watchOS 8 beta hands-on: Subtle but useful changes

With the iOS 15 and watchOS 8 public betas now available for testing, it’s time for us to get an early look at some of the features coming to Apple’s biggest platforms. While the next watchOS might not represent as significant a change as iOS 15, it does bring new health and fitness tools, along with tighter iPhone integration.If you’re thinking of checking out the public beta for yourself, make sure you’ve considered the risk of running preview software. Those who simply can’t wait for a stable public version of the upcoming platform can sign up for Apple’s beta program and install the builds now, provided you have an Apple Watch Series 3 or newer, along with an iPhone running the iOS 15 beta.Mindfulness, health and fitnessApple’s new health-centric features could interest those looking for a more wholistic approach to wellbeing. The company has renamed its Breathe app to Mindfulness, adding “Reflect” to the existing breathing exercises. You can set each Reflect session’s duration from one to five minutes. A prompt appears before each session to help you focus your thoughts, along with a button to begin. So far, I’ve seen prompts similar to other meditation guides that tell you to be aware of your thoughts and let them pass without judgement. Some other examples include “Think of someone you care about. Imagine you can feel your connection with them” and “Consider the values that matter to you in something you’re focused on.”Then, a colorful swirling animation takes up the screen. I usually just lean back and close my eyes at this point, but if you continue to stare at your watch, the animation is a nice distraction that’s almost hypnotizing. When your time is up, the watch vibrates and shows a closing thought tied to the opening prompt, like “Bring this sense of open awareness with you.” You’ll also see your heart rate and your total Mindful minutes for the day (which includes time spent doing Breathe exercises). After two Mindfulness sessions, my Apple Watch SE said my pulse plummeted from 64 to 47bpm, which is great, I guess.Cherlynn Low / EngadgetIt does at times feel like a glorified timer, meets fortune cookie, meets Magic 8 Ball, all set to Windows Media Player visualizations. But combined with reminders throughout the day that you can customize, Mindfulness can be a valuable tool for checking in with yourself and your state of mind.A few other health-centric additions to watchOS include two new Workout categories: Tai Chi and Pilates. I’ve yet to do a session of either exercise so I can’t say how accurately Apple tracks these yet. There are also a couple more features I need more time to get a better sense for, like respiratory rate tracking overnight and walking steadiness. To be clear, the latter isn’t specifically a watchOS feature — it uses your iPhone stashed somewhere on your body, but I thought to include it as part of Apple’s health updates here. Walking steadiness requires at least two weeks of testing before delivering an assessment, so it’ll take some time before I get results. Messaging, new apps and integration with iPhoneA big part of the watchOS 8 update is improved communications tools and integration with your iPhone. Notably, the Messages app now allows you to compose via Scribble, Dictate and Emojis all within the same screen. I scrawled out part of a message, dictated longer parts of it, and added emoji from one page easily. Editing is also less of a hassle than before, thanks in large part to the ability to use the Digital Crown to control the cursor. Hallelujah! Scrolling back to insert a space or fix a stray “v” got so much easier. Additionally, there’s a new option now to send GIFs in Messages, from the same place you’d send a Digital Touch (just hit the search glass button and type in your keyword). Communicating with people is also easier now thanks to the new Contacts app, which lets you find specific friends more quickly. If you’ve set one of iOS 15’s new Focus modes on your iPhone, the same settings will apply to your watch. People and apps that have been blocked will remain muted on your wrist, and a symbol at the top of the screen indicates which Focus mode is active.Contacts isn’t the only new app for watchOS 8. Apple is also redesigning Home to make interacting with your connected appliances easier, and bringing Find Items, Find Devices, and Tips to your wrist. The new OS will also add support for ultra wideband to enable more precise car key functions like spatial awareness. Plus, the update lets you use your Watch as a key for hotels and offices in addition to your home and car, though naturally it only works with compatible buildings and locks. I haven’t had a chance to test those features yet.AppleLike its counterpart on iOS, the watchOS Wallet app will also support adding your driver’s License, which you can use in participating states and agencies in the US when that’s more broadly rolled out. In addition to privacy and security concerns around Apple storing your ID on your device, there are also questions here about how likely law enforcers or various authorities are to welcome these digital cards. But that’s not something I was able to test with this preview build, given this feature is not accepted in most places at the moment.Portrait watch faces, multiple timers and Fitness+In addition, I tried out a few other new features on the watchOS 8 beta: portrait watch faces and multiple timers. Similar to how you could create a Photos face for Apple Watch before, hit Share on a picture on your iPhone, then tap Create Watch Face. If you want the faux depth-of-field effect on your wrist, you’ll need to pick an image shot using your phone’s Portrait mode. The effect will animate when you rotate the watch dial. Currently, there are only three clock styles available for these, and I found “Modern” the least offensive. You can also add a single complication to Portrait faces.As for multiple timers: It works. I set a countdown for three minutes, then hit back and set another for a minute. They both went off without a hitch. It’s funny that something as simple as this took eight whole updates to get, but at least it’s here. Those who use their Apple Watch for cooking timers will appreciate this one.Finally, this isn’t quite a watchOS update but since you need an Apple Watch to use Fitness+, the two are intertwined. When you use Fitness+ on your iPhone or iPad, you’ll now be able to watch the exercise videos in Picture-in-Picture mode. I was also able to resize the panel that was overlaid atop my other apps simply by pinching to zoom. Wrap-upThis isn’t the biggest update to watchOS, but Apple has made some subtle improvements to its communication apps and it’s also tightened its iPhone integration. I also appreciate the attention paid to different takes on health and wellbeing. There are still more features to test, like walking steadiness and ID support, but for now the watchOS 8 beta feels like a thoughtful, if small, update.Update (at 7:45pm ET): This article was edited to clarify that Walking Steadiness is an iOS 15 feature, not a watchOS 8 feature.

