the nascent curated multichain non-fungible token marketplace, which aims to drive adoption of NFTs in the Middle East and North Africa region is embracing Web3 in several ways integrating NFTs, blockchain, and cryptocurrencies within its platform.

Jimi Ibrahim, one of the co-founders of the company, who has described the new iteration of the internet as a digital renaissance, said: “Web3 has four pillars: Blockchain as a secure infrastructure, tokens like NFTs for proof of ownership and provenance, cryptocurrencies for store of value and transactions, and the metaverse, which is a combination of augmented reality and virtual reality.”

The adoption of Web3, however, has witnessed a slowdown as cryptocurrency and NFT scams have become rampant in markets such as the US. Despite the promise of a more secure internet, cryptocurrencies can be used and abused for fraudulent activities, as evidenced by the recent FTX scandal.

Founded by Sam Bankman-Fried in 2019, FTX is a cryptocurrency exchange, that rose to popularity thanks to celebrity endorsements and an aggressive marketing strategy.

In November, the crypto news site CoinDesk published the balance sheet of Alameda Research, a crypto investing firm also owned by Bankman-Fried, showing that Alameda held a large amount of a digital currency created by FTX called FTT.

“While there is nothing per se untoward or wrong about that, it shows Bankman-Fried’s trading giant Alameda rests on a foundation largely made up of a coin that a sister company invented, not an independent asset like a fiat currency or another crypto,” the article said.

However, if the value of the FTT were to drop, Alameda would essentially be at risk of insolvency.

The article set in motion a series of legal actions against Bankman-Fried, FTX, and the celebrities who promoted the crypto exchange, resulting in one of the biggest financial scandals.

The incident has slowed down the adoption of crypto, diminished faith in the industry, and cost a lot of people a lot of money. Although Ibrahim noted that it had “hurt the industry,” he pointed out that it had acted as a purge of sorts.

He said: “Foul play has to be shed light on, and such players have to be removed from the playing field so that the environment is much more safe and secure for natural growth.” He added that, ultimately, was the future where “decentralized finance is going to change the world for the better.”

The global NFT industry alone reached a market capitalization of $41 billion by the end of 2021, according to blockchain data company Chainalysis.

The space was also growing to include non-fungible assets, Ibrahim said, which would see it extending into the real world. For example, the real estate and NFT industries have been merging with several properties being sold as NFTs.

In February, US-based real estate company Propy sold an NFT-backed property, a 2,164-square-foot house in Florida, for $653,000 with the winning bidder receiving a NFT as proof of the home’s ownership.

“This is the future we’re looking to tap into, facilitate and expedite because it only makes sense to secure everything on the blockchain,” Ibrahim added.

OasisX aims to bring a new layer of security and accessibility to the world of NFTs in the MENA region for both artists and businesses.

Ibrahim along with co-founders Najib Khanafer and Ramzi Mneimneh started working on the platform more than one year ago and officially launched it at the NFT LB event in Lebanon in September.

The event featured the work of 23 artists, half of which were sold out during the event, as well as served as a platform for panel discussions, movie screenings, and AR and VR experiences.

The company’s marketplace features only vetted artists, unlike platforms such as OpenSea, which avoids any “bogus projects,” Ibrahim said.

Anyone can create and sell NFTs on OpenSea. Since the platform does not vet artists, many fraudulent NFTs end up on it. Earlier this year, OpenSea reported that more than 80 percent of the items on the platform were plagiarized works, fake collections, and spam.

“We want to keep the art community safe and secure with the right projects,” Ibrahim added.

Available in English and Arabic, the platform currently has 250 vetted artists and aims to grow into the biggest MENA-based marketplace. It also works with galleries through a referral program where the gallery receives a royalty over the first sale of any artist that gets onboarded and vetted on the platform.

It only charges 2 percent in transaction fees — among the lowest in the industry — because “artists should make the most of the sale of their hard work,” Ibrahim said. That was also why, he added, the company would never remove royalties.

Often, the technical skills needed to create NFTs can serve as a barrier to entry for both artists and brands. The company, therefore, created LaunchX, an NFT generator powered by artificial intelligence.

Recognizing that there are some still wary of NFTs and cryptocurrencies, the company has integrated options such as paying through credit cards, to make it more accessible.

The entire process is secured through a smart contract on the blockchain. Ibrahim said it was more secure than using traditional banking, especially in countries such as Lebanon, where the banking system was a shambles leaving many unable to use credit cards.

It was almost impossible to corrupt information on the blockchain making it more secure than traditional transaction methods used in Web2, he added.

Despite resistance and reluctance, Ibrahim forecasted that Web3, and cryptocurrencies, would become the norm in the next five to 10 years with people using it just as seamlessly as they use debit and credit cards today.
 


BeIN Sports racks up record number of viewers for World Cup broadcasts

BeIN Sports racks up record number of viewers for World Cup broadcasts
Updated 01 December 2022

BeIN Sports racks up record number of viewers for World Cup broadcasts

BeIN Sports racks up record number of viewers for World Cup broadcasts
  • More than 1bn viewers tuned in for opening ceremony and first round of matches

DUBAI: BeIN Sports has released initial viewing numbers for its World Cup coverage, which reveals a 113 percent increase when compared to the Qatar-based network’s coverage at Russia four years ago.

The official opening ceremony was watched by 111.7 million viewers across the Middle East and North Africa region, according to data from research company Ipsos.

