Microsoft launches ‘Group Transcribe,’ a transcription and translation app for in-person meetings

A new project from Microsoft’s in-house incubator, Microsoft Garage, introduces a different take on meeting transcriptions. While today there are a number of real-time transcription apps to use on your phone — like Otter.ai or Google’s Recorder app for Pixel devices, for example — Microsoft’s new Group Transcribe app reimagines meeting transcriptions as a more collaborative process, where everyone simultaneously records the meeting on their own device for higher accuracy. It also offers real-time translation for languages spoken in over 80 distinct locales.

To use the app, one person would first initiate the meeting in their own device. They can then invite the other meeting attendees to join the session via Bluetooth, a scannable QR code or by sharing a link. After the other participants join the session and the meeting begins, each person will see the transcript appear in real-time on their own device.

Image Credits: Microsoft

The app, which is powered by A.I. speech and language technology, is able to transcribe with higher accuracy and speaker attribution based on the volume of the speaker captured by the microphone of each phone being used in the meeting.

By comparing the level of a person’s voice volume, the cloud service attempts to determine which device is closest to the speaker and the language preferences of that speaker. This means speakers are also accurately labeled in the app, which can be a challenge for other transcription apps where only one person is recording.

In addition, if meeting participants want to speak in their own language, the app can provide the translation to others’ devices in their own language.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Microsoft says the app is designed with accessibility in mind, as it makes it easier for people who are deaf, hard of hearing, and non-native speakers to more fully participate in meetings by following along through the live transcriptions and translations.

The project itself was built by Microsoft employees who collectively speak over a dozen different languages and dialects.

“This can be a fantastic tool for communication. What I would love to see is for this to break down barriers for people speaking across multiple languages,” said Franklin Munoz, Principal Development Lead, when introducing the project.

Like most cloud-based transcription services, the app should not be used for highly confidential meetings. However, Microsoft has built granular data and privacy controls that allow users to decide if or when they want to share their conversation data.

Image Credits: Microsoft

To work, the audio and text input data collected is sent to Microsoft’s online speech recognitions and translation technologies — though with a randomly generated identifier, not your real name.

While Microsoft doesn’t save the meeting transcripts and recordings itself after the fact — they’re saved on your device — the app does encourage participants to “contribute” their meetings recordings to Microsoft so it can improve the service.

This allows Microsoft to retain the audio and speech recognition-generated text transcriptions when all meeting participants agree to opt in for that session. By reviewing the data, Microsoft aims to improve its speech recognition and speaker attribution capabilities over time, it says. The user data will then be accessed under NDA by both Microsoft employees and contractors from other companies who work for Microsoft, but won’t include any of the speakers’ account credentials.

Reviewers will also only have access to randomized snippets of audio, not full recordings. And Microsoft says it “de-identifies” meeting recordings by removing long strings of numbers that could represent things like credit card numbers or phone numbers, for example. Users can delete their previously shared recordings at any time, but otherwise they’re retained for up to 2 years on encrypted servers, the company says.

Because there’s not a way for a business, at an admin level, to configure or block the “contribution” setting for all users, people should carefully weigh the advantages and risks of such a service. It’s also a Microsoft Garage project, meaning it’s meant to be more experimental and could be shuttered at any time.

Currently, the Group Transcribe app is available on iOS only.

 

#ai, #apps, #artificial-intelligence, #ios-apps, #meetings, #microsoft, #microsoft-garage, #mobile, #speech-recognition, #transcription, #translation

0

Netflix to release 41 original Indian shows and movies this year

Netflix said on Wednesday it will roll out 41 Indian films and shows this year, its biggest annual roster of Indian content to date, as the American giant makes further push to win subscribers in the world’s second largest internet market.

The streaming giant, which committed to spending about $420 million on locally produced Indian content in 2019 and 2020, is this year spending significantly more on the new Indian catalog, which is three times larger than the past two years combined.

The new titles feature high-profile Indian actors and directors including Madhuri Dixit, Karan Johar, Manoj Bajpayee, R. Madhavan, Raveena Tandon, Neena Gupta, and Dhanush.

The new roster includes “Bombay Begums,” which follows stories of five women across generations wrestling with desire, ethics, and personal crises, “Decoupled,” a comedy by writer Manu Joseph on India and marriage, and a second season of Emmy-winning drama “Delhi Crime.”

Also in the list are comedy specials that have become immensely popular on streaming services in India. Netflix said comedians including Sumukhi Suresh, Aakaash Gupta, Rahul Dua, and Prashasti Singh — all of whom have participated in comedy shows by Amazon Prime Video — will have shows on the streaming service this year.

Kota Factory, a show that debuted on YouTube about a group of students preparing to compete to get into the prestigious engineering colleges, will premier its second season on Netflix. The Viral Fever, the producer of the show, had collaborated with Indian edtech startup Unacademy, for the first season of the show.

Dice Media’s “Little Things”, which also began its life as native advertisement for a few firms but has since grown into its own show, is getting a fourth season this year.

“Our upcoming lineup features more variety and diversity than we have seen before. From the biggest films and series, to gripping documentaries and reality, and bold comedy formats. We are taking our next big leap in India to bring you more than 40 powerful and irresistible stories from all corners of the country,” said Monika Shergill, Vice President of Content at Netflix India.

“This is just a taste of the films and series to come. We are so excited to share these rich and diverse stories from the best and brightest creators and talent from India to the world,” said Shergill.

R. Madhavan and Surveen Chawla in a still from Netflix’s upcoming show “Decoupled.” (Netflix)

Netflix’s growing catalog in India comes as Bollywood, which churns out more movies than any other film industry, struggles to deliver big hits as theatres across the country report low footfall amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year, the Indian film industry began releasing several movies directly on streaming services after some pushback from several key players.

Karan Johar said at Netflix’s virtual press conference that streaming services are increasingly reaching the level of scale in India that the next “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” — one of the biggest blockbuster films in India, and also one directed by Johar — can release directly on Netflix.

Thanks to the availability of some of the world’s cheapest mobile data and proliferation of low-cost Android smartphones, more than half a billion Indians came online in the past decade, much of it in the last five years.

YouTube reaches more than 450 million internet users in India, TechCrunch reported in January. (India’s IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad corroborated the figure at a press conference last month.) Disney’s Hotstar has amassed over 30 million paying subscribers in India. Media consulting firm MPA estimates that Netflix has about 5 million subscribers in India, a figure that has grown in recent years as the streaming service inked a deal with India’s largest telecom operator Jio Platforms.

Netflix’s growing focus on India also comes at a time when New Delhi is getting more involved with the nature of content on on-demand streaming services. Until now Amazon Prime Video and other streaming services have operated in India without having to worry too much about the nature of their content. But that’s changing, according to new rules announced by India last week.

“The category classification of a content will take into account the potentially offensive impact of a film on matters such as caste, race, gender, religion, disability or sexuality that may arise in a wide range of works, and the classification decision will take account of the strength or impact of their inclusion,” the new rules state.

Amazon issued a rare apology to viewers in India on Tuesday after some people — including lawmakers with governing Bhartiya Janata Party — objected to some scenes from its political mini-series “Tandav.” Netflix, itself, has faced some heat, too. A police case was filed against two top executives of Netflix, including Shergill, after some people objected to scenes of the show “A Suitable Boy.”

#amazon, #amazon-prime-video, #apps, #asia, #disney, #entertainment, #hotstar, #india, #media, #mx-player, #netflix

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Following unionization, Glitch signs collective bargaining agreement

In another key moment for the growing tech labor movement, Glitch employees today announced that they have signed a collective bargaining agreement with the company. The move comes a year after the site’s workforce voted to join the Communications Workers of America Local 1101.

“We’re excited that Glitch workers have signed their first-ever contract, a milestone in this industry,” CWA Local 1101 President Keith Purce said in a release tied to the announcement. “CWA has decades of experience helping workers improve conditions at some of this country’s largest, most powerful corporations. We know we’re stronger when we fight together, and we hope this victory inspires other software engineers to organize their workplaces.”

Glitch says the agreement has been in the works for around five months before being, “ratified overwhelmingly” by employees. The union calls the move, “the first collective bargaining agreement signed by software engineers in the tech industry,” citing industry moves designed from preventing labor movements from solidifying in tech.

In spite of this, however, the movement has been growing, particularly over the past year, among blue-collar and white-collar workers alike. Recent examples include Kickstarter and the Alphabet Workers Union.

Attempts to unionize among Amazon warehouse employees have been decidedly more rocky, as the company has purchased advertising and sent mailers attempting to dissuade workers. Still, the pro-union wing has seemingly found an ally in Joe Biden, who recently commented, “The choice to join a union is up to the workers, full stop.”

In May, Glitch laid off 18 — amounting to around a third of the staff. CEO Anil Dash noted at the time, “we are a small company in a fiercely competitive space in a tough economy. But these good people have done immensely valuable work that our entire team and community are grateful for.”

The agreement, which holds for 11 months, focuses — in part — on the rights of those impacted workers, detailing severance and rehiring those former employees if their former positions are re-instated.

“This is an absolutely historic win for us,” said software engineer Katie Lundsgaard. “We love our jobs, we love working at Glitch, which is why we wanted to ensure we have a lasting voice at this company and lasting protections. This contract does that, and I hope tech workers across the industry can see that unions and startups are not incompatible.”

Organizers add:

The contract also does not focus on wages and benefits, which are already generous at Glitch, opting instead to ensure basic union protections for workers and a continued voice in the workplace.


Early Stage is the premier ‘how-to’ event for startup entrepreneurs and investors. You’ll hear first-hand how some of the most successful founders and VCs build their businesses, raise money and manage their portfolios. We’ll cover every aspect of company-building: Fundraising, recruiting, sales, product market fit, PR, marketing and brand building. Each session also has audience participation built-in – there’s ample time included for audience questions and discussion.

#apps, #glitch, #hiring, #labor, #union, #unionization

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Twitter Spaces arrives on Android ahead of Clubhouse

Twitter announced today it’s opening up its live audio chat rooms, known as Twitter Spaces, to users on Android. Previously, the experience was only open to select users on iOS following the product’s private beta launch in late December 2020. The company says that Android users will only be able to join and talk in Spaces for the time being, but won’t yet be able to start their own.

That added functionality is expected to ship “soon,” Twitter says, without offering an exact timeframe.

The company has been working quickly to iterate on Twitter Spaces in the months since its beta debut, and has been fairly transparent about its roadmap.

Last month, the team developing Twitter Spaces hosted a Space where users were invited to offer feedback, ask questions, and learn about what Twitter had in the works for the product in both the near-term and further down the road. During this live chat, Twitter confirmed that Spaces would arrive on Android in March.

It also promised a fix to how it displays listeners, which has since rolled out.

Other Spaces features are being shared in public as they’re designed and prototyped, including things like titles and descriptions, scheduling options, support for co-hosts and moderators, guest lists, and more. Twitter has also updated the preview card that appears in the timeline and relabeled its “captions” feature to be more accurate, from an accessibility standpoint.

The time frame of some of its new developments  — like Android and scheduling options — were being promised in a matter of weeks, not months.

This fast pace has now led Twitter to beat its rival Clubhouse — the app currently leading the “social audio” market — to offer support for Android. Today, Clubhouse remains iOS-only in addition to being invite-only.

It’s also indicative of the resources Twitter is putting into this new product, which was first announced publicly just in November. Clearly, Twitter believes social audio is a market it needs to win.

The company also sees the broader potential for Spaces as being a key part of a larger creator platform now in the works. During its Investor Day last week, Twitter spoke of tying together its new products like Spaces, Newsletters along with a “Super Follow” paid subscription, for example.

It’s now also testing a Twitter “Shopping Card” that would allow users to tweets posts that link directly to product pages via a “Shop” button — a feature that would seem to fall under this new creator focus, as well.

Some Twitter users on Android had already found their way to Spaces before today’s announcement by way of the Twitter beta app on Google Play.

But now, a separate beta app won’t be required — when live Spaces are available, they’ll appear at the top of the Twitter timeline for Android users to join.

 

 

#apps, #mobile

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West Tenth’s app encourages women to start home businesses, not join MLMs

A new digital marketplace called West Tenth, now backed by $1.5 million in seed funding, wants to give women a platform to start and grow their home-based businesses. Through its mobile app, women can promote their business to others in the local community, then field inquiries and requests through the app’s integrated messaging platform, as well as finalize transactions through in-app payments.

The startup was co-founded by Lyn Johnson and Sara Sparhawk, who met when they both worked in finance. Johnson remained in finance, but Sparhawk later moved on to work at Amazon.

Johnson explains that her experience led her to better understand the economic inequality of women in the U.S., where they only own 32 cents to every dollar in financial assets than men own. A large driver of this is that women leave the workforce, often to raise children, which results in years where they don’t have earnings.

“We’re really good as a society at supporting women on the way of out of the workforce to care for their kids, but really terrible at supporting them on the way back in,” Johnson says. “Women know this, and as an alternative to employment that just seems to fail them, they’re starting businesses in droves.”