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Disney settles Scarlett Johansson lawsuit over ‘Black Widow’ streaming strategy

Disney and Scarlett Johansson are no longer on the outs. The parties have reached a settlement for the lawsuit Johansson filed over the hybrid release strategy used for Black Widow. If you'll recall, the actor sued Disney over the company's decision to release her movie in theaters and on Disney+ at the same time, accusing the entertainment giant of breach of contract. 

Johansson's camp argued that Black Widow was supposed to be released in theaters exclusively under her deal with Marvel. According to the lawsuit she filed, she could lose as much as $50 million due to the hybrid release, seeing as her compensation is tied directly with the movie's box office success and doesn't include a cut from what Disney would make from streaming. People have had to pay $30 for a Premier Access pass to watch the movie on Disney+, and the company said Black Widow earned $60 million from streaming during its opening weekend. 

Her lawsuit also said that her camp tried to contact Disney and Marvel to re-negotiate their deal, but they were allegedly unresponsive. Neither party disclosed the terms of their agreement, but both issued a statement mentioning future collaborations. Alan Bergman, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, said he looks "forward to working together on a number of upcoming projects, including Disney's Tower of Terror."

Meanwhile, entertainment workers are gearing up for a strike because studios like Disney are rapidly producing content after pandemic-related restrictions had lifted. The situation led to poor working conditions with long hours and no breaks for production crew. Entertainment unions are hoping to convince studios to make changes, including ending the lower pay scale for smaller streaming services. Under the current rules, streaming services with fewer than 20 million subscribers like Apple TV+ does can pay their workers lower wages.

Facebook keeps downplaying its own research and lawmakers aren’t buying it

Yet another Facebook official just spent hours being grilled by members of Congress about the company’s policies, and whether or not it does enough to protect some of its most vulnerable users. And once again, the Facebook executive — today it was Head of Safety Antigone Davis — seemed to do her best to dodge the most difficult questions.

But the latest hearing on teen mental health, which came in response to reporting from The WSJ, was different from past hearings. That’s because, thanks to a whistleblower, members of the Senate Commerce Committee now have access to thousands of internal documents written by the company’s own researchers.

The documents, some of which have been made public, paint a very different picture of Facebook and Instagram’s understanding of how their services impact teens’ mental health than what they’ve publicly portrayed. Those documents are in the hands of lawmakers, making the findings that much harder for Facebook to spin. The disclosures have already forced Facebook to "pause" work on an Instagram Kids app.

