This Week in Apps: OnlyFans bans sexual content, SharePlay delayed, TikTok questioned over biometric data collection

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 continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. 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 in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

OnlyFans to ban sexually explicit content

OnlyFans logo displayed on a phone screen and a website

(Photo Illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Creator platform OnlyFans is getting out of the porn business. The company announced this week it will begin to prohibit any “sexually explicit” content starting on October 1, 2021 — a decision it claimed would ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform. The news angered a number of impacted creators who weren’t notified ahead of time and who’ve come to rely on OnlyFans as their main source of income.

However, word is that OnlyFans was struggling to find outside investors, despite its sizable user base, due to the adult content it hosts. Some VC firms are prohibited from investing in adult content businesses, while others may be concerned over other matters — like how NSFW content could have limited interest from advertisers and brand partners. They may have also worried about OnlyFans’ ability to successfully restrict minors from using the app, in light of what appears to be soon-to-come increased regulations for online businesses. Plus, porn companies face a number of other issues, too. They have to continually ensure they’re not hosting illegal content like child sex abuse material, revenge porn or content from sex trafficking victims — the latter which has led to lawsuits at other large porn companies.

The news followed a big marketing push for OnlyFans’ porn-free (SFW) app, OFTV, which circulated alongside reports that the company was looking to raise funds at a $1 billion+ valuation. OnlyFans may not have technically needed the funding to operate its current business — it handled more than $2 billion in sales in 2020 and keeps 20%. Rather, the company may have seen there’s more opportunity to cater to the “SFW” creator community, now that it has big names like Bella Thorne, Cardi B, Tyga, Tyler Posey, Blac Chyna, Bhad Bhabie and others on board.

U.S. lawmakers demand info on TikTok’s plans for biometric data collection

The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max

The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max. Image Credits: Nur Photo/Getty Images

U.S. lawmakers are challenging TikTok on its plans to collect biometric data from its users. TechCrunch first reported on TikTok’s updated privacy policy in June, where the company gave itself permission to collect biometric data in the U.S., including users’ “faceprints and voiceprints.” When reached for comment, TikTok could not confirm what product developments necessitated the addition of biometric data to its list of disclosures about the information it automatically collects from users, but said it would ask for consent in the case such data collection practices began.

Earlier this month, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Thune (R-SD) sent a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, which said they were “alarmed” by the change, and demanded to know what information TikTok will be collecting and what it plans to do with the data. This wouldn’t be the first time TikTok got in trouble for excessive data collection. Earlier this year, the company paid out $92 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that claimed TikTok had unlawfully collected users’ biometric data and shared it with third parties.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Image Credits: Apple

  • ⭐ Apple told developers that some of the features it announced as coming in iOS 15 won’t be available at launch. This includes one of the highlights of the new OS, SharePlay, a feature that lets people share music, videos and their screen over FaceTime calls. Other features that will come in later releases include Wallet’s support for ID cards, the App Privacy report and others that have yet to make it to beta releases.
  • Apple walked back its controversial Safari changes with the iOS 15 beta 6 update. Apple’s original redesign had shown the address bar at the bottom of the screen, floating atop the page’s content. Now the tab bar will appear below the page’s content, offering access to its usual set of buttons as when it was at the top. Users can also turn off the bottom tab bar now and revert to the old, Single Tab option that puts the address bar back at the top as before.
  • In response to criticism over its new CSAM detection technology, Apple said the version of NeuralHash that was reverse-engineered by a developer, Asuhariet Ygvar, was a generic version, and not the complete version that will roll out later this year.
  • The Verge dug through over 800 documents from the Apple-Epic trial to find the best emails, which included dirt on a number of other companies like Netflix, Hulu, Sony, Google, Nintendo, Valve, Microsoft, Amazon and more. These offered details on things like Netflix’s secret arrangement to pay only 15% of revenue, how Microsoft also quietly offers a way for some companies to bypass its full cut, how Apple initially saw the Amazon Appstore as a threat and more.

