Technology

Eko’s ‘That Moment When’ is an interactive comedy series all about social awkwardness

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A new video series called That Moment When is pretty much my kryptonite. And I mean that as a compliment.

See, I’m the kind of person who has to watch shows like The Office with my hands over my eyes. Violence? Gore? Monsters? All fine. But introduce any embarrassment or social discomfort, and suddenly I’m cringing.

That Moment When has plenty of discomfort, and it doubles down by forcing the viewer to participate. The show was produced by interactive video startup Eko (formerly known as Interlude) in partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment and production company Olive Bridge Entertainment.

Founder and CEO Yoni Bloch noted that this is Eko’s first release with Sony, which invested in the company last year. The show was created using Eko’s Studio product, and it’s designed to show off the startup’s approach to storytelling.

One of the key elements, Bloch said, is the fact that there are “no wrong answers” and “losing is just as much fun as winning.” In fact, he’s seen some viewers go back and intentionally try to make bad choices, because it’s funnier that way.

What’s most impressive about the series is how the interactivity is fully baked into the story, rather than feeling like a gratuitous addition. (It probably helps that the episodes are about five minutes long, so the gimmick doesn’t wear out its welcome.)

Created and directed by Sandeep Parikh of The Guild and The Legend of Neil, That Moment When follows Milana Vayntrub as Jill, who desperately struggles to remember a forgotten friend’s name at a party (in episode one) and then has to deal with the embarrassment of getting dumped in public (in episode two). As each episode plays, the viewer has to help Jill out, selecting how she should answer particularly tough questions — and also, occasionally, playing other mini games.

That Moment When is being released on the Eko website, and it will also be distributed through other channels like Facebook.

“We don’t really care where you watch it,” Bloch said.

And while the show is free, it includes what Eko calls its “sparks” ad unit — video ads that are better-integrated into the story than your standard pre-roll or mid-roll. For example, the company says it could show viewers a positive ad after viewers have made the right decision to help Jill.

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Kinder, gentler debt collector TrueAccord raises $22 million

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Bringing debt collection into the age of the soft touch, email and text-based world of the 21st century has netted TrueAccord $22 million in a new round of funding.

I first wrote about the company three years ago (time flies) and since then the company has added a 70 new customers and is managing the debt of roughly 1.8 million individuals and businesses (to the tune of approximately $1.6 billion).

Then as now, the company promised a softer collecting style than the typical harassing phone calls of the debt collection agencies of yore.

The company communicates via email, text messaging and social media (which, to my mind, exchanges one kind of persistent hell for another).

“You can think of TrueAccord like a marketing and sales campaign, just for debt collection,” Ohad Samet wrote to me in an email. “You get our first communication based on your debt parameters (one of several possible emails), and then based on your behavior (emails opened, text messages you reply to, browsing pattern on our website, conversation with our call center) the system continues to personalize the experience in channel, frequency, tone, and payment arrangement until it finds something that works for you.”

Through TrueAccord a user can negotiate down their debt burden (if they’re in financial distress) or get a personalized payment plan. Users can also ask for more documents, report bankruptcy, browse on their mobile devices, and get updates on the status of their debt.

Using algorithms (because who doesn’t), the company also reduces the number of times it reaches out to a customer to an average of three per-week from several calls a week, according to the company.

The company’s growth reeled in Arbor Ventures Fund as the lead investor for the round, with additional money coming from Abhor, Nyca Investment Partnership, Assurant Growth Investing, Caffeinated Capital Fund, Felicis Venture, TenOneTen and Crystal Towers, according to a statement.

The company said it would use the new money for product development, building out its internal auditing and compliance capabilities and expanding into markets.

“TrueAccord is redefining the debt collections industry through a digital approach for debt recovery,” said Melissa Guzy, co-founder and managing partner at Arbor Ventures. “This unique approach is making a positive impact on an overlooked industry ripe for innovation and empowering many of the estimated 77 million people in debt to get on a path to better financial health.”  