“We now have a deep insight into Facebook's relentless campaign to recruit and exploit young users,” Senator Richard Blumenthal said at the start of the hearing. “We now know, while Facebook publicly denies that Instagram is deeply harmful for teens, privately, Facebook, researchers and experts have been ringing the alarm for years.”

This has forced Facebook into the uncomfortable position of trying to downplay the significance of its own research. “This is not bombshell research,” Davis repeated multiple times during the hearing. One day earlier, Facebook released heavily annotated versions of two of the documents, with notes that also tried to explain away its own findings. Those documents, which were just two of the “thousands” Blumenthal said he now has access to, used words like “myopic” and “sensationalizing” to try to minimize findings like the fact that Instagram makes “body images worse for 1 in 3 teen girls.”

The tactic didn’t go over well in the Senate on Thursday. “This research is a bombshell,” Blumenthal said. “It is powerful, gripping, riveting evidence that Facebook knows the harmful effects of its site on children, and that it has concealed those facts and findings.”

As with past hearings, there were some cringey moments. At one point, Blumenthal demanded to know if Facebook would “commit to ending finsta” — a reference to the secondary accounts often used by teens to stay anonymous. That forced Davis to awkwardly explain that so-called “finstas” are not an official Instagram feature. At another point, Sen. Ted Cruz demanded Davis explain why she wasn’t appearing at the hearing in person (she cited COVID-19 protocols).

But even with those moments, it was difficult to ignore the significance of these issues. It may seem obvious, but kids and teens are incredibly important to the company, which is consistently behind rivals like TikTok and Snapchat for that demographic. So much so that a former employee who worked on Messenger Kids recently said that “losing the Teen audience was considered an 'existential threat,'” for Facebook.

Worse for Facebook, there are very likely more bombshells coming. The whistleblower who provided the documents to The Journal and lawmakers, is appearing on 60 MinutesSunday night. And she is testifying at a separate Commerce Committee hearing next week. So while Facebook executives may be able to dodge questions and insist that their researchers’ conclusions have been mischaracterized, it will be much harder to rebut someone who was closely involved with that work.

Some senators hinted that there would be more to come at the next hearing. Senator Ray Luján asked Davis whether “Facebook ever tested whether a change to its platform increases an individual's or a group of users' propensity to post a violent or hateful language.” Davis said that it wasn’t her “area of expertise.”

“We might get more responses to that one next week,” he said.

New FCC rules could force telephone companies to block robocalls to 911 call centers

Back in 2012, Congress directed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to create a special do-not-call registry to protect 911 call centers from robocalls. The system was never implemented in part due to security concerns that came up when the FCC and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) started looking into the feasibility of the idea. Specifically, there was a worry that a bad actor could use the registry to flood a call center with automated calls and thereby prevent them from helping people in need.

Fast forward to the present and the FCC says it has a better idea on how to accomplish the goal assigned to it by Congress. On Thursday, the agency proposed new rules that would require telephone companies to block robocalls made to those facilities. As Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel points out, the advantage of this approach is that it would limit access to the do-not-call registry to a select group of verified telephone companies and carriers. And by limiting access to that list, the FCC and FTC can put in place better safeguards to protect it. With today’s decision, the FCC isn’t ready yet to implement that system, but what it does plan to do is collect feedback before moving forward. “We believe this is a promising approach, but we want to get this right,” Rosenworcel said. 

Clubhouse finally makes audio shareable with 30-second previews of rooms

One week after introducing a new invite system, Clubhouse is introducing a host of new features. The first of those new is Clips, a tool people can use to share previews of public rooms. When creators and hosts enable the feature, you’ll see a new icon that looks like a pair of scissors. Tap it and Clubhouse will capture the last 30 seconds of audio, which you can then share on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, iMessage or WhatsApp. Clubhouse says it’s rolling out Clips in beta to select creators today. In most public and open rooms, you should see the scissors icon there unless the host has gone out of their way to disable the feature.

Sometime in the next few weeks, Clubhouse also plans to introduce a way for people to share archives of past live rooms. The feature is called Replays. As with Clips, it’s something that people will be able to disable if they want. When active, however, it will make past rooms discoverable for as long as a host or creator wants people to find that conversation. Clubhouse says it plans to start rolling out Replays sometime in October.