Image Credits: West Tenth

With West Tenth, the goal is to encourage this sort of entrepreneurship — and more broadly, to help women understand that the many of the talents they’ve developed at home are, in fact, potential businesses.

This includes opportunities like home-based bakers and cooks, photographers, home organizers or designers, home florists, baby sleep consultants, party planning and event services, crafting classes, fitness training, homemade goods, and more.

The company notes that the app isn’t necessarily closed to men, but the current market for U.S. home businesses favors women as they’re more often the partner who chooses to leave work to raise children. However, there are some men on its platform.

Though today many of these entrepreneurs market their home businesses on Facebook, they’re missing opportunities to reach customers if they’re not heavily involved in local groups and responding to requests for recommendations. West Tenth instead centralizes local businesses in one place to make discovery easier.

Image Credits: West Tenth

 

In the app, customers can browse and shop local businesses, filtering by category via buttons at the top of the screen. The results are sorted by distance and offer photos, description, and the starting price for the goods or services offered. Through integrated messaging, users can reach out directly for a quote or more information. Customers can also complete their purchases through the app’s Stripe payments integration. West Tenth takes a 9.5% commission on these sales.

Another key aspect to West Tenth is its education component, The Foundry.

Through a $100 per quarter subscription membership (or $350 per year), business owners will be able to attend bi-monthly events, including classes focused on the fundamentals of setting up home-based businesses, marketing, customer acquisition, and other topics. These classes will also be available à la carte at around $30 apiece, for those who want to pay per session.

In addition, attendees will hear from guest speakers who have experience in the home-based business market, and they’ll be able join mastermind networking groups to exchange ideas with their peers.

Image Credits: West Tenth

This system of combining education and networking with business ownership could potentially help more women become home-based business entrepreneurs instead of joining multi-level marketing (MLM) companies, as is common.

“When we started this, we recognized that MLMs are one of the few kind of industries that’s focused on this demographic of women who’ve left the workforce — which is a huge, untapped talent pool in the U.S.,” notes Johnson. “But they’re really predatory. Only the top 1% of sellers distributors really make money and the rest lose money. And they lose their social capital, as well. What we’re really interested in doing is becoming an alternative to MLMs in many respects,” she adds.

Not surprisingly, MLMs aren’t allowed on the West Tenth platform.

Image Credits: West Tenth

The startup, which completed Kansas City TechStars last summer, has now raised $1.5 million in seed funding to get its platform off the ground. The round was led by Better Ventures along with Stand Together Ventures Lab, Kapital Partners,The Community Fund, Backstage Capital, Wedbush Ventures, and Gaingels.

The funds will be used to develop the product and grow its user base. In time, West Tenth aims to build out product features to better highlight local businesses. This includes shopping elements that will let you see what friends are buying and video demonstrations, among other things.

Since 2019, West Tenth has grown its footprint from just 20 businesses on the app to now over 600, largely in suburban L.A. and Salt Lake City. It’s now aiming to target growth in Phoenix, Boise, and Northern California.

Image Credits: West Tenth

The timing for West Tenth’s expansion is coming on the tail end of the COVID-19 crisis, where things have only gotten worse for women’s traditional employment.

School and daycare closures combined with job losses that greatly impacted women’s roles have now driven more women out of the workforce compared with men. And according to McKinsey, women accounted for nearly 56% of workforce exits since the start of the pandemic, despite making up just 48% of the workforce. This COVID-driven “shecession,” as some have dubbed it, is also disproportionately impacting women of color, studies have found.

“We’ve seen 5 million women exit the workforce — some because they were laid off or furloughed, and a huge chunk because they’re opting out because the caregiving responsibilities just became overwhelming,” says Johnson.

“The thing is when women leave the workforce for caregiving reasons — for some reason we really discount that and we make it even harder for them to return to work. So I think over the next 18 to 24 months, we’ll see a big surge in economic activity in the home with women trying to bring in additional sources of income by running a business from the home,” she says.

The West Tenth app is available on both iOS and Android.

#apps, #funding, #mobile, #recent-funding, #startups

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SoundCloud adjusts revenue model for indie artists

We’ve known for a long time that music streaming royalties are fundamentally broken. As revenue has shifted away from sales of physical music, it’s become increasingly difficult for many independent artists to make a living off recorded music. But all of that has come to a head as the pandemic has stripped live music out of the equation entirely.

Some services have looked to buck the trend. The immensely popular Bandcamp Fridays are a notable example, offering all revenue to artists and labels one day a month. And now SoundCloud is looking to shake up how it pays its own independent creators — a move that could prove a nice boon for musicians on a service that’s lent its name to at least one popular musical subgenre.

The site will institute a new revenue structure at the beginning of next month. Soundcloud breaks down “Fan-powered” royalties thusly,

Fan-powered royalties are a more equitable and transparent way for independent artists who monetize directly with SoundCloud to get paid. The more fans listen on SoundCloud, and listen to your music, the more you get paid.

Under the old model, money from your dedicated fans goes into a giant pool that’s paid out to artists based on their share of total streams. That model mostly benefits mega stars.

Under fan-powered royalties, you get paid based on your fans’ actual listening habits. The more of their time your dedicated fans listen to your music, the more you get paid. This model benefits independent artists.

The service is available for independent artists who monetize their pages through select Pro accounts. There are a number of factors that go into the final payment (the first of which will arrive in May), including whether listeners have a subscription, the amount they’ve listened to one artist relative to others and ads they’ve listened to. The fine print is available here.

Musicians have become increasingly vocal about their inability to live off of streaming revenue as the pandemic has cut off major income sources over the past year. Spotify, in particular, has drawn harsh criticism as the company has spent hundreds of millions on podcast acquisitions while maintaining old revenue models for musicians.

#apps, #enterprise, #music, #royalties, #soundcloud, #streaming

0

Apple releases results from hearing health study

Was back in 2019, Apple launched Research. The app was the latest effort by a company looking to take a more serious approach to user health, built (naturally) around data collected from the iPhone and Apple Watch. The app debuted with four studies: heart health, women’s health, movement and hearing.

Today, the company is issuing results from the latter, conducted alongside the University of Michigan School of Public Health, a day prior World Hearing Day. Hearing loss is an issue the company has looked to tackle, due in no small part to its large — and growing — involvement in the headphone category.

Headphones have, of course, become a common source of long term hearing loss as the technology has proliferated. The company has also built noise level readings into its mobile operating systems, to offer notifications of loud environments. That info is also built into the health app, showing off both headphone levels and environmental sound levels – the latter of which can be a subtler source of hearing loss.

According to the study of “thousands” of participants in the U.S., a quarter of those involved encounter more than the WHO’s recommended daily limit of environmental sound exposure. 50% of those in the survey work or worked in in a loud environment. The numbers remain reasonably high, even as many or most have transitioned to a work-from-home setting during the pandemic.

“Even during this pandemic, when many people are staying home, we’re still seeing 25%of our participants experiencing high environmental sound exposures,” University of Michigan Associate Profession Rick Neitzel says in a release tied to the news. “The results of this study can improve our understanding of potentially harmful exposures, and help identify ways that people can proactively protect their hearing.”

Ten-percent of those surveyed, meanwhile, exceed the recommended limit for weekly headphone exposure, while a quarter reported ringing in their ears a few times a week or more.

#apple, #apps, #headphones, #health, #hearing

0

Flipboard expands its local coverage to more than 1,000 cities and towns

News aggregator Flipboard‘s local coverage is making what product lead Brian Gottesman described as a “quantum leap,” expanding from 60 topics (a.k.a. cities, towns and communities that you can follow) to more than 1,000.

While Flipboard has allowed users to follow stories focused on major cities like New York for years, it launched a broader initiative around local news at the beginning of last year. The company says it’s now bringing together news coverage in locations across the United States and Canada, including all 210 Designated Market Areas tracked by Nielsen.

This comes as local newspapers continue to struggle and shut down, creating what are known as news deserts. But Flipboard’s data quality analyst Marty Rose said that its local news sections don’t just rely on traditional newspapers — they can aggregate stories from travel blogs, publications aimed at diverse audiences, TV stations, regional/national publications that do stories of local interest and more.

“Our aggregation could create a local paper where in communities they don’t exist,” Gottesman added.

Flipboard is now tying these local topics to GPS locations, as well. Users will be asked to share their location with the app (Gottesman noted that to protect user privacy, Flipboard is only using “coarse precision” and doesn’t retain user location data), then presented with a list of nearby cities and local topics of interest that they can follow. This will allow them to keep up on everything from local political news to COVID-19 updates, weather forecasts and dining recommendations.

“This is such a key part of informing our users,” Gottesman said. “They need to know if there’s a natural disaster in their area … they need to know if there’s a new place to go and get vaccines. Their community is more important than ever.”

Conversely, Rose said that by building relationships with local news organizations, Flipboard could also “elevate” their coverage to non-local sections when it might be relevant to a broader audience.

Asked how publishers’ subscription strategies and paywalls might affect the stories that appear in these local topics, Rose acknowledged, “Some local publications do have paywalls. It’s entirely up to them, we have no problem with that whatsoever … We provide the headlines and if the user clicks through and they’re presented with some kind of paywall, it’s unfortunate for them, but it’s not really our call.”

At the same time, he said that local TV coverage isn’t paywalled, and that a growing number of local blogs and digital publications are relying on more of a donation or membership model: “I really hope that they stick around and we can push those a bit more.”

#apps, #flipboard, #media, #mobile, #startups

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Apple alum’s jobs app for India’s workers raises $12.5 million

A startup by an Apple alum that has become home to millions of low-skilled workers in India said on Tuesday it has raised an additional $12.5 million, just five months after securing $8 million from high-profile investors.

One-year-old Apna said Sequoia Capital India and Greenoaks Capital led the $12.5 million Series B investment in the startup. Existing investors Lightspeed India and Rocketship VC also participated in the round. The startup, whose name is Hindi for “ours,” has now raised more than $20 million.

More than 6 million low-skilled workers such as drivers, delivery personnel, electricians and beauticians have joined Apna to find jobs and upskill themselves. But there’s more to this.

An analysis of the platform showed how workers are helping one another solve problems — such as a beautician advising another beautician to perform hair dressing in a particular way that tends to make customers happier and tip more, and someone sharing how they negotiated a hike in their salary from their employer.

“The sole idea of this is to create a network for these workers,” Nirmit Parikh, Apna founder and chief executive told TechCrunch in an interview. “Network gap has been a very crucial challenge. Solving it enables people to unlock more and more opportunities,” he said. Harshjit Sethi, principal at Sequoia India, said Apna was making inroads with “building a professional social network for India.”

The startup has become an attraction for several big firms, including Amazon, Flipkart, Unacademy, Byju’s, Swiggy, BigBasket, Dunzo, BlueStar and Grofers, which have joined as recruiters to hire workers. Apna offers a straightforward onboarding process — thanks to support for multiple local languages — and allows users to create a virtual business card, which is then shown to the potential recruiters.

The past six months have been all about growth at Apna, said Parikh. The app, available on Android, had 1.2 million users in August last year, for instance. During this period, there have been 60 million interactions between recruiters and potential applicants, he said. The platform, which has amassed more than 80,000 employers, has a retention rate of over 95%, said Parikh.

“Apna has taken a jobs-centric approach to upskilling that we are very excited about. Lack of accountability has been the core issue with current skill / vocational learning alternatives for grey and blue-collar workers. Apna has turned the problem on its head by creating net-positive job outcomes for anyone who chooses to upskill on the platform,” said Vaibhav Agrawal, partner at Lightspeed India, in a statement.

Image Credits: Nirmit Parikh

Parikh got the idea of building Apna after he kept hearing about the difficulty his family and friends faced in India in hiring people. This was puzzling to Parikh, as he wondered how could there be a shortage of workers in India when there are hundreds of millions of people actively looking for such jobs. The problem, Parikh realized, was that there wasn’t a scalable networking infrastructure in place to connect workers with employers.

Before creating the startup, Parikh met workers and worked with them to understand where are the core challenges they faced. That journey has not ended. The startup talks to over 15,000 users each day to understand what else Apna could do for them.

“One of the things we heard was that users were facing difficulties with interviews. So we started groups to practice them with interviews. We also started upskilling users, which has made us an edtech player. We plan to ramp up this effort in the coming months,” he said.

Parikh said the startup is overwhelmed each day with the response it is getting from its customers and the industry. Each day, he said, people share how they were able to land jobs, or increase their earnings. In recent months, several high-profile executives from companies such as Uber and BCG have joined Apna to scale the startup’s vision, he said, adding that the problem Apna is solving in India exists everywhere and the startup’s hope is to eventually serve people across the globe.

The app currently has no ads, and Parikh said he intends to not change that. “Once you get in the ad business, you start doing things you probably shouldn’t be doing,” he said. The startup instead plans to monetize its platform by charging recruiters, and offering upskill courses. But Parikh maintained that Apna will always offer its courses to users for free. The premium version will target those who need extensive assistance, he said.