Featured Image: Dooder/Shutterstock

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Take Linux and Run With It

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“How do you run an operating system?” may seem like a simple question, since most of us are accustomed to turning on our computers and seeing our system spin up. However, this common model is only one way of running an operating system. As one of Linux’s greatest strengths is versatility, Linux offers the most methods and environments for running it.

To unleash the full power of Linux, and maybe even find a use for it you hadn’t thought of, consider some less conventional ways of running it — specifically, ones that don’t even require installation on a computer’s hard drive.

We’ll Do It Live!

Live-booting is a surprisingly useful and popular way to get the full Linux experience on the fly. While hard drives are where OSes reside most of the time, they actually can be installed to most major storage media, including CDs, DVDs and USB flash drives.

When an OS is installed to some device other than a computer’s onboard hard drive and subsequently booted instead of that onboard drive, it’s called “live-booting” or running a “live session.”

At boot time, the user simply selects an external storage source for the hardware to look for boot information. If found, the computer follows the external device’s boot instructions, essentially ignoring the onboard drive until the next time the user boots normally. Optical media are increasingly rare these days, so by far the most typical form that an external OS-carrying device takes is a USB stick.

Most mainstream Linux distributions offer a way to run a live session as a way of trying them out. The live session doesn’t save any user activity, and the OS resets to the clean default state after every shutdown.

Live Linux sessions can be used for more than testing a distro, though. One application is for executing system repair for critically malfunctioning onboard (usually also Linux) systems. If an update or configuration made the onboard system unbootable, a full system backup is required, or the hard drive has sustained serious file corruption, the only recourse is to start up a live system and perform maintenance on the onboard drive.

In these and similar scenarios, the onboard drive cannot be manipulated or corrected while also keeping the system stored on it running, so a live system takes on those burdens instead, leaving all but the problematic files on the onboard drive at rest.

Live sessions also are perfectly suited for handling sensitive information. If you don’t want a computer to retain any trace of the operations executed or information handled on it, especially if you are using hardware you can’t vouch for — like a public library or hotel business center computer — a live session will provide you all the desktop computing functions to complete your task while retaining no trace of your session once you’re finished. This is great for doing online banking or password input that you don’t want a computer to remember.

Linux Virtually Anywhere

Another approach for implementing Linux for more on-demand purposes is to run a virtual machine on another host OS. A virtual machine, or VM, is essentially a small computer running inside another computer and contained in a single large file.

To run a VM, users simply install a hypervisor program (a kind of launcher for the VM), select a downloaded Linux OS image file (usually ending with a “.iso” file extension), and walk through the setup process.

Most of the settings can be left at their defaults, but the key ones to configure are the amount of RAM and hard drive storage to lease to the VM. Fortunately, since Linux has a light footprint, you don’t have to set these very high: 2 GB of RAM and 16 GB of storage should be plenty for the VM while still letting your host OS thrive.

So what does this offer that a live system doesn’t? First, whereas live systems are ephemeral, VMs can retain the data stored on them. This is great if you want to set up your Linux VM for a special use case, like software development or even security.

When used for development, a Linux VM gives you the solid foundation of Linux’s programming language suites and coding tools, and it lets you save your projects right in the VM to keep everything organized.

If security is your goal, Linux VMs allow you to impose an extra layer between a potential hazard and your system. If you do your browsing from the VM, a malicious program would have to compromise not only your virtual Linux system, but also the hypervisor — and then your host OS, a technical feat beyond all but the most skilled and determined adversaries.

Second, you can start up your VM on demand from your host system, without having to power it down and start it up again as you would have to with a live session. When you need it, you can quickly bring up the VM, and when you’re finished, you just shut it down and go back to what you were doing before.

Your host system continues running normally while the VM is on, so you can attend to tasks simultaneously in each system.

Look Ma, No Installation!

Just as there is no one form that Linux takes, there’s also no one way to run it. Hopefully, this brief primer on the kinds of systems you can run has given you some ideas to expand your use models.