Rounding things out, Clubhouse is introducing a search tool that allows you to look for specific people, clubs, live rooms and future events. Initially, that functionality will live in the Explore tab for about a week or two before Clubhouse moves it to the hallway sidebar. Last but not least, Android users can look forward to Clubhouse rolling out support for spatial audio. In many ways, the updates Clubhouse announced today address shortcomings that have been in the app for a while. The absence of a way to share audio was a particularly notable omission.  

Samsung’s digital car keys will soon be available on the Genesis GV60 in Korea

First announced back in January at Samsung's Galaxy S21 event, Hyundai revealed on Thursday that its upcoming GV60 crossover will be the first to work with the phonemaker's newfangled Digital Key — at least for GV60 owners living in Korea.

The Digital Key utilizes NFC and ultra wideband (UWB) technologies to grant drivers passive access to their vehicles — that is, so long as your Galaxy phone is in your possession, the vehicle will open automatically as you approach. The key can also be shared with "family and friends" according to a Thursday media release from Hyundai, though they'll need to own a Galaxy S21+ or Ultra, Note20 Ultra, or a Z Fold 2 or 3 for it to work. The system is designed to run on Android 12 and later, assuming your phone has a UWB chip, though it will also operate via NFC if you don't. 

Hyundai touts Samsung's embedded Secure Element (eSE) in terms of data protection and notes that the UWB-based transmission system is highly resistant to interception, cloning or jamming. Whether that security scheme will stand up to a mugger bonking you on the head, then taking your phone and your car remains to be seen. The digital key feature is expected to launch in Korea by the end of this year.

Google announced back in May that it planned to begin offering its own digital key system — separate from what Samsung has developed — on "select Pixel and Galaxy phones" with UWB capabilities. We've now seen UWB in the Galaxy, does that mean the Pixel 6 could offer it as well?

Punishing platformer ‘Ghostrunner’ adds accessibility mode

Ghostrunner was one of the best surprises of 2020. It’s a stylish first-person platformer that takes the best elements of Titanfall’s parkour mechanics and adds a cyberpunk twist to the proceedings. It’s also a challenging game that demands precision and purpose from the player. Make a single mistake, and you’ll need to replay a section of a level again. That can get frustrating fast, so developer One More Level is adding a new feature called Assist Mode.

Assist Mode introduces three options you can toggle on and off. You can opt to shorten your character’s ability cooldowns, slow down the game to give you more time to react and play with an extra life to make mistakes less punishing. Accessibility modes are becoming more common in video games, and it’s always good to see another developer find a way to allow more people to enjoy their work.

For experienced players, there’s a new feature called Wave Mode that is essentially Ghostrunner’s take on a roguelike. You’ll need to complete 20 rounds in succession, with each one featuring different enemies — even when you attempt the same one multiple times. Make it all the way to the end, and you’ll earn a fancy new katana for your character.

Both Assist and Wave modes are available today for free on the platforms where you can already buy Ghostrunner. That includes PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam, the Epic Games Store and GOG. When the game makes its way to PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S on September 28th, it will come with those modes included.

Latest posts

Disney settles Scarlett Johansson lawsuit over ‘Black Widow’ streaming strategy

Disney and Scarlett Johansson are no longer on the outs. The parties have reached a settlement for the lawsuit Johansson filed over the hybrid release strategy used for Black Widow. If you'll recall, the actor sued Disney over the company's decision to release her movie in theaters and on Disney+ at the same time, accusing the entertainment giant of breach of contract. 

Johansson's camp argued that Black Widow was supposed to be released in theaters exclusively under her deal with Marvel. According to the lawsuit she filed, she could lose as much as $50 million due to the hybrid release, seeing as her compensation is tied directly with the movie's box office success and doesn't include a cut from what Disney would make from streaming. People have had to pay $30 for a Premier Access pass to watch the movie on Disney+, and the company said Black Widow earned $60 million from streaming during its opening weekend. 

Her lawsuit also said that her camp tried to contact Disney and Marvel to re-negotiate their deal, but they were allegedly unresponsive. Neither party disclosed the terms of their agreement, but both issued a statement mentioning future collaborations. Alan Bergman, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, said he looks "forward to working together on a number of upcoming projects, including Disney's Tower of Terror."