Platforms: Google

  • A beta version of the Android Accessibility Suite app (12.0.0) which rolled out with the fourth Android beta release added something called “Camera Switches” to Switch Access, a toolset that lets you interact with your device without using the touchscreen. Camera Switches allows users to navigate their phone and use its features by making face gestures, like a smile, open mouth, raised eyebrows and more.
  • Google announced its Pixel 5a with 5G, the latest A-series Pixel phone, will arrive on August 27, offering IP67 water resistance, long-lasting Adaptive Battery, Pixel’s dual-camera system and more, for $449. The phone makes Google’s default Android experience available at a lower price point than the soon to arrive Pixel 6.
  • An unredacted complaint from the Apple-Epic trial revealed that Google had quietly paid developers hundreds of millions of dollars via a program known as “Project Hug,” (later “Apps and Games Velocity Program”) to keep their games on the Play Store. Epic alleges Google launched the program to keep developers from following its lead by moving their games outside the store.

Augmented Reality

  • Snap on Thursday announced it hired its first VP of Platform Partnerships to lead AR, Konstantinos Papamiltiadis (“KP”). The new exec will lead Snap’s efforts to onboard partners, including individual AR creators building via Lens Studio as well as large companies that incorporate Snapchat’s camera and AR technology (Camera Kit) into their apps. KP will join in September, and report to Ben Schwerin, SVP of Content and Partnerships.

Fintech

  • Crypto exchange Coinbase will enter the Japanese market through a new partnership with Japanese financial giant Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG). The company said it plans to launch other localized versions of its existing global services in the future.

Social

Image Credits: Facebook

  • Facebook launched a “test” of Facebook Reels in the U.S. on iOS and Android. The new feature brings the Reels experience to Facebook, allowing users to create and share short-form video content directly within the News Feed or within Facebook Groups. Instagram Reels creators can also now opt in to have their Reels featured on users’ News Feed. The company is heavily investing its its battle with TikTok, even pledging that some portion of its $1 billion creator fund will go toward Facebook Reels.
  • Twitter’s redesign of its website and app was met with a lot of backlash from users and accessibility experts alike. The company choices add more visual contrast between various elements and may have helped those with low vision. But for others, the contrast is causing strain and headaches. Experts believe accessibility isn’t a one-size fits all situation, and Twitter should have introduced tools that allowed people to adjust their settings to their own needs.
  • The pro-Trump Twitter alternative Gettr’s lack of moderation has allowed users to share child exploitation images, according to research from the Stanford Internet Observatory’s Cyber Policy Center.
  • Pinterest rolled out a new set of more inclusive search filters that allow people to find styles for different types of hair textures — like coily, curly, wavy, straight, as well as shaved or bald and protective styles. 

Photos

  • Photoshop for iPad gained new image correction tools, including the Healing Brush and Magic Wand, and added support for connecting an iPad to external monitors via HDMI or USB-C. The company also launched a Photoshop Beta program on the desktop.

Messaging

  • WhatsApp is being adopted by the Taliban to spread its message across Afghanistan, despite being on Facebook’s list of banned organizations. The company says it’s proactively removing Taliban content — but that may be difficult to do since WhatsApp’s E2E encryption means it can’t read people’s texts. This week, Facebook shut down a Taliban helpline in Kabul, which allowed civilians to report violence and looting, but some critics said this wasn’t actually helping local Afghans, as the group was now in effect governing the region.
  • WhatsApp is also testing a new feature that will show a large preview when sharing links, which some suspect may launch around the time when the app adds the ability to have the same account running on multiple devices.