As is the case elsewhere, millions of people lost their livelihood in India in the past year as coronavirus shut many businesses and workers migrated to their homes. There are over 250 million blue and grey-collar workers in India, and providing them meaningful employment opportunities is one of the biggest challenges in our country, said Sethi.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

#apna, #apps, #asia, #funding, #greenoaks-capital, #india, #lightspeed-india, #recent-funding, #rocketship-vc, #sequoia-capital-india, #startups

0

Google restarts updates for some iOS apps after long pause triggered by lack of privacy labels

Google over the weekend began to update many of its flagship iOS apps after a lengthy delay caused by the company’s failure to add Apple’s newly required privacy labels in a timely fashion. Though Google earlier this year said it would “soon” begin to add the labels to its apps as they were updated, it has still yet to do so for a number of key properties — including Search, Photos, Assistant, Maps, Pay, Chrome, and others.

Per Apple’s policy, developers cannot issue further updates until privacy labels are applied. That prevented Google from updating many of its top apps for a much longer period of time than usual — especially for a company of its size where minor updates containing bug fixes and performance improvements are issued on a regular basis.

Gmail, for example, hadn’t been updated for three months before the update that rolled out this weekend.

According their iOS App Store listings, Slides, Docs, Sheets and Calendar all received updates this weekend, as well. And over the past couple of weeks, updates for other newly labeled Google apps have also been restarted — including YouTube, YouTube TV, YouTube Music, Google Tasks, and Google Podcasts, for example.

We’ve been tracking Google’s app updates here in Google Sheets. (Appfigures confirmed our spreadsheet’s accuracy by running it against its own data.)

This weekend’s set of newly updated apps aren’t the only ones from Google to have received their privacy labels in 2021. Labels can be applied without issuing an app update which makes them harder to spot, sometimes.

Across Google’s full suite of iOS apps, those apps with labels now include:

Google One, Google Podcasts, Google Stadia, Google Fit, Google Fi, Google Tasks, Google Chat, Onduo, Project Baseline, YouTube, YouTube TV, YouTube Music, YouTube Kids, YouTube Studio, Google Meet, Google Smart Lock, Motion Stills, Google Fiber, Google Ads, Wear OS, Google Calendar, Google Classroom, Google Slides, Google Sheets, Google Docs, Google Drive, Google Play Movies, Google Home, Fiber TV, Google Translate, and Google Authenticator.

Google has not said why it taking so long to apply its labels. It initially attributed its delay to add the privacy labels to its annual holiday code freeze — a time of the year when the company pauses updates on its apps while many people take time off.

But as the weeks turned into months, it was clear that Google was taking a much more cautious and methodical approach to applying the labels than other large tech companies. As a result, it’s received increased attention and scrutiny of its app updates.

In fact, every time a new Google app was updated with a label, it made headlines.

Engadget today reported on Gmail and other apps being updated over the weekend, for example.

In mid-January, Google officially responded to the curiosity over its delays with a blog post explaining that its iOS apps would receive privacy labels as it received its next update. But the two have not necessarily gone hand-in-hand. Gmail received its privacy label back on Feb. 22, according to reports, but hadn’t been updated until just now.

And the list of labeled apps is far longer than the list of updated ones.

Google has not responded to a request for comment at this time.

 

#apps

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Cappuccino lets you share short, intimate audio stories with your friends

You might call Cappuccino the anti-Clubhouse, but the company has been iterating on its app concept for a couple of years — its CEO doesn’t have any strong opinions on Clubhouse. And it’s true that Cappuccino is an interesting social app on its own. It has been attracting a loyal user base, especially after a TikTok video went viral.

The startup says it is building an app that helps you record podcasts with friends. Many people have discovered podcasts over the past few years. Podcasts let you subscribe to audio shows and listen to episodes on demand.

At first, people subscribe to podcasts because of their interests. But if you talk about podcasts with your friends, they’ll tell you that they like a show in particular because of the personalities of the hosts.

Listening to a podcast is a content consumption experience that feels like nothing else out there. You might watch all videos released by a particular YouTuber and you might think you know a lot about someone’s personal life by following them on Instagram.

But listening to someone for hours at a time with earbuds in your ears is a very intimate experience. When a podcast works, it feels like you’re sitting in a room with a few friends and just listening to what they have to say.

And yet, chances are your favorite podcast hosts are not your friends.

This is where Cappuccino fits. The app lets you create groups with your friends or your families. Members of the group can record a short audio message — a bean, as the startup calls it. They talk about what’s on their mind for a couple of minutes. The next morning, group members receive a notification saying that your morning cappuccino has been brewed.

When you hit play, a chill intro music starts playing followed by audio messages from your friends. It isn’t just a succession of voice memos — it feels like a relaxing mix of happy, funny, caring, thoughtful messages from your friends.

While Cappuccino is a social app, it is focused on your close friends and your family. You aren’t trying to get more followers and you are not sharing public posts. Everything is private by design and focused on groups of real-life friends.

In many ways, it reminds me of Snapchat’s group stories. But Snapchat wasn’t the main inspiration for Cappuccino — it was podcasting.

Image Credits: Cappuccino

Prototype early, iterate often

I talked with the company’s co-founder and CEO Gilles Poupardin about the origin story of the app. Cappuccino isn’t Poupardin’s first startup. He had worked on Whyd for several years and lived the full startup experience — he raised founding rounds, chose to pivot, attended Y Combinator in San Francisco, parted ways with his company’s CTO and chose to shutter the startup.

Among other things, Whyd worked on a voice-controlled connected speaker before Amazon’s Echo product lineup and Google’s Nest speakers really took off. It’s hard to compete with tech giants, even harder when you’re competing on the hardware front.

After that, the Whyd team worked on a service that lets you create your own voice assistant. That didn’t really take off as expected either.

During the summer of 2019, Olivier Desmoulin reached out to Poupardin. Back then, Desmoulin was heading design for Jumbo, an app that helps you stay on top of your online privacy.

“At the time, I didn’t know if I wanted to start a company again — I pivoted 15 times [with Whyd],” Poupardin told me.

But they started discussing about podcasts and AirPods — and audio at large — as the next frontier for social apps. The basic premise was simple. A lot of people were listening to podcasts, but very few people were creating their own podcasts.

There are three reasons why your neighbor doesn’t have its own podcast but sometimes posts stuff on Instagram and Snapchat:

  • Podcasts are long-form content
  • It’s technically complicated to record and release a podcast
  • You are trying to attract an audience of people who don’t know you.

With Cappuccino, the idea is to take a reverse stance on these three points: short content, easy to record and personal. It’s supposed to be a better experience for both people recording audio and people listening to audio.

The first version of Cappuccino isn’t an app, it’s a side project. “We created a group on WhatsApp, we invited 10 to 15 people and we asked them to record voice memos and send them all to Olivier,” Poupardin told me.

Every night, Olivier Desmoulin would fire up GarageBand and create a mix of all voice memos. In the morning, he would send a message to the group conversation on WhatsApp and write: “Hey, your cappuccino is here.”

Image Credits: Cappuccino

After getting some positive feedback from group members, Pouparding and Desmoulin chose to move forward and create something that feels more like an app. But they both knew that creating a social app was incredibly hard when it comes to attracting users. They developed something quickly so that they weren’t wasting time developing something that nobody would use.

“We built the first version of the app in four days by using a hack — we were using Airtable as the backend service,” Poupardin said.

Once again, feedback from beta users was pretty good. They showed the app to some investors and ended up raising $1.2 million from Alexia Bonatsos (Dream Machine, also a former TechCrunch editor), SV Angel, Kevin Carter (Night Capital), Niv Shrug Capital, Jean de La Rochebrochard (Kima Ventures), Kevin Kuipers, Willy Braun, Marie Ekeland, Solomon Hykes (founder of Docker), Pierre Valade (founder of Sunrise and Jumbo Privacy), Moshe Lifschitz (Basement Fund), Anthony Marnell, Bryan Kim and a bunch of others.

Gawen Arab who was the CTO at Whyd teamed up once again with Poupardin, proving that time is a flat circle. He’s now co-founder and CTO at Cappuccino.

Image Credits: Cappuccino

Letting people talk about you

The Cappuccino team hasn’t been active when it comes to press relations or ads. It’s been a slow build up with some interesting spikes.

Last summer, Product Hunt super user Chris Messina created a post about Cappuccino. It was a bit of a surprise as the startup wasn’t trying to get featured on Product Hunt. Still, the co-founders diligently answered questions from the Product Hunt community.

The following day, Product Hunt’s newsletter featured Cappuccino. It was titled “The next big audio social network?” That brought some new users to the app.

Image Credits: Cappuccino

But things really started to take off when Brittany Kay Collier shared a video on TikTok about Cappuccino a few weeks ago. She sent a direct message to Poupardin on Instagram, telling him that it was attracting a lot of views. The video ended up attracting around 3.8 million views and 850,000 likes.

Two days later, Poupardin sent her a job offer to join the team. He was secretly hoping she would say yes, and she was secretly dreaming about getting a job at a company like Cappuccino.

Over the past couple of weeks, Cappuccino attracted 225,000 new users. They created 130,000 groups and sent around one million audio stories.

When the team is reading public posts about Cappuccino on Twitter, it feels like the app has found its core user base. The most loyal users seem to be young women in their twenties. They want to keep in touch with long-distance best friends.

They might be graduating from college and moving to a different part of the country. They might be stuck at home because of the current pandemic.

And it seems like new users have no issue hitting the record button and telling stories — everybody is familiar with voice messages on WhatsApp and iMessage after all.

“Something that is interesting with audio messages as a medium is that you tell different stories from what you would tell by taking a photo for Instagram, sending a Snap or creating a video on TikTok,” Poupardin said.

But what about the elephant in the room then? Clubhouse has topped 8 million downloads already. Poupardin listed all the differences in social graph, audio format and user base. According to him, there’s enough room for multiple audio apps.

“With video, you have YouTube, Twitch and TikTok — those are all different formats. Audio is potentially going to follow the same trend,” Poupardin said. Social apps first took advantage of the camera in your smartphone, because the camera was the killer hardware feature. And audio seems like the natural next step.

He feels like he isn’t competing with other audio startups for now. He wants people to wake up and listen to Cappuccino instead of random music on Spotify. “It’s going to help people who feel lonely,” he said.

#apps, #cappuccino, #mobile, #tc, #whyd

0

Instagram launches ‘Live Rooms’ for live broadcasts with up to four creators

Instagram today announced it’s adding a much-requested feature to its app with the launch of “Live Rooms,” which allow up to four people to broadcast live together at the same time. Previously, the app only allowed users to live stream with one other person, similar to Facebook Live. The company says it hopes Live Rooms will open up more creative opportunities in terms of live broadcast formats to allow for things like live talk shows, expanded Q&A’s or interviews, jam sessions for musicians, live shopping experiences, and more.

In addition to the ability to live stream with more people, Instagram also touts how the new feature can help creators to make more money. Last year, in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, Instagram introduced badges as a way for fans to support their favorite creators during a live video. Once purchased, the badges appear next to a fan’s name throughout the live video, helping them to stand out in the comments and unlock other special features, like placement on the creator’s list of badge holders and access to a special heart.

Badges became more broadly available last fall, at three price points: $0.99, $1.99, or $4.99.

With Live Rooms, fans can buy badges to support the hosts (one badge per person) as well as use other interactive features like Shopping and Live Fundraisers. The company says it’s also now developing other tools, like moderator controls and audio features that will roll out in the months to come.

To start a Live Room, you’ll swipe left and select the Live camera option, then title the Room and tap the Room icon to add guests. Here, you’ll see a list of people who’ve already requested to go live with you and you’ll be able to search for other guests to add.

Image Credits: Instagram

When you start the Live Room, you’ll remain at the top of the screen while guests are added. The guests can be added all at once or individually, depending on your preference. This allows for opportunities to add “surprise guests” to live streams to keep fans engaged.

The ability to add more guests to a live stream can also help a creator grow their follower base, as all the guests’ followers are notified about the Live Room, in addition to your own.

For safety reasons, any person that’s been blocked by any of the Live Room participants will not have access to join the live stream. Plus, any guests who have previously had their live access revoked due to violations of Instagram’s Community Guidelines won’t be able to join any Live Rooms.

During live broadcasts, the hosts can also report and block comments and use comment filters to maintain a safer experience for all viewers.

Live broadcasts became an increasingly important way for creators, business owners and brands to stay connected with followers during the pandemic, which shut down in-person live events, including concerts, shows, classes, conferences, meetups, and more. Instagram reported a 70% increase in Live views from February to March, for instance, as creators and businesses shifted their work online.

Image Credits: Instagram

As the pandemic wore on throughout 2020 and into 2021, the lack of in-person connection has allowed for other opportunities and even new social networks to grow. Live audio platform Clubhouse, for example, has seen rapid adoption, particularly by the tech and creative crowds, who today use the app to tune into live shows, chat sessions, and even big-name interviews. Twitter is now building a rival, and reportedly, so is Facebook.