The best part is that if you’re not sure how these can help, live booting and virtual machines don’t hurt to try!


Jonathan Terrasi has been an ECT News Network columnist since 2017. His main interests are computer security (particularly with the Linux desktop), encryption, and analysis of politics and current affairs. He is a full-time freelance writer and musician. His background includes providing technical commentaries and analyses in articles published by the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights.

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Votes in 18 nations ‘hacked’ in last year

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Facebook and WhatsApp appsImage copyrightGetty Images
Image caption China disrupted use of WhatsApp prior to official government conferences, the report says

Elections in 18 separate nations were influenced by online disinformation campaigns last year, suggests research.

Independent watchdog Freedom House looked at how online discourse was influenced by governments, bots and paid opinion formers.

In total, 30 governments were actively engaged in using social media to stifle dissent, said the report.

Educating users to spot fake news and making tech firms police their networks could combat the manipulation, it said.

Devastating impact

The annual report studied the state of internet freedom across 65 nations – covering about 87% of the world’s net-using population.

For the seventh year running, it said, net freedom had declined as governments stepped up efforts to control what citizens said, did and shared online.

The different tactics used to influence online speech included:

  • automated bots that echoed official messages
  • armies of paid commentators that swamped discussions with pro-government views
  • false news sites that spread misleading information
  • trolling that soaked up critics’ time with personal attacks

Used alongside more overt technical controls such as firewalls, content filters and blocks on technical tools such as virtual private networks, the manipulation of social media had become a key tool for repressive regimes, it said.

“Not only is this manipulation difficult to detect, it is more difficult to combat than other types of censorship, such as website blocking, because it’s dispersed and because of the sheer number of people and bots deployed to do it,” said Sanja Kelly, head of the Freedom on the Net research project.

Image copyrightReuters
Image caption Mobile services and apps were often disrupted by regimes keen to stifle political chatter, the report says

Ms Kelly said China and Russia had pioneered widespread net controls but the techniques had now gone “global”.

Many other nations, including Turkey, the Philippines, Syria and Ethiopia, now employed them extensively, she said.

“The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating,” added Ms Kelly.

Official efforts to control debate were most obvious during elections, said the Freedom House report – which were held in 18 of the countries researchers examined.

Usually the activity was contained within one nation, but increasingly governments were looking to social media to subvert debate beyond their own borders.

Russia, in particular, said the report, had made significant efforts to influence the US presidential election.

It said less than 25% of the world’s net users lived in nations where net access could be considered free, meaning:

  • no significant obstacles to getting online
  • few restrictions on what could be shared or viewed
  • surveillance was limited
  • no significant repercussions for those exercising free speech

The report said net freedom could be aided by:

  • large-scale programmes that showed people how to spot fake news
  • putting tight controls on political adverts
  • making social media giants do more to remove bots and tune algorithms to be more objective
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Bossa Nova raises $17.5 million for retail robots

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Why count inventory when the robots can do it?

Retailers are using machines from a startup called Bossa Nova Robotics to analyze what’s selling on the shelves. The robots drive autonomously through store aisles figuring out what has sold and then sends back data.

The company is now raising $17.5 million Series B led by Paxion to scale its business. Intel Capital, Cota Capital and others are participating, bringing its total funding to $41.7 million.

Robots have become a regular part of warehouses, but Bossa Nova’s are different because they hang out in stores.

 

The company has “been working on this solution to automate process on the shop floor,” Martin Hitch, Chief Business Officer, told TechCrunch.  It’s “all about improving the customer shopping experience.”

The team recently announced a partnership with Walmart, which has plans to use the robots at 50 of its stores. The machines will not only evaluate which items are in stock, but also help locate misplaced items.

And there’s no concern about shopping carts get in the way. The robots can sense obstacles and move around them.

Michael Marks, partner at Paxion, said he invested because Bossa Nova’s robots and data provide valuable, real-time insights that help retailers fully understand what’s happening on store shelves and how to improve the in-store customer experience.” He believes  “this is a critical problem to solve as retailers look to create a seamless omni-channel retail experience, which relies on accurate inventory information.”