More than 900 million fans then tuned in to see the first 16 group stage matches, with 99.2 million viewers watching the opening match between Qatar and Ecuador, an increase of 86 percent compared to the opener at Russia 2018.

Mohammad Al-Subaie, CEO of beIN MENA, said: “We are not surprised that the first World Cup in the Middle East is shattering regional viewership records, with more than 1 billion cumulative views of the opening ceremony and first 16 matches.”

Saudi Arabia drew a total of 99.3 million viewers for their unforgettable victory against Argentina.

In addition to live TV, sports fans in the region also turned to social media channels to catch up on the action.

BeIN Sports’ social media content published between Nov. 20 and 27 generated 1.7 billion impressions; some 235 million were generated throughout the previous World Cup.

Video was the most popular content format with such posts being viewed more than 330 million times.

Al-Subaie added: “Football fans across the Arab world are some of the most passionate, and we are delighted to be screening the tournament across the region as we continue to inspire, educate, and entertain as the tournament’s official broadcaster in MENA.”


Spotify Wrapped reveals the 2022 soundtrack to Saudi lives

Spotify Wrapped reveals the 2022 soundtrack to Saudi lives
Updated 01 December 2022

Spotify Wrapped reveals the 2022 soundtrack to Saudi lives

Spotify Wrapped reveals the 2022 soundtrack to Saudi lives
  • The annual campaign reveals the most-streamed songs, artists and podcasts in the Kingdom over the past 12 months
  • Canadian superstar The Weeknd topped the list of the most popular artists in Saudi Arabia, followed by Taylor Swift and K-Pop group BTS

DUBAI: Audio streaming service Spotify has released its annual Wrapped campaign, which includes a roundup of the most popular artists, songs, albums and podcasts streamed in each country over the past year, as well as a personalized experience for each user based on their own activity on the platform during that time.

“Wrapped is such an exciting time of the year where we celebrate the role music and podcasts play in soundtracking our lives,” said Mark Abou Jaoude, Spotify’s head of music.

“This year, once again, we saw how open Saudi listeners are to different genres of music and it was great to see local artists making huge splashes.”

Canadian superstar The Weeknd topped the list of the most-streamed artists in Saudi Arabia, followed by Taylor Swift and K-Pop group BTS. Another Canadian, Drake, was fourth, followed by veteran rapper Eminem. Billie Eilish, The Neighbourhood, Justin Bieber, Imagine Dragons and Lana Del Rey completed the top 10.

Local artists experienced a growth in listeners, Spotify said, with Abdullah Al-Farwan the most-streamed Saudi performer in the country, followed by Abdul Majeed Abdullah and Sheilat artist Badr Al-Ezzi.

Spotify reported that there has been a massive growth in the popularity of Sheilat, lyrically driven folkloric songs, in recent years. According to 2021 data from the company, 80 percent of Sheilat listeners on the platform stream the music while they are gaming. This year, the top 10 list of most-streamed Saudi artists included a higher number of Sheilat singers, including Ghareeb Al-Mukhles, Fahad bin Fasla, Abdullah Al-Mukhles, and Mohammed bin Grman, alongside popular household names such as Abdul Majeed Abdullah, Mohammed Abdu and Rashed Al-Majed.

Most-streamed Saudi artists in Saudi Arabia

Abdullah Al-Farwan

Abdul Majeed Abdullah

Badr Al-Ezzi

Ghareeb Al-Mukhles

Mohammed Abdu

Rashed Al-Majed

Khaled Abdul Rahman

Fahad Bin Fasla

Abdullah Al-Mukhles

Mohammed Bin Grman

In terms of the year’s most-popular songs, “Ya Ibn Khamash” by Mohammed Al-Najm is the most-streamed Khaleeji track in Saudi Arabia this year. Assala Nasri and Badr Al-Ezzi each have two songs in the top 10: “Henain” and “Al-Sourah” from the former, and “Kalemni” and “Zikrayat” from the latter.

Most-streamed Khaleeji songs in Saudi Arabia

“Ya Ibn Khamash” by Mohammed Al-Najm

“Kalemni” by Badr Al-Ezzi

“Henain” by Assala Nasri

“Al-Sourah” by Assala Nasri

“Ghazal Ma Yensady” by Abdul Majeed Abdallah

“Shoft El-Nejoum” by Lamiya Almalki

“Qalby Jobarny” by Yasser Abdul Wahab

“Ashofak Kil Youm” by Mohamed Abdu

“Adaaj Oyoun” by Majd Al-Raslani

“Zikrayat” by Badr Al-Ezzi

 

Most-streamed songs in Saudi Arabia

“Another Love” by Tom Odell

“As It Was” by Harry Styles

“Middle of the Night” by Elley Duhe

“Enemy” by Imagine Dragons featuring J.I.D.

“Heat Waves” by Glass Animals

“Sweater Weather” by The Neighbourhood

“After Dark” by Mr. Kitty

“Close Eyes” by DVRST

“Save Your Tears” by The Weeknd

“Industry Baby” by Lil Nas X featuring Jack Harlow

A number of educational, motivational and cultural podcasts also proved very popular with Spotify listeners in Saudi Arabia this year, including “Kanabet El-Sebt,” “Finjan” and “Podcast Tanafuss.”

Most popular podcasts in Saudi Arabia:

Kanabet El-Sebt

Finjan

Podcast Tanafuss

Abajoura

Sa7eb

E7tiyal

Al-Salfah

Jinayah

Sokrat

Areeka

Spotify users can access their personalized Wrapped experience on the platform’s mobile app now.