But while Clubhouse offers a very different experience, it still operates in the same broader space of allowing fans to connect with high-profile individuals of some sort — entrepreneurs and founders, celebrities, market experts, thought leaders, influencers, and so on. And because users’ time is limited, seeing this type of activity shift to non-Facebook owned platforms is likely of concern to Instagram and its parent.

Meanwhile, in the live video broadcasting space, Instagram today faces a number of competitors, from those focused on a particular niche — like game streaming site Twitch, live shopping apps, and more— as well as general purpose live platforms offered by YouTube and TikTok. (The latter was spotted offering a four-up live stream format just last month, in fact.)

Instagram says Live Rooms are rolling out now to both iOS and Android to all global markets. The company expects the rollout to reach 100% of its user base within the week.

 

#apps, #clubhouse, #facebook, #instagram, #instagram-live, #livestreaming, #mobile, #social, #social-media, #social-networks, #streaming, #tiktok, #video-hosting

0

Clue gets FDA clearance to launch a digital contraceptive

Clue, an early pioneer in the femtech category with a well-regarded period-tracking app that’s used by around 13 million people, is getting ready to launch a digital contraceptive which will offer users a statistical prediction of ovulation as a birth control tool.

A US launch of Clue Birth Control is slated for “this year”. The team won’t be more specific on the date yet.

Pricing will be “premium” — but they’re also keeping the exact cost under wraps for now.

The Berlin-based company is today announcing that they’ve gained FDA clearance for the forthcoming product, clearing the way for a US launch in 2021.

Europe is the next region on their launch list but the necessary regulatory clearances mean the roll out will be gradual, going market by market.

The startup has also recently made a number of operational changes — including to the leadership of the company — to reflect becoming a medical-device grade regulated entity in the US.

The short version is that founder and CEO, Ida Tin, has moved up to become chairwoman of the board, while Audrey Tsang (who was leading product) and Carrie Walter (formerly general counsel), are now Clue’s co-CEOs.

TechCrunch chatted to all three women — along with Clue’s chief medical officer, Lynae Brayboy — to get the lowdown on its latest news.

Clue Birth Control

Clue is not the first to market with an app offering a statistical prediction of fertility but unlike first mover, Natural Cycles — which gained FDA clearance back in 2018 — its product, Clue Birth Control, is being billed as “all-digital”; aka it will work without the user needing to take their temperature daily.

There’s also no need to track other bodily changes (such as monitoring cervical fluid). The method is based on women inputting a single data point regularly: The start date of their period.

This means it looks like a major step up in ‘ease of use’ vs the earlier-to-market rival — which Clue has achieved within similar efficacy margins (see below).

Clue’s algorithmic prediction is based on Bayesian modelling — with the app displaying a high risk window across a number of days of the user’s cycle, during which having unprotected intercourse could result in the woman getting pregnant. It shows a window of low risk when the opposite is true.

The length of these windows is likely to change as the user inputs more data, with the risk-window starting out longer and typically shrinking as the app becomes more personalized to their individual cycle data.

“Bayesian modelling has been used in medicine for a lot of different applications. What that does is it takes population data and it puts that population data into an algorithm — which is a mathematical model — and [that] basically borrows from what has been found in the population in terms of cycling and ovulation,” explains Brayboy, who was appointed as Clue’s first ever chief medical officer last summer.

“Before we had a fertile window [i.e. displayed in the Clue period-tacking app to illustrate the stages of a cycle] — which is not a reliable, nor is it a tested, model of contraception. So now we’re using a bayesian modelling concept,” she says. “It personalizes over time. So as the individual puts in their cycle day one then we’re able to personalize the window of their high risk days vs their low risk days.

“[The high risk window] will start out long… Usually it’ll be 16 days within the cycle — but it’ll shorten over time. It probably won’t shorten to more than nine days.”

For the product to work as a contraception, users must either abstain from sex on high risk days or use additional protection (such as condoms). That’s why it’s a more involved method than some established birth control alternatives (especially vs an IUD; intrauterine device). On low risk days Clue users are relying on the app’s statistical prediction of their (low) fertility risk to not get pregnant.

Clue says the product has been shown to be 92% effective at preventing unwanted pregnancy under ‘typical use’ and 97% effective under ‘perfect use’ — referencing the standard research terminology for measuring contraception effectiveness (the latter meaning the product is used exactly as instructed every time the woman has sex vs ‘typical’ use which accounts for some usage slip-ups).

What those percentages mean in practice is that under typical use, eight couples out of 100 would be predicted to get pregnant over a year of use of Clue’s digital birth control. While — in the perfect use scenario — the failure rate would be three out of 100 over a year’s use.

(For comparison, Natural Cycles says its product is 93% effective under typical use and 98% effective under perfect use; while — per the Guttmacher Institute‘s US study — the pill is 93% effective under typical use and 99% effective under perfect use; and male condoms are 87% effective under typical use vs 98% effective under perfect use.)

Clue isn’t disclosing how many users it’s expecting to sign up — but the length of time it’s taken to bring the product to market suggests it’s confident Clue Birth Control will find a sustainable user base. (It’s been quietly working on the development since at least 2019 — but will only say the product has been “a long time” in the works when we ask.)

The extra time Clue’s taken to bring its digital contraceptive to market does look like time well spent. The statistical method underlying Clue Birth Control has, for example, undergone rigorous pre-market clinical testing — via a prospective effectiveness trial which reported results back in 2019.

“It’s been in development for a long time because work like this and proving the efficacy of something like this takes a long time,” says Tsang. “From a product perspective as well we want to make sure that these are experiences [that are] easy to understand and that matches the safety and efficacy of this type of product. So that as well.

“It takes a long time to make sure that we develop something that is also usability validated on that front and that we put that out with confidence and with an exact understanding of how well users will understand that.”

The ovulation prediction algorithm was put through a year-long, full-scale, representative (of the US population), independent clinical trial involving more than 700 women. This was conducted by researchers at the Institute for Reproductive Health (IRH) at Georgetown University in partnership with a third company, called Cycle Technologies — using a research app, called DOT (Dynamic Optimal Timing), for the purpose of the trial.

Clue says it acquired the assets of DOT — both the algorithm and the app — in summer 2019 and it’s that clinically validated technology which it’s implementing into its own app now, as Clue Birth Control.

“This was a ‘proper’, full scale clinical trial that was designed to be a clinical trial — rather than put a product out there, see if it works and collect the data,” says Walter. “This was done by academics. We then bought the algorithm and the app and we implemented the features of the app into Clue Birth Control which is a feature of Clue.”

“The clinical trial shows you both what the algorithm does and how the user interacts with the app. Because the algorithm is only part of the story — the main part is can a woman understand what’s going on, track and check and then act on the information,” she adds.

The FDA clearance process for Clue Birth Control involved scrutiny of the efficacy of the algorithm’s statistical predictions and also how Clue presents the information to users. So the whole package has been examined by the regulator. (To be clear the DOT app was not FDA cleared; rather Clue implemented that clinically tested algorithm in its own app and submitted the package for FDA clearance.)

“When you get FDA clearance as a medical device that is for a very specific product — you don’t then get to just take it away and tinker with it,” says Walter. “So I’m sure that there will be further iterations. This is iteration one of a new kind of birth control — but as of right now the thing that is going into our app is the thing that FDA saw and cleared. So the only piece… that we put significant creative work into was making sure that the usability interface is totally user tested and safe.”

Going forward, Clue’s business processes will be subject to ongoing regulatory scrutiny — a considerable switch for the startup that Tin describes as a “huge maturing process”.

“Another big part of the work that happened is to live and be a regulated company,” she tells TechCrunch. “That in itself is a very big change and a huge amount of work… So that’s another thing that has to happen. So one thing is what you put out in the market that users see but as a company you really have to operate in a completely new way — it’s a huge maturing process that we have gone through.”

“It feels like the baby can walk and talk and is actually more like a teenager and now it’s like leaving home — and I say you can do this!” she adds when asked what it feels like to see her femtech startup becoming FDA regulated.

Suitability

No method of contraception — except for abstinence — is 100% effective, of course. But just comparing the varying efficacy percentages of different contraception methods may not be super helpful given how personal birth control choices are.

A digital contraceptive certainly has a bunch of pros and cons that need to be considered. And Clue is being up front that its product is not suitable for everyone.

Top line: Clue says Clue Birth Control is only suitable for women, aged between 18-45, who have regular periods. (It also says: Users must also be able to track their period; check the app each day they have sex; and be prepared to use a condom or avoid sex that may result in pregnancy on high-risk days.)

Clearly there are various additional considerations beyond having a regular cycle that potential users should weigh up before signing up. Not least being comfortable with the stated degree of pregnancy risk.

That’s also true of all FABM (fertility awareness based methods) of birth control — including the old fashioned, non-digital/manual-tracking version (sometimes referred to as the rhythm or calendar method). But app-based products like Natural Cycles and Clue Birth Control are undoubtedly making FABM accessible to more women. Which means that communicating — and even enforcing — suitability is a key component of responsible product development in this category.

This is because the level of commitment and attention to detail required to act on changing fertility information makes FABM more complex than some birth control options. An IUD, for example, works without a woman needing to do anything once it’s been inserted. The pill is also more simplistic — in the sense that it only requires a woman to remember to take a tablet daily.

At the same time, it’s clear that hormonal contraception isn’t for everyone — or may not be accessible to everyone (Brayboy points to rising difficulty for US women specifically to access contraception as a relevant point here, for instance). And the convenience of an app-based form of personalised contraception has quickly convinced a new generation of women to try an alternative. (Natural Cycles’ reported some 1.5 million users worldwide last year.)

App-based convenience can invite missteps too, though. After its launch in Europe in 2017 Natural Cycles quickly attracted criticism over misleading and aggressive social media marketing. It was also investigated in Sweden after a hospital in its home market reported a number of unintended pregnancies from women who had been using the app. Although that probe confirmed the number of pregnancies was within the claimed margin of efficacy Natural Cycles agreed with the regulator to clarify the risk of its product failing.

So how digital birth control is presented is a vital consideration.

Clue doesn’t look like it’s taking any risks with how it communicates suitability for Clue Birth Control — prospective users have to go through an eligibility process which requires them to not just say they’re eligible but demonstrate eligibility by being able to provide key information, including about their own cycle.

If the user can’t show eligibility the app will “boot them out”, as Tsang puts it. She says they’ll also then be locked out for a period of time so they can’t just go back in and try different answers. While users whose cycle becomes too irregular for the product to work properly will similarly be prevented from continued use.

“There is a very detailed assessment process as soon as you try to sign up for Clue Birth Control,” she says. “It asks you a series of questions that really even in the questions themselves and how you answer — it’s like a question with a drop-down underneath it — even in how we’ve set those up it makes it so that users actually have to explicitly say that they are eligible. It’s not a true/false kind of situation. It’s ‘how are old are you’?… We ask these explicit questions so what that does is it actually draws the information out of the user in a way where we can be sure that they are actually eligible to use this feature as it is regulated to be used.”

“That process itself was scrutinized in detail by FDA,” adds Walter. “This is a device that you can use in the privacy of your phone — nobody else has to be involved in it — so it’s really important that that funnel is correct and so that is something that we talked about in a lot of detail.

“And one thing that you do need to be aware of is that you’re not going to be able to answer these questions unless you have some awareness of your cycle going in. Because you’ve got to know is your cycle typically this long or this long. What does your longest cycle look like? What’s your shortest cycle look like over the last 12 months?”

“The [FDA] clearance is related to the product as presented. The product — because it relies purely on one data input and statistical predictions — there’s obviously some level of… ‘irregularity’,” Walter adds. “If your periods are wildly unpredictable this isn’t going to work. What our science team says is… about 70-80% of currently cycling women fall within the bandwidth that could be covered by it.

“It’s 20-40 day cycles and 9 days or less of variation between them. So it’s not like you have to know to the day.”

“We know that it’s impossible to be perfect and so we make sure to tell people that typical use is 92% and so we don’t at all try to oversell ourselves. And that this is better than doing many things which are commonly done by users in the US,” says Brayboy.

“The pill and the IUD have very very defined risks,” she adds. “So we essentially explain that we are not as effective as those methods but our users potentially would have benefits because some of them cannot tolerate those methods for whatever reason.”

“Unfortunately a lot of people do rely on coitus interruptus and a lot of people do rely on condoms which are great but you have to use condoms every single time in order to be effective. And so those individuals might really benefit from having some idea of where they are in their cycle and it’s not only some idea — it’s a rigorously looked at algorithm that they can use in the privacy of their home,” Brayboy goes on.

“It’s really getting difficult… for a lot of American women to actually access birth control. One because of job loss; two because of a recent supreme court ruling in 2020 about opting out of contraceptive coverage. And so this is something they can do in collaboration with their healthcare providers but they don’t have to go out to a pharmacy and hopefully people will see that it’s easy to use. It really is easy to use. You never [don’t] leave your phone at home so you can’t lose this contraception.”