Streaming & Entertainment

  • Netflix announced it’s adding spatial audio support on iPhone and iPad on iOS 14, joining other streamers like HBO Max, Disney+ and Peacock that have already pledged to support the new technology. The feature will be available to toggle on and off in the Control Center, when it arrives.
  • Blockchain-powered streaming music service Audius partnered with TikTok to allow artists to upload their songs using TikTok’s new SoundKit in just one click.
  • YouTube’s mobile app added new functionality that allows users to browse a video’s chapters, and jump into the chapter they want directly from the search page.
  • Spotify’s Anchor app now allows users in global markets to record “Music + Talk” podcasts, where users can combine spoken word recordings with any track from Spotify’s library of 70 million songs for a radio DJ-like experience.
  • Podcasters are complaining that Apple’s revamped Podcasts platform is not working well, reports The Verge. Podcasts Connect has been buggy, and sports a confusing interface that has led to serious user errors (like entire shows being archived). And listeners have complained about syncing problems and podcasts they already heard flooding their libraries.

Dating

  • Tinder announced a new feature that will allow users to voluntarily verify their identity on the platform, which will allow the company to cross-reference sex offender registry data. Previously, Tinder would only check this database when a user signed up for a paid subscription with a credit card.

Gaming

Image Source: The Pokémon Company

  • Pokémon Unite will come to iOS and Android on September 22, The Pokémon Company announced during a livestream this week. The strategic battle game first launched on Nintendo Switch in late July.
  • Developer Konami announced a new game, Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls, which will come exclusively to Apple Arcade. The game is described as a “full-fledged side-scrolling action game,” featuring a roster of iconic characters from the classic game series. The company last year released another version of Castelvania on the App Store and Google Play.
  • Dragon Ball Z: Dokkan Battle has now surpassed $3 billion in player spending since its 2015 debut, reported Sensor Tower. The game from Bandai Namco took 20 months to reach the figure after hitting the $2 billion milestone in 2019. The new landmark sees the game joining other top-grossers, including Clash Royale, Lineage M and others.
  • Sensor Tower’s mobile gaming advertising report revealed data on top ad networks in the mobile gaming market, and their market share. It also found puzzle games were among the top advertisers on gaming-focused networks like Chartboost, Unity, IronSource and Vungle. On less game-focused networks, mid-core games were top titles, like Call of Duty: Mobile and Top War. 

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Health & Fitness

  • Apple is reportedly scaling back HealthHabit, an internal app for Apple employees that allowed them to track fitness goals, talk to clinicians and coaches at AC Wellness (a doctors’ group Apple works with) and manage hypertension. According to Insider, 50 employees had been tasked to work on the project.
  • Samsung launched a new product for Galaxy smartphones in partnership with healthcare nonprofit The Commons Project, that allows U.S. users to save a verifiable copy of their vaccination card in the Samsung Pay digital wallet.

Image Credits: Samsung

Adtech

Government & Policy

  • China cited 43 apps, including Tencent’s WeChat and an e-reader from Alibaba, for illegally transferring user data. The regulator said the apps had transferred users location data and contact list and harassed them with pop-up windows. The apps have until August 25 to make changes before being punished.

Security & Privacy

  • A VICE report reveals a fascinating story about a jailbreaking community member who had served as a double agent by spying for Apple’s security team. Andrey Shumeyko, whose online handles included JVHResearch and YRH04E, would advertise leaked apps, manuals and stolen devices on Twitter and Discord. He would then tell Apple things like which Apple employees were leaking confidential info, which reporters would talk to leakers, who sold stolen iPhone prototypes and more. Shumeyko decided to share his story because he felt Apple took advantage of him and didn’t compensate him for the work.

Funding and M&A

💰 South Korea’s GS Retail Co. Ltd will buy Delivery Hero’s food delivery app Yogiyo in a deal valued at 800 billion won ($685 million USD). Yogiyo is the second-largest food delivery app in South Korea, with a 25% market share.

💰 Gaming platform Roblox acquired a Discord rival, Guilded, which allows users to have text and voice conversations, organize communities around events and calendars and more. Deal terms were not disclosed. Guilded raised $10.2 million in venture funding. Roblox’s stock fell by 7% after the company reported earnings this week, after failing to meet Wall Street expectations.

💰 Travel app Hopper raised $175 million in a Series G round of funding led by GPI Capital, valuing the business at over $3.5 billion. The company raised a similar amount just last year, but is now benefiting from renewed growth in travel following COVID-19 vaccinations and lifting restrictions.