Meanwhile, entertainment workers are gearing up for a strike because studios like Disney are rapidly producing content after pandemic-related restrictions had lifted. The situation led to poor working conditions with long hours and no breaks for production crew. Entertainment unions are hoping to convince studios to make changes, including ending the lower pay scale for smaller streaming services. Under the current rules, streaming services with fewer than 20 million subscribers like Apple TV+ does can pay their workers lower wages.

Clubhouse finally makes audio shareable with 30-second previews of rooms

One week after introducing a new invite system, Clubhouse is introducing a host of new features. The first of those new is Clips, a tool people can use to share previews of public rooms. When creators and hosts enable the feature, you’ll see a new icon that looks like a pair of scissors. Tap it and Clubhouse will capture the last 30 seconds of audio, which you can then share on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, iMessage or WhatsApp. Clubhouse says it’s rolling out Clips in beta to select creators today. In most public and open rooms, you should see the scissors icon there unless the host has gone out of their way to disable the feature.

Sometime in the next few weeks, Clubhouse also plans to introduce a way for people to share archives of past live rooms. The feature is called Replays. As with Clips, it’s something that people will be able to disable if they want. When active, however, it will make past rooms discoverable for as long as a host or creator wants people to find that conversation. Clubhouse says it plans to start rolling out Replays sometime in October.

Rounding things out, Clubhouse is introducing a search tool that allows you to look for specific people, clubs, live rooms and future events. Initially, that functionality will live in the Explore tab for about a week or two before Clubhouse moves it to the hallway sidebar. Last but not least, Android users can look forward to Clubhouse rolling out support for spatial audio. In many ways, the updates Clubhouse announced today address shortcomings that have been in the app for a while. The absence of a way to share audio was a particularly notable omission.  

New FCC rules could force telephone companies to block robocalls to 911 call centers

Back in 2012, Congress directed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to create a special do-not-call registry to protect 911 call centers from robocalls. The system was never implemented in part due to security concerns that came up when the FCC and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) started looking into the feasibility of the idea. Specifically, there was a worry that a bad actor could use the registry to flood a call center with automated calls and thereby prevent them from helping people in need.

Fast forward to the present and the FCC says it has a better idea on how to accomplish the goal assigned to it by Congress. On Thursday, the agency proposed new rules that would require telephone companies to block robocalls made to those facilities. As Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel points out, the advantage of this approach is that it would limit access to the do-not-call registry to a select group of verified telephone companies and carriers. And by limiting access to that list, the FCC and FTC can put in place better safeguards to protect it. With today’s decision, the FCC isn’t ready yet to implement that system, but what it does plan to do is collect feedback before moving forward. “We believe this is a promising approach, but we want to get this right,” Rosenworcel said. 

Facebook keeps downplaying its own research and lawmakers aren’t buying it

Yet another Facebook official just spent hours being grilled by members of Congress about the company’s policies, and whether or not it does enough to protect some of its most vulnerable users. And once again, the Facebook executive — today it was Head of Safety Antigone Davis — seemed to do her best to dodge the most difficult questions.

But the latest hearing on teen mental health, which came in response to reporting from The WSJ, was different from past hearings. That’s because, thanks to a whistleblower, members of the Senate Commerce Committee now have access to thousands of internal documents written by the company’s own researchers.

The documents, some of which have been made public, paint a very different picture of Facebook and Instagram’s understanding of how their services impact teens’ mental health than what they’ve publicly portrayed. Those documents are in the hands of lawmakers, making the findings that much harder for Facebook to spin. The disclosures have already forced Facebook to "pause" work on an Instagram Kids app.

“We now have a deep insight into Facebook's relentless campaign to recruit and exploit young users,” Senator Richard Blumenthal said at the start of the hearing. “We now know, while Facebook publicly denies that Instagram is deeply harmful for teens, privately, Facebook, researchers and experts have been ringing the alarm for years.”

This has forced Facebook into the uncomfortable position of trying to downplay the significance of its own research. “This is not bombshell research,” Davis repeated multiple times during the hearing. One day earlier, Facebook released heavily annotated versions of two of the documents, with notes that also tried to explain away its own findings. Those documents, which were just two of the “thousands” Blumenthal said he now has access to, used words like “myopic” and “sensationalizing” to try to minimize findings like the fact that Instagram makes “body images worse for 1 in 3 teen girls.”