And it likely saves the stores money because they don’t have to pay workers to spend time scanning the shelves. This would seemingly lead to job cuts.

But Bossa Nova itself is hiring. The startup plans to use the funding to build out its team, with a focus on autonomy software and artificial intelligence.

The San Francisco based company has been around since 2005.

 

 

 

 

Featured Image: Bossa Nova

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In major policy change YouTube is now taking down more videos of known extremists

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Google has confirmed a major policy shift in how it approaches extremist content on YouTube. A spokeswoman told us it has broadened its policy for taking down extremist content: Not just removing videos that directly preach hate or seek to incite violence but also removing other videos of named terrorists, unless the content is journalistic or educational in nature — such as news reports and documentaries.

The change was reported earlier by Reuters, following a report by the New York Times on Monday saying YouTube had drastically reduced content showing sermons by jihadist cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki — eliminating videos where the radical cleric is not directly preaching hate but talking on various, ostensibly non-violent topics.

al-Awlaki was killed in a US drone strike six years ago but has said to have remained the leading English-language jihadist recruiter because of there being such an extensive and easily accessible digital legacy of his sermons.

In a phone call with TechCrunch a YouTube spokeswoman confirmed that around 50,000 videos of al-Awlaki’s lectures have been removed at this point.

There is still al-Awlaki content on YouTube — and the spokeswoman stressed there will never be zero videos returned for a search for his name. But said the aim is to remove content created by known extremists and disincentivize others from reuploading the same videos.

Enacting the policy will be an ongoing process, she added.

She said the policy change has come about as a result of YouTube working much more closely with a network of NGO experts working in this space and also participating in its community content policing trusted flaggers program — who have advised it that even sermons that do not ostensibly preach hate can be part of a wider narrative used by jihadi extremists to radicalize and recruit.

This year YouTube and other user generated content platforms have also come under increasing political pressure to take a tougher stance on extremist content. While YouTube has also faced an advertiser backlash when ads were found being displayed alongside extremist content.

In June the company announced a series of measures aimed at expanding its efforts to combat jihadi propaganda — including expanding its use of AI tech to automatically identify terrorist content; adding 50 “expert NGOs” to its trusted flagger program; and growing counter-radicalization efforts — such as returning content which deconstructs and debunks jihadist views when a user searches for certain extremist trigger words.

However, at that time, YouTube rowed back from taking down non-violent extremist content. Instead it said it would display interstitial warnings on videos that contain “inflammatory religious or supremacist content”, and also remove the ability of uploaders to monetize this type of content.

“We think this strikes the right balance between free expression and access to information without promoting extremely offensive viewpoints,” said Google SVP and general counsel, Kent Walker, at the time.

Evidently it’s now decided it was not, in fact, striking the right balance by continuing to host and provide access to sermons made by extremists. And has now redrawn its policy line to shrink access to anything made by known terrorists.

According to YouTube’s spokeswoman, it’s working off of government lists of named terrorists and foreign terrorist organizations to identify individuals for whom the wider takedown policy will apply.

She confirmed that all content currently removed under the new wider policy pertains to al-Awlaki. But the idea is for this to expand to takedowns of other non-violent videos from other listed extremists.

It’s not clear whether these lists are public at this point. The spokeswoman indicated it’s YouTube’s expectation they will be public, and said the company will communicate with government departments on that transparency point.

She said YouTube is relying on its existing moderating teams to enact the expanded policy, using a mix of machine learning technology to help identify content and human review to understand the context.

She added that YouTube has been thinking about adapting its policies for extremist content for more than a year — despite avoiding taking this step in June.

She also sought to play down the policy shift as being a response to pressure from governments to crack down on online extremism — saying rather it’s come about as a result of YouTube engaging with and listening to experts.

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Your Google Home speaker is now also an intercom

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One of the niftiest features of Google Home is now available for owners of the smart speaker after support for ‘Broadcast’ rolled out.