💰 Indian quiz app maker Zupee raised $30 million in a Series B round of funding led by Silicon Valley-based WestCap Group and Tomales Bay Capital. The round values the company at $500 million, up 5x from last year.

💰 Danggeun Market, the publisher of South Korea’s hyperlocal community app Karrot, raised $162 million in a Series D round of funding led by DST Global. The round values the business at $2.7 billion and will be used to help the company launch its own payments platform, Karrot Pay.

💰 Bangalore-based fintech app Smallcase raised $40 million in Series C funding round led by Faering Capital and Premji Invest, with participation from existing investors, as well as Amazon. The Robinhood-like app has over 3 million users who are transacting about $2.5 billion per year.

💰 Social listening app Earbuds raised $3 million in Series A funding led by Ecliptic Capital. Founded by NFL star Jason Fox, the app lets anyone share their favorite playlists, livestream music like a DJ or comment on others’ music picks.

💰 U.S. neobank app One raised $40 million in Series B funding led by Progressive Investment Company (the insurance giant’s investment arm), bringing its total raise to date to $66 million. The app offers all-in-one banking services and budgeting tools aimed at middle-income households who manage their finances on a weekly basis.

Public Markets

📈Indian travel booking app ixigo is looking to raise Rs 1,600 crore in its initial public offering, The Economic Times reported this week.

📉Trading app Robinhood disappointed in its first quarterly earnings as a publicly traded company, when it posted a net loss of $502 million, or $2.16 per share, larger than Wall Street forecasts. This overshadowed its beat on revenue ($565 million versus $521.8 million expected) and its more than doubling of MAUs to 21.3 million in Q2.  Also of note, the company said dogecoin made up 62% of its crypto revenue in Q2.

Downloads

Polycam (update)

Image Credits: Polycam

3D scanning software maker Polycam launched a new 3D capture tool, Photo Mode, that allows iPhone and iPad users to capture professional-quality 3D models with just an iPhone. While the app’s scanner before had required the use of the lidar sensor built into newer devices like the iPhone 12 Pro and iPad Pro models, the new Photo Mode feature uses just an iPhone’s camera. The resulting 3D assets are ready to use in a variety of applications, including 3D art, gaming, AR/VR and e-commerce. Data export is available in over a dozen file formats, including .obj, .gtlf, .usdz and others. The app is a free download on the App Store, with in-app purchases available.

Jiobit (update)

Jiobit, the tracking dongle acquired by family safety and communication app Life360, this week partnered with emergency response service Noonlight to offer Jiobit Protect, a premium add-on that offers Jiobit users access to an SOS Mode and Alert Button that work with the Jiobit mobile app. SOS Mode can be triggered by a child’s caregiver when they detect — through notifications from the Jiobit app — that a loved one may be in danger. They can then reach Noonlight’s dispatcher who can facilitate a call to 911 and provide the exact location of the person wearing the Jiobit device, as well as share other details, like allergies or special needs, for example.

Tweets

When your app redesign goes wrong…

Image Credits: Twitter.com

Prominent App Store critic Kosta Eleftheriou shut down his FlickType iOS app this week after too many frustrations with App Review. He cited rejections that incorrectly argued that his app required more access than it did — something he had successfully appealed and overturned years ago. Attempted follow-ups with Apple were ignored, he said. 

Image Credits: Twitter.com

Anyone have app ideas?

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Ultrahuman raises $17.5M, touting a wearable blood glucose tracker

Fitness platform Ultrahuman has officially announced a $17.5 million Series B fund raise, with investment coming from early stage fund Alpha Wave Incubation, Steadview Capital, Nexus Venture Partners, Blume Ventures and Utsav Somani’s iSeed fund.