Another major consideration for users of digital contraception is that unprotected sex offers no protection against STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) — rates of which have been increasing in the US in recent years.

Clue therefore recommends its product for women who are in stable relationships — and/or are getting regularly screened, along with their partner/s — i.e. rather than for those who don’t know the sexual history of the people they’re sleeping with.

“It was sort of a premise from the beginning that we only want people to use this product for whom it’s really truly a good product,” says Tin. “It’s like we’re building this product because we think many people will benefit from it and we’ve seen many people needing it and so that’s the core. We want to be helpful. We don’t want people to use it for whom it’s not a good solution. And that’s how we’ve built it.”

Asked who the ‘perfect/ideal’ user for Clue Birth Control, Brayboy puts it like this: “This is someone who — as I envisage as a physician — potentially wants to get pregnant in the next couple of years but is not ready and does not want to use hormonal birth control for whatever reason and is already using condoms.

“So this is someone who wants to not get pregnant just now but is preparing, is planning — and they don’t want something that’s long acting.”

She also points out that many of the most effective methods of contraception (“like the levonorgestrel IUD or the Mirena”, which are ~99.9%) have draw-backs too — in that they have to be placed and removed from the woman’s uterus. They may also, she suggests, have a long term effect on the endometrium.

“So [Clue Birth Control] is something where if you decide okay in the next few years you want to get pregnant you absolutely can stop [following the regime] and you can get pregnant. And you also have a better idea of your cycles at the same time — so it gives you that added benefit,” she adds. “Again, our indication’s 18-45 but a lot of people who are in their late 20s and 30s would be ideal candidates for this.”

Tin also points to the “staggering amount of unwanted pregnancies” in the US and around the world — noting that many women currently still don’t use any birth control, for whatever reason. So an app-based fertility prediction might be an alternative that works for them.

Brayboy notes that unintended pregnancy in the US is about 45% but can be as high as 69% in some ethnic groups, per figures from the American College of OBGYN.

“Unintended pregnancy is also hard to study because people don’t typically plan to become pregnant — and so it makes it difficult. But this [app-based FABM] is a way — also people could really think about how do I want to plan my family in the next couple of years? And so it really is a lovely way for people to start really thinking about becoming parents.”

The marketing for Clue Birth Control will reflect that it’s a “serious choice” people are making to opt for a digital birth control, per Tsang.

“We make sure that people understand that no form of birth control is 100% effective. And that this is a choice — and this is a serious choice that they make,” she says. “In our marketing we plan to help people make that choice — make a choice that’s right for them. And be transparent about the risks and how it works and what it means.”

“I would say that we don’t have huge plans to do social media and influencer marketing,” she adds. “But again we do have these standard operating procedures that make sure that we both speak about the labelling, we speak about our product in a way that reflects exactly what it is.”

Retooling to be regulated

The aforementioned changes to Clue’s leadership team are coupled with a wider retooling of its internal processes — reflective of its new status as a regulated company.

“Something that a lot of people aren’t aware of is that to be allowed to have a medical device on the market you have to operate a quality management system that covers your entire company. And as you know if you cover tech startups that’s not how tech startups tend to work!” says Walter. 

“Which is why it’s incredibly important if you’re going to use an app to make important life decisions about your health you want to make sure they’re building their product in a quality controlled way. And of course any app that you find out there on the market that is not a regulated medical device pretty much 100% will not be working in this way. And so one of the things that we had to do — and that we will be audited for once we have the product in the market — is to show that all of our processes, from design over software development, testing, user testing, all of these things are quality controlled every step of the way. So that’s the big change that we’ve gone through in the last two years.”

“It’s a really big change,” adds Tin. “And for us it’s been important to get the team along in a really good way — not lose who we are. We think of it as acquiring a new ninja skill — something new that we’re learning to do that we’re adding to who we are — so that we can still be user focused and maintain all the qualities that we care about and always have cared about but now doing it sort of at a higher level under this quality management system.

“I think it’s very well aligned with who we are because essentially a quality management system’s about quality and risk and care, essentially, for users — and we feel a lot of responsibility putting out a product that help people navigate really big, important things, like getting pregnant, not getting pregnant, so we feel good about making sure that our processes match that level of responsibility. So in that way it’s been easy to get the team along but I will say it’s been a huge amount of work.

“I don’t know how many thousands of pages of technical documentation that we have submitted etc. It’s really like a huge rehaul. So the fact that we can maintain still feeling like Clue while operating in a very new way I’m pretty happy about. Because we could also become very boring — big, corporate-ish — but that isn’t who we are and that’s important because of course we want to keep caring about users.”

For all the extra paperwork, Tsang says Clue’s mission as a company hasn’t — and isn’t — changing.

“It’s just very value-aligned. We’re here to put something out that’s high quality and where we have a clear procedure and clear processes for evaluating risk and mitigating risk. And that’s all completely values aligned with being a femtech company that empowers women to make healthy choices,” she says.

“Nobody is going to go out there and say well we play fast and loose with people’s health. Nobody wants to do that but it helps to have a third party watch you — and that’s what it means to be a regulated company. It means that there are democratically accountable government institutions looking over your shoulder and checking,” adds Walter.

“And I think if you’re looking at some of the criticism that femtech has come into recently — legitimately — because there are all kinds of apps out there that are completely unregulated, no one knows where they’re coming from, no one knows what their business models are, no one knows what they’re really doing. And this is a strong move in the opposite direction.

“We take the constraints that flow from that seriously… As Ida says we’re going to try not to lose our fun in the process.”

The team does also see wider opportunities flowing from being a regulated entity.

“I think this broadens our mission too,” says Brayboy. “Period tracking is really important in overall health but I think this allows individuals to use FABM in a modern way — and FABM itself can help individuals take in things in their cycles that might actually affect their fertility long term and also some diagnosis that might be important to speak with their physician about early, so they present to care early. So we hope to have that partnership with users and their healthcare providers.”

“We don’t have plans to do [comparative studies with other types of contraception] but what I’d like to say is that we have a post-market surveillance plan and we’ll be doing studies with collaborators — we’ve already started to collaborate with academia before Clue Birth Control came out so it’s something that we’ll continue to do,” she also says. “What we’ll be doing in future is we’ll be going to clinical meetings, and presenting and allowing people to collaborate with us. And I think that’s really important that our doors are open for physician scientists and scientists and contraceptive researchers to continue to look at us. And we want to do that because we’re all about science — we’re based on science. And I came to Clue because of that mission.”

“For us it’s also an ability to keep doing more and more advanced things with the data, if you like,” adds Tin. “Which of course is important because people have many needs that if you are to answer them it has to be regulated. It’s right that they’re regulated. Now we learn how to operate as a regulated company — we are operating as a regulated company — that gives us an ability to keep meeting these needs that are deeper.”

Walter also emphasizes the competitive advantage of being a consumer app that’s subject to regulatory surveillance as a medical device — in a sea of unregulated apps.

“A really important thing is that if you look at your average health and fitness app or whatever, their main KPI is let’s get a tonne of users through the door and make money off them. And I’m not going to say we don’t want a tonne of users through the door and to be profitable — we do want that. But because we are regulated we also have this post-market surveillance obligation that we will be audited on. That’s a KPI now. That’s not a nice to have. And I think that’s a big difference. And that’s something that consumers should think about when they’re using an app — like what KPIs are those people working to.

“And you might want to ask yourself what other apps is that developer putting out? Do they have 15 gaming apps and one period tracker? And what’s their business model?”

“And who’s leading the company,” Brayboy chips in. “Look around this Zoom room you can see that we have all potentially had periods and continue to have them and so have had to make these decisions and so I think it puts us in a very unique position because we have a level of empathy and understanding that really comes from a personal space.

“And I wanted to say on the global health [potential] — I’m really excited about that. And that’s another of the reasons why I joined the company because I started my career in the Republic of Mali in West Africa and I saw how difficult it was for individuals to get contraception and a lot of things that are culturally pushed to people in those areas. And so this to me really represents an exciting prospect… I think there’s just limitless possibilities in other countries — we haven’t really thought about the cultural practices and the tendencies that people want to use something that is hormone free.”

Asked about the new co-CEO structure, Tin says it’s a natural continuation of the collaborative leadership style she encouraged at Clue.

“The big two things that Clue is going to care about is being a regulated company and building a sustainable business and I could’t think of two better people than Carrie and Audrey to mind these two parts of the business… We have had a very collaborative leadership style at Clue, always, because that’s how I like doing things — and it feels again also like an upgrade. Now two people get to do this in a pair and I think that’s a really great reflection of what I think is the future of leadership. So on that level it’s also an expression of who we are to choose to have co-CEOs.”

“We’re new at this but it’s been really fun the last couple of weeks but at the heart of it are these values of being disciplined about being transparent,” adds Tsang. “Being collaborative and being equal. And it allows us to hold each other accountable for all of those things which are at at the heart of Clue’s values. So I completely agree with Ida — I’d love to see more leadership look like this moving forward and I personally have been enjoying it quite a bit.”

“Who needs another ‘hero CEO’,” adds Walter. “My starting point was that every conversation I have is actually better when Audrey’s in it — so let’s make my head conversations that way. Let’s upgrade the thinking process to a dialogue. And I think once you accept that most decisions are better made in some form of collaboration — let’s get real, right; we’re not that much of a genius that all of us don’t ever need to talk to other people — so once we accept that then the only question is how do you collaborate?

“As Ida said, we’ve always had a pretty collaborative management team but actually we found that — it’s like in the arts. Where are the most productive, most creative collaborations — they’re in really tight micro teams. And so let’s put that at the heart. And of course there’s a management team and of course there are other expertise and having Lynae in the company is wonderful and having the science component, and data science component, and all of this expertise, but I really like this generative heart of two. This dialogue as being the decision making process. There’s no reason to me why that wouldn’t make us more bold and more thoughtful.”

“I want to second this and maybe it’s also worth saying that I founded Clue together with a bunch of great guys — one of them my life partner, and in a way we have, for many years, also been a very closed pair,” adds Tin. “And working on understanding equality and living from that place and now it’s, in a way, just an even more clear part of the structure. It’s like a good next step on something we’ve been learning about — basically since the beginning of Clue.”

 

#apps, #clue, #digital-birth-control, #digital-contraception, #europe, #health, #ida-tin, #natural-cycles, #tc

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Paytm claims top spot in India’s mobile payments market with 1.2B monthly transactions

Paytm, India’s most valuable startup, said on Monday it processed 1.2 billion transactions in the month of February, illustrating the level of penetration it has made in one of the world’s fastest-growing payments markets where it competes with Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Flipkart-backed PhonePe.

Paytm said its users made 1.2 billion transactions last month across several payments modes including wallets, plastic cards, internet banking, and UPI. This is the largest volume of transactions reported by any payments firm in India and Paytm claimed that it has consolidated its leadership position.

A Paytm spokesperson told TechCrunch that the startup clocked over 1 billion transactions in the month of January as well. A PhonePe spokesperson told TechCrunch that its app crossed a billion transactions in December, and its last month’s transacting volume was “over a billion” across UPI, wallet, and credit and debit cards.

Paytm’s figure shows how the SoftBank-backed startup has continued to grow despite not being a dominant player in the UPI ecosystem.

A payments railroad built by a coalition of retail banks and backed by the government, UPI has emerged as the most popular way users transact online in recent years though it does not offer any business model.

Last month, UPI services processed 2.29 billion transactions, the governing body NPCI said on Monday. PhonePe and Google Pay are the dominant UPI players in India, commanding over 85% of the person-to-person payments market. PhonePe processed about 970 million UPI transactions in February. (NPCI has said that it will enforce a market share cap on its member firms.)

Unlike Paytm, which leads among wallet players, and PhonePe, Google Pay and relatively new entrant WhatsApp solely operate on UPI.

Paytm has expanded to cater to merchants in recent years as several international firms launched their offerings to solve person-to-person payments in India. The startup claimed that its service dominates in offline merchant payments and is growing 15% month-on-month. The startup, led by Vijay Shekhar Sharma, said it serves over 17 million merchants. PhonePe told TechCrunch it serves over 17.5 million merchants.

Paytm said it has been “the main driving force behind building and expanding digital villages and now empowers over 6 lakh (600,000) villages in India with digital payments.” The startup said over 50% of its merchant partners have an account with Paytm Payments Bank — the startup’s digital bank — and it also commands the market with its digital wealth management service, Paytm Money.

At stake is India’s payments market that is estimated to be worth $1 trillion in the next three years, up from about $200 billion last year, according to Credit Suisse.

“We are humbled by the trust India has shown in us & made Paytm their preferred digital payments & financial service provider. We have consistently maintained industry-leading market share & growing at an impressive rate,” said Narendra Yadav, Vice President of Paytm, in a statement.

“We have been promoting all digital payment methods giving multiple-choices to consumers that have helped us in consolidating our leadership position. In fact, a large percentage of our users who started their digital journey with Paytm, have now adopted & embraced our financial services.”