The new addition allows you to push messages or reminders across a network of Home devices to mimic an in-home intercom system.

So rather than calling up to kids that dinner is about to be served, or getting them to wake up for school, Google Home can pass the message on. To activate it, simply say “Ok Google, broadcast…” and then add the desired message. (For a dinner time reminder, the device will a ring a bell on connected Homes.)

It’s cute in theory but, if you’re kids are anything like mine (and me when I was younger, for that matter), the broadcast will likely only serve as a warning that an adult is about coming up to nag unless you get out of bed, or come down for dinner right now. Still, that’s something to advance a first-world problem.

First announced at Google’s October 4 Pixel event, Broadcast is rolling out this week in English to Google Home speakers and phones in the U.S., Australia, Canada and the U.K.. Other expansions will come later, Google said.

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Star Wars game in U-turn after player anger

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Star Wars: Battlefront 2 press imageImage copyrightEA

Games publisher EA has changed a rule in its Star Wars Battlefront II video game after a huge backlash.

During the game, players have to obtain credits – either by buying them or through long hours of game play – to unlock popular characters including Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

Many players said it was unfair as the gaming required worked out at around 40 hours per character, unless they paid.

EA says the number of credits required will now be reduced by 75%.

“Unlocking a hero is a great accomplishment in the game, something we want players to have fun earning,” said executive producer John Wasilczyk from the developer Dice, in a statement.

“We used data from the beta [testing period] to help set those levels, but it’s clear that more changes were needed.”

The change will be effective from today, he added.

The credit system has faced huge criticism from the game’s fans.

The game without any of the extras is available for pre-order at £69.99 in the UK, which many felt meant there should not be additional payments for the most popular Star Wars characters.

Skip Twitter post by @SidAlpha

Good news! You can unlock everything in Star Wars battlefront EA 2 if you play it for a mere 8 hours a day. It will only take you a little over 1 year and 7 months to accomplish!

— SidAlpha (@SidAlpha) November 13, 2017

End of Twitter post by @SidAlpha

A post by EA on community news site Reddit, explaining the reasons for the original rule, has become the most “down-voted” in the site’s history.

The post explained that the rule was intended to “provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes”.

The post currently has a score of -639,000 points – which is a total of the number of “upvotes” (those who liked it) minus the number of “downvotes” (those who didn’t).

According to Reddit’s own statistics the previous most unpopular post had a score of -24,333 and that was a message which asked people to downvote it.

Skip Twitter post by @fringy123

If you dislike microtrasnactions in retail games, you probably shouldn’t buy Star Wars Battlefront 2. Downvoting a post on Reddit may result in minor alterations, but refusing to buy the game is the best way to prevent a similar system from being implemented in future games.

— Fringy (@fringy123) November 14, 2017

End of Twitter post by @fringy123

One of the game’s developers, tweeting from a locked account, said he had received seven death threats and more than 1,600 “individual personal attacks”.

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Demystify hardware startups at Disrupt Berlin 2017

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Hardware is hard, they say, and that’s why hardware will be a point of discussion at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin 2017. We’re pleased to bring to the stage several companies that built, launched and live in the world of hardware. It’s our hope that through these panels and fireside chats, founders, devs and investors walk away from the conference a bit more comfortable venturing into the world of hardware.

Henri Seydoux founded Parrot in 1994 and managed to keep the company relevant by constantly refocusing the company on the next big trend. First, it was Bluetooth connectivity gadgets, then designer headphones and finally consumer drones in 2010 with the AR.Drone. Now the company is in the middle of another shift as it focuses more than ever on commercial drone use cases.

Earlier this year Parrot started selling integrated software and hardware solutions for special drone use cases. Just two weeks ago, Parrot released drones for firefighters and farmers. We’re excited to have Seydoux sit on a panel about the different uses drones can have in the commercial space.