The tactic didn’t go over well in the Senate on Thursday. “This research is a bombshell,” Blumenthal said. “It is powerful, gripping, riveting evidence that Facebook knows the harmful effects of its site on children, and that it has concealed those facts and findings.”

As with past hearings, there were some cringey moments. At one point, Blumenthal demanded to know if Facebook would “commit to ending finsta” — a reference to the secondary accounts often used by teens to stay anonymous. That forced Davis to awkwardly explain that so-called “finstas” are not an official Instagram feature. At another point, Sen. Ted Cruz demanded Davis explain why she wasn’t appearing at the hearing in person (she cited COVID-19 protocols).

But even with those moments, it was difficult to ignore the significance of these issues. It may seem obvious, but kids and teens are incredibly important to the company, which is consistently behind rivals like TikTok and Snapchat for that demographic. So much so that a former employee who worked on Messenger Kids recently said that “losing the Teen audience was considered an 'existential threat,'” for Facebook.

Worse for Facebook, there are very likely more bombshells coming. The whistleblower who provided the documents to The Journal and lawmakers, is appearing on 60 MinutesSunday night. And she is testifying at a separate Commerce Committee hearing next week. So while Facebook executives may be able to dodge questions and insist that their researchers’ conclusions have been mischaracterized, it will be much harder to rebut someone who was closely involved with that work.

Some senators hinted that there would be more to come at the next hearing. Senator Ray Luján asked Davis whether “Facebook ever tested whether a change to its platform increases an individual's or a group of users' propensity to post a violent or hateful language.” Davis said that it wasn’t her “area of expertise.”

“We might get more responses to that one next week,” he said.

Samsung’s digital car keys will soon be available on the Genesis GV60 in Korea

First announced back in January at Samsung's Galaxy S21 event, Hyundai revealed on Thursday that its upcoming GV60 crossover will be the first to work with the phonemaker's newfangled Digital Key — at least for GV60 owners living in Korea.

The Digital Key utilizes NFC and ultra wideband (UWB) technologies to grant drivers passive access to their vehicles — that is, so long as your Galaxy phone is in your possession, the vehicle will open automatically as you approach. The key can also be shared with "family and friends" according to a Thursday media release from Hyundai, though they'll need to own a Galaxy S21+ or Ultra, Note20 Ultra, or a Z Fold 2 or 3 for it to work. The system is designed to run on Android 12 and later, assuming your phone has a UWB chip, though it will also operate via NFC if you don't. 

Hyundai touts Samsung's embedded Secure Element (eSE) in terms of data protection and notes that the UWB-based transmission system is highly resistant to interception, cloning or jamming. Whether that security scheme will stand up to a mugger bonking you on the head, then taking your phone and your car remains to be seen. The digital key feature is expected to launch in Korea by the end of this year.

Google announced back in May that it planned to begin offering its own digital key system — separate from what Samsung has developed — on "select Pixel and Galaxy phones" with UWB capabilities. We've now seen UWB in the Galaxy, does that mean the Pixel 6 could offer it as well?

Google delays mandatory return to office until January 2022

Google is once again pushing back its return to in-person work. CEO Sundar Pichai told employees the company is delaying the mandatory return to office until January 2022. The current voluntary scheme will last through January 10th. From then on, Google's offices will make the decisions about when (and if) to make office work mandatory. Staff will be notified 30 days in advance if they're required to show up.

The internet pioneer previously hoped to institute a hybrid work week on October 18th, with staff coming in for three out of five days. That, in turn, was later than the originally planned September return.

The reasoning behind the delay isn't surprising. The COVID-19 pandemic recovery, and thus the return to offices, has been "longer and bumpier than expected," according to Pichai. In other words, factors like the virus' Delta variant, vaccination rates and varying case levels have clouded the situation — what works well in one country could be dangerous in another.

Not that Google will take chances regardless. The company now requires full vaccination for any employee returning to the office, voluntary or otherwise. Google might be eager to have people fill its halls, but it also doesn't want safety issues or skittish employees. It's not alone, either — fellow tech firms like Apple have delayed their own return-to-office plans as the pandemic's realities become clearer.