#apps, #asia, #google-pay, #india, #payments, #paytm, #phonepe, #softbank

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This Week in Apps: Twitter targets creators, Clubhouse security, Spotify’s plans for paid podcasts

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. A new forecast this week expects consumer spend to grow to $270 billion by 2025.

Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This week, we’re looking into what’s next for the future of one of the top social apps (Twitter), as well as Spotify’s latest announcements around its future plans for podcasts and subscriptions, along with other top stories, including the Clubhouse security problem.

Top Stories

Twitter wakes up

Image Credits: Twitter

Twitter over the years has been slow to roll out new features that dramatically impact its platform — even going so far at one time to build an entirely separate app just to test a new way to link together conversation threads. Its slow momentum and failure to build features users actually want, like an edit button, has left Twitter feeling a lot like the same experience it was in its earlier years — a public SMS of sorts (albeit one with more utilities for tweet discovery and management).

This has also contributed slow user growth, which opened up Twitter last year to pressure from activist investors to oust CEO Jack Dorsey, who was then planning to move to Africa, while also still running Square. (He decided not to go because of the pandemic… and, well, to keep his job, we’d guess.) Following this more intensive scrutiny of Twitter’s operations, the company in recent months has begun to speed things up on the product front.

Last year, it rolled out to its global audience a stories-like feature called Fleets, offering a place for more ephemeral content to live on its platform. It began development on a Clubhouse rival, Twitter Spaces, which is surging ahead with updates and new features. And it’s working on a community-led misinformation debunking effort, Birdwatch.

Twitter also began to make a series of acquisitions to build out its product teams, with additions like social app Squad, stories template maker Chroma Labs and podcasting app Breaker. And more recently, it bought newsletter platform Revue, which is already integrated on the Twitter website.

And it’s not done. This week, Twitter announced even more new products were in the works.

One, a new product called “Super Follow,” represents Twitter’s first-ever paid feature. The idea with the Super Follow is to turn Twitter into a platform where creators can monetize their fan base — with a “Super Follow” subscription, fans can access member-only perks. These can include whatever the creator wants — newsletters, videos, deals, community access and even paywalled content like tweets, fleets and audio chats in Twitter Spaces.

Along with this, Twitter introduced “Communities,” which, in addition to allowing social networking around interests, give Super Follow-using creators a place to organize their own private networks.

And it’s finally working on tools to auto-block and mute the trolls, too. 🙌

To put it mildly, this strategy represents one of the more radical shake-ups to Twitter’s platform to date. It not only challenges other networks — like Facebook, Discord, Patreon, Substack and Clubhouse — it positions Twitter’s slew of new features not just as fun add-ons, but rather as general-purpose tools that allow anyone to build and grow their own communities whichever way they want.

The one big miss on this front is that Twitter no longer has its own social video app to throw in the mix, too. Sadly, the company shut down both Vine and now, Periscope. Though Twitter itself supports video, Vine’s closure led to a hole in the market that’s since been filled by TikTok. And unfortunately, sharing TikTok links on Twitter is poor experience — they just display as previews that take you to a new TikTok tab when clicked. To get TikTok videos to play in-line, you have to download them first — something not all creators permit.

Nevertheless, Twitter is expecting the changes to help it to double its revenues by 2023, and grow its daily user base to 315 million, up from the 192 million it has today.

Spotify looks to new subscriptions for revenue growth

Image Credits: Spotify/Anchor

Twitter isn’t the only one looking to new subscriptions to make more money. Spotify this week also announced a good handful of updates, including a high-end Premium add-on for higher-quality music streams, called Spotify HiFi.

The company also confirmed its plans to test paid podcast subscriptions. The big bet here is that some podcasts are so compelling and have such a loyal fanbase that listeners will pay for their content, or maybe just their extras. These, of course, will no longer really be “podcasts” at this point — they’re paid audio programs. The feature will be introduced to Spotify’s creation app Anchor this spring.

But overeager adoption of paywalls by podcasters (who can’t make a living from their ad sales) could push more users to new social audio platforms, like Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces, where content is free and conversations are more participatory. Anchor’s solution for audience engagement is to roll out Q&As and polls. But why bother clicking, when you can hit up a Clubhouse room and talk?

Clubhouse’s exclusivity leads to discovery of security problems

The demand for Clubhouse access is becoming so high that people are figuring out ways to reverse-engineer the experience, TechCrunch reported this week. A developer found a way to broadcast Clubhouse audio feeds in real time to users who couldn’t get in because they didn’t have an invite or an iPhone. Though Clubhouse blocked the effort later in the week, the fact that a developer was able to gain access to Clubhouse audio feeds in the first place was an indication that the app isn’t as locked down as one might think.

In addition, other researchers have figured out ways to “ghost listen” to rooms without displaying user profiles — essentially, eavesdropping. And users in China appear to be able to listen to a room conversation facilitated by Clubhouse’s service provider Agora by using a VPN — even though they can’t technically “join” a room due to the app itself being banned.

Clubhouse’s appeal has a lot to do with how its social audio spaces aren’t recorded, so people can be themselves. There’s an expectation that you are only speaking to a group who’s listening and there’s no way to go back for a transcript or recording later. In other words, it’s not a podcast — it’s live. It’s social. And it’s semi-private.

These security breaches prove that’s not entirely true.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Apple added guidance for app developers to help them complete App Store privacy labels. Specifically, it added information about data types, like email and messages, and gameplay content. Not coincidentally, I’m sure, Google added a privacy label to Gmail this week, too.

Apple’s “Sign in with Apple” button is now a part of the U.S. DoJ antitrust investigation against the company, reports The Information. Apple requires the option on all apps that offer sign-in buttons from other companies, like Facebook and Google, which has upset some developers. Investigators are looking to better understand how use of the button makes it more difficult for Apple device users to switch to other platforms.

Apple Entrepreneur Camp applications opened up for female founders and developers. The camp will run online July 20-29, 2021, offering attendees code-level guidance, mentorship, plus access to Apple engineers.

Apple tweaked the subscription “buy sheet” in iOS 14.5 beta. The new screen aims to make the price of an app’s subscription more clear to end users.

Apple hid an Easter egg in its Apple Store app to celebrate its 10-year anniversary.

Platforms: Google

Google this week announced the next set of features coming to Android in its spring 2021 release. Flagship items include a password checkup tool and a way to schedule your texts (!!!). The latter means you can compose a message at any time, then pick the time you want it to send. iMessage, your turn! Other improvements included updates to the screen reader TalkBack, Maps (which gets a dark mode default option), Assistant and Android Auto.

Google launches an Android Sleep API for use in health and wellness apps. The new API will use the phone’s light and motion sensors in combination with an onboard API model to generate information like a “sleep confidence” determination and daily sleep segments.

Food & Drink

Food delivery app DoorDash stock falls after its first earnings. The company reported $970 million in revenue versus $938 million expected and a loss per share of $2.67. But shares dropped as much as 13% on DoorDash’s forecast, which said some of the earlier tailwinds it saw under stay-at-home orders in the U.S. will turn around as the country gets the vaccine under control.

Food delivery apps got a boost during the Lunar New Year holiday week in China, thanks to COVID-19 travel restrictions that kept people at home and prompted more remote gift deliveries, in particular food orders from services like Meituan and Alibaba’s Ele.me.

Augmented Reality

An iPhone app called Museum Alive, reviewed by The Verge, includes narration from Sir David Attenborough as an extension of his Natural History Museum Alive film. The app includes interactive AR exhibits with extinct animals in their own habitats.

Fintech

Mobile investing app Robinhood reports seeing 6 million new customers on Robinhood Crypto just this year. By comparison, the number peaked at 401,000 customers in a single month in 2020, with a monthly average of 200,000 customers trading on Robinhood Crypto for the first time.

Google emailed users of the old Google Pay app and website that they’ll lose transactional capabilities on April 5 and will need to switch to the updated Google Pay app instead.

Social

Image Credits: Snap

At Snap’s investor day, the company projected 50% annual revenue growth for the next several years. The company spoke of the app’s main features — Camera, Map, Chat, Stories and Spotlight — each which it believes to be multibillion-dollar revenues streams in the long-term. It also talked about its investments in AR, Snap Ads, Shows, Stories and its TikTok rival, Spotlight. Investors responded favorably to the news, with shares up 11% on Tuesday, pushing the company’s valuation over $100 billion.

Instagram adds its TikTok rival, Reels, to its slimmed-down Instagram Lite app aimed at emerging markets. Some are already dubbing it “bloatware.”

TikTok partners with Portland Timbers and Thorns FC in its first U.S. soccer deal. The multi-year deal will have the clubs distributing video content in collaboration with TikTok, and will see the clubs featuring the TikTok logo on their jerseys.

TikTok owner ByteDance agrees to $92 million privacy settlement with U.S. TikTok users after a year of litigation. The claims in the lawsuits said TikTok was using a broad array of biometric data and content from user devices for ad targeting and profit. TikTok said it disagrees with the assertions but wanted to put an end to the lengthy litigation.

TikTok’s latest transparency report for H2 2020 said the app removed over 300,000 election misinformation videos, and another 400,000 from the For You page. The percentage of deletions were in line with the prior report, despite the busy election season it covered.

The Washington Post reports conservative backer Rebekah Mercer, whose family also funds Breitbart, now controls two of the three board seats at right-wing Twitter alternative, Parler. The app’s founding CEO John Matze was pushed out last month, and Mercer has since exerted more control over the company’s direction.

Twitter banned 100 accounts linked to Russian troll farms. The accounts were caught up in part of a larger enforcement action Twitter took against 373 accounts with connections to Armenia, Iran and Russia. The Russian accounts were being used to amplify talking points in favor of the Russian government.

Facebook tests new tools to combat child exploitation. One tool will pop up a message for people who use search terms linked to child exploitation that reminds them of the consequences and points them to resources to get help from offender diversion organizations. Another will alert users to the legal ramifications of sharing viral, meme child exploitative content. The company also updated its child safety policies and updated its reporting menu across FB and IG to include a section for a report that “involves a child.”

Top social apps including TikTok, Instagram and Pinterest added new features to support those with eating disorders as part of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (February 22-28). Among the changes, TikTok and Instagram added features to encourage body inclusivity; TikTok now redirects some eating disorder searches to point to support resources; Instagram added links to local helplines in Australia, Canada and the U.K.; Pinterest donated credits to encourage people to tune into NED Awareness events; and more.

Photos

Flickr rolled out a widget for both iOS and Android devices. The widget lets you enjoy a rotating selection of photos from Explore on your home screen — great for someone looking for variety, instead of a static home screen.

Messaging / Communications

Telegram adds an auto-delete option for all messages, which lets users automatically delete messages after either 24 hours or seven days. The feature was previously available only for its encrypted Secret Chats. It also added expiring invite links and an option to create broadcast-only groups.

WhatsApp details what will happen when users don’t agree to the privacy changes by the May 15, 2021 deadline. It said for a short time (a few weeks), the users will be able to receive calls and notifications, but won’t be able to read or send messages, to give them more time to agree.

More Google Hangouts users are being migrated over to the Google Chat “preview” experience. The company had said it would split Hangouts into two services, Chat and Meet. The transition began last year, but personal account holders had only been told “early 2021” for their migration date. Early reports (see below) say the new experience is lacking when it comes to video call integration and lack of SMS support.

Streaming & Entertainment

Image Credits: YouTube

YouTube announced it will roll out parental control features for families with tweens and teens that will allow them to graduate more safely from the YouTube Kids app to “real YouTube.” Parents will be able grant kids more access through their “supervised” Google Account, then choose from one of of three levels of YouTube access ranging from a selection that’s more tween-friendly to another that’s more appropriate for older teens. By using the account, parents are also agreeing to allow YouTube to collect personal data from the kids — something it couldn’t do in YouTube Kids.

Disney’s adult-friendly Star channel launched outside the U.S. to Disney+ subscribers in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The additional channel combines content from Disney Television Studios, FX, 20th Century Studios and 20th Television, and bumps Disney+ price up by a small amount (a few pounds in the U.K., e.g.). Parental controls were also added to block kids from accessing the more adult fare.

South Korean media reported the country’s current prime minister, Chung Sye-kyun, has joined Clubhouse, making him the most senior political leader to join the growing app.

Gaming

Image Credits: GameSnacks

Google’s mobile-friendly online games, GameSnacks, developed by its Area 120 in-house incubator, are being integrated into Chrome on iOS and Android Pay in select emerging markets. The HTML5-powered games are a way that Google is routing around app stores, and instead delivering gaming content to users without the associated app store fees. It’s also a more lightweight model for gaming, which helps in some markets where storage space and bandwidth are concerns. The company is experimenting with bringing the games to Google Assistant next.

Chinese mobile games released on the U.S. App Store and Google Play Store raked in $5.8 billion during Q24 2020, up 34.3% from a year ago, and accounting for over a quarter of the world’s mobile gaming revenues, per Sensor Tower data. Top titles include big names like Call of Duty (a collaboration between Tencent and Activision) and Tencent’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. as well as those from smaller studios such as Mihoyo’s Genshin Impact and Magic Tavern’s Project Makeover.