A number of founders and angel investors also participated in the Bangalore-headquartered startup’s Series B, including Tiger Global’s Scott Schleifer, Deepinder Goyal (CEO of Zomato), Kunal Shah (CEO of Cred), and Gaurav Munjal and Romain Saini (the CEO and co-founders of unacademy), among others. The latest tranche of funding brings its total raised to date to $25M.

While the subscription platform has been around since 2019, offering a fairly familiar blend of home workout videos, mindfulness content, sleep sessions and heart rate tracking (integrating with third party wearables like the Apple Watch), its latest fitness tool looks rather more novel — as it’s designed for monitoring metabolic activity by tracking the user’s glucose levels (aka, blood sugar).

Keeping tabs on blood sugar is essential for people living with diabetes. But in the US alone millions of people are prediabetic — meaning they have a higher than normal level of blood glucose and are at risk of developing diabetes, though they may not know it yet.

More broadly, Ultrahuman claims over a billion people in the world suffer from a metabolic health disorder — underlining the scale of the potential addressable market it’s eyeing. 

Having sustained high blood glucose is associated with multiple health issues so managing the condition with lifestyle changes like diet and exercise is advisable. Lifestyle changes can reduce elevated blood glucose and shrink or even avoid negative health impacts — such as by averting the risk of a prediabetic person going on to develop full blown diabetes.

But knowing what type of diet and exercise regime will work best for a particular person can be tricky — and involve a lot of frustrating trial and error — since people’s glucose responses to different food items can differ wildly.

These responses depend on a person’s metabolic health — which in turn depends on individual factors like microbiome diversity, stress levels, time of day, food ingredient and quality. (See also: Personalized nutrition startups like Zoe — which is similarly paying mind to blood glucose levels but as one component of a wider play to try to use big data and AI to decode the microbiome.) 

With metabolic health being so specific to each of us there’s a strong case for continuous glucose monitoring having widespread utility — certainly if the process and price-point can be made widely accessible.

Here, Ultrahuman is having a go at productizing the practice for a fitness enthusiast market — launching its first device in beta back in June — although the price-point it’s targeting is starting out fairly premium. 

The product (a wearable and a subscription service) — which it’s branded ‘Cyborg’ — consists of a skin patch that extracts glucose from the interstitial fluid under the skin, per founder and CEO, Mohit Kumar, with the data fed into a companion app for analysis and visualization.

Image credits: Ultrahuman

The patch tracks the wearer’s blood glucose levels as they go about their day — eating, exercising, sleeping etc — with the biomarker used to trigger the app to nudge the user to “optimize your lifestyle”, as Ultrahuman’s website puts it — such as by alerting the user to a high blood glucose event and suggesting they take exercise to bring their level down.

If the product lives up to its promise of continuous glucose monitoring made easy, lovers of junk food could be in for a rude awakening as they’re served fast feedback on how their body copes (or, well, doesn’t) with their favorite snacks…

“We use medical grade sensors that have been used in the sports technology domain for the last 6-7 yrs with decent accuracy levels,” says Kumar when we ask about the specifics of the wearable technology it’s using. (The sensing hardware is being ‘worn’ here in the sense that it’s directly attached to (i.e. stuck into/on) bare skin.)

While Ultrahuman’s platform has plenty more vanilla fitness content, the company is now billing itself as a “metabolic fitness platform” — putting the nascent product front and center, even though the glucose tracking subscription service remains in closed beta for now.

The startup is operating a waitlist for sign-ups as it continues to hone the technology.   

Ultrahuman touts “thousands” of people signed up and waiting to get their hands on the glucose tracker service — and says it’s seeing 60% week over week growth in sign ups, with wider availability of the product slated for “early 2022”.

Some of the Series B cash will be used to make improvements to the quality of the glucose biomarkers ahead of a full product launch.

On the enhancements side, Kumar tells TechCrunch the team is exploring “other form factors and other types of sensors that could help us capture glucose in a more accurate way and for a longer duration than 14 days”, as they work to hone the wearable. (The current version of the skin-worn sensor only lasts two weeks before it must be replaced with another patch.)