Tom Carter from UK-based Ultrahaptics is also taking the stage for a special presentation of his company’s technology that lets users feel objects that are not there. With Ultrahapitics tech, ultrasound emitters simulate objects and feelings. Reach out and feel three-dimensional shapes that aren’t there. Feel water run over hand though your hand remains dry.

And with Ultrahaptics tech, users can manipulate these objects too. Reach into the air and turn the volume dial to 11. Carter is coming to Disrupt to show off this technology and explain its uses and applications in VR, AR and future interfaces.

But there’s more hardware at Disrupt Berlin.

Chiaro CEO Tania Boler started the company out of a belief that advances in sensor technology and connected devices can help break down stigma and change the lives of women everywhere. Chiaro’s first product, the Elvie Kegel exercise tracker, helps women strengthen their pelvic floors post-pregnancy to improve core stability, bladder control and their sex lives. The company closed a $6 million Series A round in March of 2017, so investors are definitely buying into Chiaro’s vision to build a global female health tech brand.

Disrupt Berlin has robots, too.

The ABB’s CEO Ulrich Spiesshofer will be joining us this December at Disrupt Berlin to discuss running one of the world’s largest robotics corporations. The executive has headed up ABB since 2013, having worked in a number of different technology fields, including telecommunications and automotive.

His position at ABB gives Spiesshofer a front row seat to some of the most compelling issues facing technology today. ABB has operating in manufacturing for more than 35 years and has installed more than 300,000 industrial robotics globally, positioning that puts the company at the forefront of a global push toward automation.

The agenda for Disrupt Berlin is fantastic and we hope you can join us. And there’s more to Disrupt than just a stage of speakers.

The show is jam-packed, and just like every Disrupt, the focus is on startups and the bleeding edge of technology. Fifteen startups are launching in Startup Battlefield and hundreds of young companies are exhibiting in Startup Alley. And though spots are limited, every Disrupt attendee can participate CrunchMatch, a free program that connects founders and investors based on their specific criteria, goals and interests.

General admission tickets and exhibit packages are still available. Get yours here.

Featured Image: Moment/Getty Images

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Report: Apple is back to being the world’s top wearable maker

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Apple is once again the biggest selling producer of wearables after its third-generation Apple Watch, released in September, helped it pip China’s Xiaomi to the post.

The new device, Apple’s first that connects to the internet without being tethered to a smartphone, took the U.S. mobile giant to 3.9 million shipments in the recent Q3 2017, according to new data from Canalys. The firm estimates that the gen-three version accounted for just 800,000 shipments, due to supply issues, which bodes well for Apple coming into the lucrative holiday season.

That figure was a big jump on 2.8 million shipments one year previous. It also gave Apple 23 percent of the market, putting it fractionally ahead of the 21 percent for Xiaomi, the Chinese firm that was briefly top of the industry for the first time in the previous quarter.

Apple’s wearable division has enjoyed something of a renaissance this year, grabbing the top spot in Q1 for overall wearables the first time since Q3 2015. CEO Tim Cook said in Apple’s most recent earnings report that Watch sales were up by 50 percent for the third consecutive quarter thanks to a focus on health services.

As for the others: Fitbit took third in Q3 2017 for 20 percent, while phone makers Huawei (six percent) and Samsung (five percent) were some way behind in rounding out the top five. In proof of considerable fragmentation within the industry, ‘other brands’ accounted for a dominant 25 percent, according to Canalys’ figures.

Q3 is traditionally the year’s weakest period for wearable sales — since many consumer hold off on large ticket items until the Christmas period — but Canalys said the top vendors were all up on the previous quarter. Overall, however, the industry was down three percents — primarily due to lackluster interest in basic fitness bands.

The research firm took that as a positive sign of the potential for smartwatches now that Apple, the most visible player, is offering LTE versions.

One caveat to that, however, is that the Apple Watch 3 does not ship with LTE support in China — a key market for the U.S. firm. That’s likely to temper some of the positivity that it has seen in the Middle Kingdom, where the new iPhone 8 and iPhone X have returned its business to growth after a challenging 18-month period.

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