In the ongoing Epic Games versus Apple legal showdown in the U.S., Epic is now trying to locate former iOS software chief Scott Forstall to testify, after Apple said Forstall didn’t respond to its request to appear.

Meanwhile, a U.K. court blocked Epic Games from challenging Apple’s Fortnite ban. The court said Epic’s lawsuit against Apple would be better to pursue in the U.S., but allowed the suit against Google to continue.

Epic Games is sending players V-Bucks to settle its Fornite loot box class action lawsuit. The settlement is supposed to be for U.S. players only, but Epic is offering the V-Bucks to global players.

Amazon’s Luna cloud gaming service, which lets users stream games across platforms including Windows, Mac, Android, web browsers on iPhone and iPad and desktop, has now arrived on Amazon’s Fire TV devices in an expansion of its early access program.

App Annie announces new features to help customers discover gaming launches, as well as measure and visualize performance of games. The features include RPD (revenue per download), Align Apps by Launch, Cumulative Downloads and Cumulative Revenue, and a Soft Launches Report.

A floating gaming toolbar has been found in the code of the Android 12 Developer Preview. Full details are not available but one button is a picture of a game controller while the other is suspected to be some sort of option to record your current gaming session.

Social casino game Coin Master from Moon Active tops $2 billion in lifetime player spending, reports Sensor Tower. The title booked $1.2 billion in 2020 alone, up 122.4% year-over-year, boosted by pandemic boredom and in-game spending.

Zynga is creating its own first-party walled garden for ad tech, due to Apple’s push for app tracking transparency. More companies could do the same, argues Mobile Dev Memo.

Health & Fitness

The New York Department of Financial Services said in an investigative report that Facebook has now taken steps to prevent it from collecting unauthorized data about people’s medical conditions, The WSJ reported. The company had been collecting the data through its SDK installed in numerous apps, then matches the sensitive, personal data to users’ Facebook accounts for ad targeting. One app involved, period tracker Flo, separately settled with the FTC in January over its involvement.

Media

Australia’s ABC News app hit the top of the App Store following the upheaval related to Facebook’s ban of Australian news sources on its platform. The app become No. 1 in News and No. 2 Overall, ahead of Facebook and its other apps, including Messenger and Instagram.

Funding and M&A

💰 YouTuber David Dobrik’s retro photo app raised $20 million in a Series A round led by Spark Capital. The app’s gimmick is that it allows you to snap photos in an old-fashioned camera interface where photos don’t “develop” until the next morning. The TestFlight, capped at 10,000 users, was full within a weekend of launching.

💰 Celebrity video platform memmo raised $10 million Series A, in a round led by Left Lane Capital. The concept is similar to U.S.-based Cameo, but Stockholm-based memmo’s strategy is both global and localized.

💰 Snack, a TikTok-like dating app, raised $3.5 million in a round led by Kindred Ventures and Coelius Capital. The startup was founded by early (Match Group-owned) Plenty of Fish exec Kimberly Kaplan, and targets Gen Z by way of a video feed with likes and comments that lead to DMs.

💰 AI-powered transcription service Otter, available on web and mobile, raised $50 million ($40 million in new funds) Series B. The service got a boost from the pandemic and its Zoom integration.

💰 Spain’s Wallapop raised $191 million at an $840 million valuation for its classifieds marketplace. The funding was led by Korelya Capital, a French VC fund backed by Korea’s Naver. The app was previously going to merge with U.S.-based LetGo, but later shelved those plans. (LetGo instead was bought by OfferUp.)

🤝 Austrian app marketer App Radar acquired Spanish rival TheTool. At the time of the deal, TheTool provided data insights for some 400 app marketing clients. The assets-only deal will allow App Radar to expand its presence across Europe.

💰 Indian edtech startup Doubtnut raised $31 million for its website and app that help students learn math and science. The app lets students take a photo of the problem, then uses ML and image recognition to deliver the answer in the form of short videos.

🤝 Design platform Canva, which works on both web and mobile, acquired Kaleido, the maker of a drag-and-drop background removal service, remove.bg, for photos and videos. It also bought Smartmockups in the Czech Republic, which lets anyone create mockups for t-shirts, mugs and other items.

🤝 Podcast host and ad network Acast bought RadioPublic, a maker of tools for podcasters, including a website maker, marketing tools, and the RadioPublic podcast app. The latter will remain live and the team will stay in the U.S.

💰 Copenhagen-based Podimo, a subscription service for podcasts, raised €11.2 million in funding. The app offers access to over 600 exclusive shows, and shares its revenue from subscriptions with its creators.

❓Beijing-based tutoring app Yuanfudao is said to be raising funding at a $20 billion+ valuation. The funding would follow a prior $2.2 billion round that valued the business at $15.5 billion.

📈Roblox shares to begin trading March 10. The cross-platform gaming service, which is popular on mobile, has opted for a direct listing instead of an IPO.

Downloads

Quill

Image Credits: Quill

A new Slack competitor, Quill, launched out of stealth this week, TechCrunch reported, with its apps for the web, Mac, Windows, Linux and Android and iOS on mobile. Like Slack, Quill lets co-workers communicate through channels, video and voice. But it also addresses some of the issues Slack overlooks. One, “structured channels,” lets admins enforce threads, for example. It also automatically moves up active conversations, limits notifications, has improved pinning, supports moving threads between channels and places video and chat side-by-side, to name a few. You can even interact with Quill via SMS and email.

ANDY’s apps

Image Credits: ANDY

Andy Allen, former head of Product at WeTransfer, teamed up with Mark Dawson, the lead graphics engineer from Allen’s former prior company Fifty Three, to create a new set of “default” apps with ANDY. That is, the company’s new apps aim to update your basic set — like weather, calculator and timer.

“Most of the default apps haven’t changed over the last 10 years. Yet we’re still using them. I see that as a sign that we’ll still need basic apps like weather, calculator and timer in another 10 years,” notes Allen.

Image Credits: ANDY

What makes ANDY apps different is that they’re built inside a game engine to unlock new experiences that makes them feel more like games themselves. They’re also skinnable, with three skins available at launch and more to come every few months. The apps require a subscription to work — either $14.99/yr for all apps and basic skins or $69.99/yr for all apps plus basic and limited-edition skins, as well as limited-edition collector cards. The company plans to expand its app collection over time.

YouWidget

Image Credits: YouWidget

Spotted this week by the folks at iMore, the new YouWidget delivers a YouTube iOS widget that puts a live video feed on your home screen along with other stats. For YouTubers and fans alike, the app could be useful in helping to track a specific channel’s releases and their other subscriptions. But even if you don’t need live videos, the app offers a widget with statistics for any channel — including subscriber counts, views and video counts.

#apps, #tc, #this-week-in-apps

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Daily Crunch: Facebook launches rap app

Facebook unveils another experimental app, Atlassian acquires a data visualization startup and Newsela becomes a unicorn. This is your Daily Crunch for February 26, 2021.

The big story: Facebook launches rap app

The new BARS app was created by NPE Team (Facebook’s internal R&D group), allowing rappers to select from professionally created beats, and then create and share their own raps and videos. It includes autotune and will even suggest rhymes as you’re writing the lyrics.

This marks NPE Team’s second musical effort — the first was the music video app Collab. (It could also be seen as another attempt by Facebook to launch a TikTok competitor.) BARS is available in the iOS App Store in the U.S., with Facebook gradually admitting users off a waitlist.

The tech giants

Atlassian is acquiring Chartio to bring data visualization to the platform — Atlassian sees Chartio as a way to really take advantage of the data locked inside its products.

Yelp puts trust and safety in the spotlight — Yelp released its very first trust and safety report this week, with the goal of explaining the work that it does to crack down on fraudulent and otherwise inaccurate or unhelpful content.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Newsela, the replacement for textbooks, raises $100M and becomes a unicorn —  If Newsela is doing its job right, its third-party content can replace textbooks within a classroom altogether, while helping teachers provide fresh, personalized material.

Tim Hortons marks two years in China with Tencent investment — The Canadian coffee and doughnut giant has raised a new round of funding for its Chinese venture.

Sources: Lightspeed is close to hiring a new London-based partner to put down further roots in Europe — According to multiple sources, Paul Murphy is being hired away from Northzone.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

In freemium marketing, product analytics are the difference between conversion and confusion — Considering that most freemium providers see fewer than 5% of free users move to paid plans, even a slight improvement in conversion can translate to significant revenue gains.

As BNPL startups raise, a look at Klarna, Affirm and Afterpay earnings — With buy-now-pay-later options, consumers turn a one-time purchase into a limited string of regular payments.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Jamaica’s JamCOVID pulled offline after third security lapse exposed travelers’ data — JamCOVID was set up last year to help the government process travelers arriving on the island.

AT&T is turning DirecTV into a standalone company — AT&T says it will own 70% of the new company, while private equity firm TPG will own 30%.

How to ace the 1-hour, and ever-elusive, pitch presentation at TC Early Stage — Norwest’s Lisa Wu has a message for founders: Think like a VC during your pitch presentation.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

#apps, #daily-crunch, #facebook, #mobile, #social

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Yelp puts trust and safety in the spotlight

Yelp released its very first trust and safety report this week, with the goal of explaining the work that it does to crack down on fraudulent and otherwise inaccurate or unhelpful content.

With focus on local business reviews and information, you might think Yelp would be relatively free of the types of misinformation that other social media platforms struggle with. But of course, Yelp reviews are high stakes in their own way, since they can have a big impact on a business’ bottom line.

Like other online platforms, Yelp relies on a mix of software and human curation. On the software side, one of the main tasks is sorting reviews into recommended and not recommended. Group Product Manager for Trust and Safety Sudheer Someshwara told me that a review might not be recommended because it appears to be written by someone with a conflict of interest, or it might be solicited by the business, or it might come from a user who hasn’t posted many reviews before and “we just don’t know enough information about the user to recommend those reviews to our community.”

“We take fairness and integrity very seriously,” Someshwara said. “No employee at Yelp has the ability to override decisions the software has made. That even includes the engineers.”

He added, “We treat every business the same, whether they’re advertising with us or not.”

Yelp trust and safety report

Image Credits: Yelp

So the company says that last year, users posted more than 18.1 million reviews, of which 4.6 million (about 25%) were not recommended by the software. Someshwara noted that even when a review is not recommended, it’s not removed entirely — users just have to seek it out in a separate section.

Removals do happen, but that’s one of the places where the user operations team comes in. As Vice President of Legal, Trust & Safety Aaron Schur explained, “We do make it easy for businesses as well as consumers to flag reviews. Every piece of content that’s flagged in that way does get reviewed by a live human to decide whether it should should be removed violating our guidelines.”

Yelp says that last year, about 710,000 reviews (4%) were removed entirely for violating the company’s policies. Of those, more than 5,200 were removed for violating the platform’s COVID-19 guidelines (among other things, they prohibit reviewers from claiming they contracted COVID from a business, or from complaining about mask requirements or that a business had to close due to safety regulations). Another 13,300 were removed between May 25 and the end of the year for threats, lewdness, hate speech or other harmful content.

“Any current event that takes place will find its way onto Yelp,” acknowledged Vice President of User Operations Noorie Malik. “People turn to Yelp and other social media platforms to have a voice.”

But expressing political beliefs can conflict with what Malik said is Yelp’s “guiding principle,” namely “genuine, first-hand experience.” So Yelp has built software to detect unusual activity on a page and will also add a Consumer Alert when it believes there are “egregious attempts to manipulate ratings and reviews.” For example, it says there was a 206% increase in media-fueled incidents year-over-year.

It’s not that you can’t express political opinions in your reviews, but the review has to come from first-hand experience, rather than being prompted by reading a negative article or an angry tweet about the business. Sometimes, she added, that means the team is “removing content with a point of view that we agree with.”

One example that illustrates this distinction: Yelp will take down reviews that seem driven by media coverage suggesting that a business owner or employee behaved in a racist manner, but at the same time, it also labeled two businesses in December 2020 with a “Business Accused of Racism” alert reflecting “resounding evidence of egregious, racist actions from a business owner or employee.”

Beyond looking at individual reviews and spikes in activity, Someshwara said Yelp will also perform “sting operations” to find groups that are posting fraudulent reviews.

In fact, his team apparently shut down 1,200 user accounts associated with review rings and reported nearly 200 groups to other platforms. And it just rolled out an updated algorithm designed to better detect and un-recommend reviews coming from those groups.

#apps, #mobile, #tc, #yelp

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Facebook launches BARS, a TikTok-like app for creating and sharing raps

Facebook’s internal R&D group, NPE Team, is today launching its next experimental app, called BARS. The app makes it possible for rappers to create and share their raps using professionally created beats, and is the NPE Team’s second launch in the music space following its recent public debut of music video app Collab.

While Collab focuses on making music with others online, BARS is instead aimed at would-be rappers looking to create and share their own videos. In the app, users will select from any of the hundreds of professionally created beats, then write their own lyrics and record a video. BARS can also automatically suggest rhymes as you’re writing out lyrics, and offers different audio and visual filters to accompany videos as well as an autotune feature.

There’s also a “Challenge mode” available, where you can freestyle with auto-suggested word cues, which has more of a game-like element to it. The experience is designed to be accommodating to people who just want to have fun with rap, similar to something like Smule’s AutoRap, perhaps, which also offers beats for users’ own recordings.

Image Credits: Facebook

The videos themselves can be up to 60 seconds in length and can then be saved to your Camera Roll or shared out on other social media platforms.

Like NPE’s Collab, the pandemic played a role in BARS’ creation. The pandemic shut down access to live music and places where rappers could experiment, explains NPE Team member DJ Iyler, who also ghostwrites hip-hop songs under the alias “D-Lucks.”

“I know access to high-priced recording studios and production equipment can be limited for aspiring rappers. On top of that, the global pandemic shut down live performances where we often create and share our work,” he says.

BARS was built with a team of aspiring rappers, and today launched into a closed beta.

Image Credits: Facebook

Despite the focus on music, and rap in particular, the new app in a way can be seen as yet another attempt by Facebook to develop a TikTok competitor — at least in this content category.

TikTok has already become a launchpad for up-and-coming musicians, including rappers; it has helped rappers test their verses, is favored by many beatmakers and is even influencing what sort of music is being made. Diss tracks have also become a hugely popular format on TikTok, mainly as a way for influencers to stir up drama and chase views. In other words, there’s already a large social community around rap on TikTok, and Facebook wants to shift some of that attention back its way.

The app also resembles TikTok in terms of its user interface. It’s a two-tabbed vertical video interface — in its case, it has  “Featured” and “New” feeds instead of TikTok’s “Following” and “For You.” And BARS places the engagement buttons on the lower-right corner of the screen with the creator name on the lower-left, just like TikTok.

However, in place of hearts for favoriting videos, your taps on a video give it “Fire” — a fire emoji keeps track. You can tap “Fire” as many times as you want, too. But because there’s (annoyingly) no tap-to-pause feature, you may accidentally “fire” a video when you were looking for a way to stop its playback. To advance in BARS, you swipe vertically, but the interface is lacking an obvious “Follow” button to track your favorite creators. It’s hidden under the top-right three-dot menu.

The app is seeded with content from NPE Team members, which includes other aspiring rappers, former music producers and publishers.

Currently, the BARS beta is live on the iOS App Store in the U.S., and is opening its waitlist. Facebook says it will open access to BARS invites in batches, starting in the U.S. Updates and news about invites, meanwhile, will be announced on Instagram.

Facebook’s recent launches from its experimental apps division include Collab and collage maker E.gg, among others. Not all apps stick around. If they fail to gain traction, Facebook shuts them down — as it did last year with the Pinterest-like video app Hobbi.

#apps, #facebook, #mobile, #music, #rap, #social, #tc, #video

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Celebrity video platform Memmo raises $10M

Memmo.me, a startup allowing users to pay celebrities for personalized video messages, is announcing that it has raised $10 million in Series A funding.

“We’re really excited about our mission to break down these barriers [and help talent] connect one-to-one instead of one-to-thousands,” said co-founder and CEO Gustav Lundberg Toresson.

He added that celebrities are embracing this as a new source of income. It’s particularly appealing during the pandemic, but he predicted that celebrities will still be excited about “making this much money from their living rooms” after the pandemic ends.

The concept probably reminds you of Cameo (indeed, Carole Baskin of “Tiger King” fame has presence on both platforms), but while Cameo is U.S.-based, Memmo was founded in Stockholm, and Lundberg Toresson said its strategy is both global and localized — the company is currently operating localized marketplaces for Sweden, Germany, Finland, Norway, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and Canada, as well as a general global market.

“We want to be the place where you can find everyone from world famous talents like a soccer or basketball star, to the local musician down the road,” he said.” It’s all about using localization to help you find who’s most relevant for you, wherever you are.”

The startup says it has been used to send more than 100,000 messages globally, and that sales grew 50% every month between July of last year and January 2021.

The round was led by Left Lane Capital, with the firm’s founder and managing parter Harley Miller joining the Memmo board. Delivery Hero co-founder Lukasz Gadowski , FJ Labs, Depop CEO Maria Raga, Zillow co-founder Spencer Rascoff, former Groupon operations director Inbal Leshem, Voi Technology co-founder Fredrik Hjelm, former Udemy CEO Dennis Yang and Wolt co-founder Elias Aalto also participated.

“We’ve been impressed with the pace at which Memmo has expanded their offering across markets, where localization is critical to unlocking marketplace liquidity,” Miller said in a statement. “The ability to monetize the gap between wealth and fame for talent & celebrities, all the while allowing them to engage deeply with fans, is a trend that was only further underscored by the pandemic.”

Although Left Lane is based in New York, Lundberg Toresson said he was particularly excited about the firm’s marketplace expertise, and that its investment does not signal an imminent U.S. launch.

Memmo has now raised a total of $12 million. The new funding will allow the startup to add new features like live videos and to build out its business offerings, allowing companies to hire celebrities to create promotional videos for external marketing or internal employee motivation.

#apps, #funding, #fundings-exits, #left-lane-capital, #memmo-me, #startups

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James Murdoch’s Lupa Systems leads $31 million investment in India’s Doubtnut

Doubtnut, an Indian startup that helps students learn and master concepts from math and science using short videos, has raised $31 million in a new financing round, months after it rejected an acquisition offer from India’s largest edtech firm Byju’s.

The three-year-old Gurgaon-headquartered startup said SIG and James Murdoch’s Lupa Systems led the $31 million Series B funding round. Existing investors Sequoia Capital India, Omidyar Network India and Waterbridge Ventures also participated in the round, which brings the startup’s to-date raise to about $50 million to date.

The Doubtnut app allows students to take a picture of a problem, and uses machine learning and image recognition to deliver their answers through short-videos. These videos offer students step-by-step instructions to solve a problem.

The app supports multiple languages, and has amassed over 2.5 million daily active users who spend 600 million minutes a month on the app, the startup said. More than half of the users have come online for the first time in last 12 months, the startup said.

The startup said it has developed a bank of over 65 million questions in nine languages for students from sixth grade to high-school. Unlike several other popular edtech firms, Doubtnut said its app reaches students in smaller towns and cities. “85% of the current base comes from outside of the top 15 Indian cities, and 60% users study in state boards where typical medium of instruction is the local vernacular language,” the startup said.

TechCrunch reported last year that Byju’s was in talks to acquire Doubtnut for as much as $150 million. Byju’s later lowered its deal offer, after which the two firms ended their talks.

James Murdoch last month announced he was reuniting with Uday Shankar, an executive who helped him build the Murdoch family’s Star business in India, which was later sold to Disney. Shankar will work with Murdoch to “accelerate” Lupa’s efforts in India, Murdoch said last month. Lupa has backed nearly a dozen startups so far, including Indian news aggregator and social app DailyHunt.

“Doubtnut has been built with a vision to improve learning outcomes for all students, especially those outside the major Indian cities. We specialize in developing content in vernacular languages and use technology to create affordable solutions for people in this large target segment,” said Tanushree Nagori, co-founder and CEO of Doubtnut, adding,

“We are pleased to welcome onboard SIG and Lupa; SIG brings in strong experience of investing in ed-tech companies globally and Lupa Systems brings unparalleled experience of building world-class businesses and harnessing high-impact technologies,” she added.

The startup said it will deploy the fresh capital to add support for more language and broaden the scope of subjects it covers today. Doubtnut is also planning to introduce paid courses.

#apps, #asia, #byjus, #doubtnut, #edtech, #education, #funding, #india, #lupa-systems, #sequoia-capital-india, #sig, #unacademy, #waterbridge-ventures

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India sets more stringent rules for social media, streaming services

India announced sweeping changes to its guidelines for social media, on-demand video streaming services, and digital news outlets on Thursday, joining several other nations in posing new challenges for giants such as Facebook and Google that count the nation as its biggest market by users.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, India’s IT, Law, and Justice minister, said in a press conference that social media companies will be required to acknowledge takedown requests of unlawful content within 24 hours and deliver a complete redressal in within 15 days. In sensitive cases that surround rape or other similar criminal cases, firms will be required to take down the objectionable content within 24 hours.

These firms will also be required to appoint a chief compliance officer, a nodal contact officer, who shall be reachable round the clock, and a resident grievance officer. They will also have to set up a local office in India.

Prasad said social media firms will have to disclose the originator of objectionable content. “We don’t want to know the content, but firms need to be able to tell who was the first person who began spreading misinformation and other objectionable content,” he said. WhatsApp has previously said that it can’t comply with such traceability requests without compromising end-to-end encryption security for every user.

Firms will also be required to publish a monthly compliance report to disclose the number of requests they received and what actions they took. They will also be required to offer a voluntary option to users who wish to verify their accounts.

The guidelines, which replace the law from 2011, go into effect for small firms effective immediately, but bigger services will be provided three months to comply, said Prasad.

New Delhi has put together these guidelines because citizens in India have long requested a “mechanism to address grievances,” said Prasad. India has been working on a law aimed at intermediaries since 2018. You can read the final version of the draft here, courtesy of New Delhi-based advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation.

“India is the world’s largest open Internet society and the Government welcomes social media companies to operate in India, do business and also earn profits. However, they will have to be accountable to the Constitution and laws of India,” he said, adding that WhatsApp had amassed 530 million users, YouTube, 448 million users, Facebook’s marquee service 410 million users, Instagram 210 million users, and Twitter, 175 million users in the country.

Full guidelines for social media firms and other intermediaries. (Source: Indian government.)

For streaming platforms, the rules have outlined a three-tier structure for “observance and adherence to the code.” Until now, on-demand services such as Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar, and MX Player have operated in India with little to no censorship.

New Delhi last year said India’s broadcasting ministry, which regulates content on TV, will also be overseeing digital streaming platforms. 17 popular streaming firms including international giants had banded together to devise a self-regulation code. Prakash Javedkar, Minister of Information and Broadcasting, said in the conference that the proposed solution from the industry wasn’t adequate and there will be an oversight mechanism from the government to ensure full compliance with the code.

Streaming services will also have to attach a content ratings to their titles. “The OTT platforms, called as the publishers of online curated content in the rules, would self-classify the content into five age based categories- U (Universal), U/A 7+, U/A 13+, U/A 16+, and A (Adult). Platforms would be required to implement parental locks for content classified as U/A 13+ or higher, and reliable age verification mechanisms for content classified as “A”,” the Indian government said.

“The publisher of online curated content shall prominently display the classification rating specific to each content or programme together with a content descriptor informing the user about the nature of the content, and advising on viewer description (if applicable) at the beginning of every programme enabling the user to make an informed decision, prior to watching the programme.”

The new rules will also force digital news outlets to disclose the size of their reach and structure of their ownership.

Industry executives have expressed concerns over the new proposed regulation, saying New Delhi hasn’t consulted them for these changes. IAMAI, a powerful industry body that represents nearly all on-demand streaming services, said it was “dismayed” by the guidelines, and hoped to have a dialogue with the government.

Javedkar and Prasad were asked if there will be any consultation with the industry before these guidelines become law. The ministers said that they had already received enough inputs from the industry.

This is a developing story. Check back for more information…

#apps, #asia, #disney, #facebook, #google, #government, #hotstar, #iamai, #india, #instagram, #mx-player, #netflix, #social, #twitter, #whatsapp

0

Airbnb plans for a new kind of travel post-COVID with flexible search

Since going public, most of the news out of Airbnb has been around policy. Today, the company has an announcement that’s all about the product.

As the pandemic evolves the way we do everything, and we collectively realize that much of that new behavior will be permanent, tech companies are looking to evolve alongside us.

Airbnb is today introducing Flexible Search, which will allow users to forgo putting in exact dates when they look to book lodging on the platform. Instead, users can search for a weekend getaway, week-long vacation, month-long vacation or months-long vacation without setting specific dates.

Not only does this give guests more options to browse through, but it should also increase exposure for hosts.

Image Credits: Airbnb

Airbnb says that its new travel trends report shows that one quarter of Americans would consider traveling during off-peak times of the year or the week, and in 2021 so far, more than 1/3 of the people searching on Airbnb have been flexible in terms of date and location.

Here’s what the company had to say about it in a blog post:

It’s no surprise COVID-19 continues to change the way we travel, and in addition to redesigning our platform last year to make nearby and longer-term stays easier to find and book, our new Flexible Dates feature aligns with a broader shift in how people will travel in the future. The traditional travel industry was built around fixed destinations with fixed dates in mind, but that model no longer meets the needs of today’s travelers.

Travel, and air travel in particular, have been devastated by the pandemic in 2020. Signs of a slow recovery are starting to sprout up, but the move to remote work (which has resulted in much, much less business travel) means that a good chunk of the depression in the travel industry is here to stay. That said, Airbnb’s travel trends report shows that the majority of folks (54 percent) miss traveling and