“We want to add more biomarkers like HRV [heart-rate variability], sleep zones and respiratory rate to help people understand the impact of metabolic health on their recovery/sleep and vice-versa,” he adds.

Ultrahuman says it decided to focus on tracking glucose as its “main biomarker” as it can be used as a proxy for quantifying a number of fitness and wellness issues — making it a (potentially) very useful measure of individual health signals.

Or provided the startup’s technology is able to detect changes to glucose levels with enough sensitivity to be able to make meaningful recommendations per user.

“Glucose is interesting because it is a real-time biomarker that’s affected by exercise, sleep, stress and food,” says Kumar, adding: “We are able to help people make lifestyle changes across many vectors like nutrition, sleep, stress and exercise vs being unidimensional. It is also highly personalized as it guides you as per your body’s own response.”

He gives some examples of how the product could help users by identifying beneficial tweaks they could make to their diet and exercise regimes — such as figuring out which foods in their current diet yield “a healthy metabolic response” vs those that “need more optimization” (aka, avoiding the dreaded sugar crash). Or by helping users identify “a great meal window” for their lifestyle — based in their body’s glucose consumption rate.

Other helpful nudges he suggests the service can provide to sensor-wearing users — with an eye on athletes and fitness fanatics — is how best to fuel up before exercise to perform optimally.

Optimizing the last meal of the day to improve sleep efficiency is another suggestion.

If Ultrahuman’s Cyborg can do all that with a (bearably) wearable skin patch and a bit of clever algorithmic analysis it could take the quantified self trend to the next level.

A simple stick-on sensor-plus-app that passively amplifies internal biological signals and translates individual biomarkers into highly actionable real-time personalized health insights could be the start of something huge in preventative healthcare.

Again, though, Ultrahuman’s early pricing suggests there will be some fairly hard limits on who is able to tap in here.

Early adopters in the closed beta are shelling out $80 per month for the subscription service, per Kumar. And — at least for now — the startup is eyeing adding more bells and whistles, rather than fewer. “[Product pricing] will mostly be in the same range but may introduce more services/premium features on top of this,” he confirms.

The (typically higher) cost of eating healthily and having enough leisure time to be able to look after your body by taking exercise are other hard socioeconomic limits that won’t be fixed by a wearable, no matter how smart.

 

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Pixxel closes $7.3M seed round and unveils commercial hyperspectral imaging product

LA and Bangalore-based space startup Pixxel has closed a $7.3 million seed round, including newly committed capital from Techstars, Omnivore VC and more. The company has also announced a new product focus: Hyperspectral imaging. It aims to provide that imaging at the highest resolution commercially available, via a small satellite constellation that will provide 24-hour, global coverage once it’s fully operational.

Pixxel’s funding today is an extension of the $5 million it announced it had raised back in August of last year. At the time, the startup had only revealed that it was focusing on Earth imaging,, and it’s unveiling its specific pursuit of hyperspectral imaging for the first time today. Hyperspectral imaging uses far more light frequencies than the much more commonly-used multispectral imaging used in satellite observation today, allowing for unprecedented insight and detection of previously invisible issues, including migration of pest insect populations in agriculture, or observing gas leaks and other ecological threats.

Standard multispectral imaging (left) vs. hyperspectral imaging (right) Credit: EPFL

“We started with analyzing existing satellite images, and what we could do with this immediately,” explained Pixxel co-founder and CEO Awais Ahmed in an interview. “We realized that in most cases, it was not able to even see certain problems or issues that we wanted to solve – for example, we wanted to be able to look at air pollution and water pollution levels. But to be able to do that there were no commercial satellites that would enable us to do that, or even open source satellite data at the resolution that would enable us to do that.”

The potential of hyperspectral imaging on Earth, across a range of sectors, is huge, according to Ahmed, but Pixxel’s long-term vision is all about empowering a future commercial space sector to make the most of in-space resources.

“We started looking at space as a sector for us to be able to work in, and we realized that what we wanted to do was to be able to enable people to take resources from space to use in space,” Ahmed said. That included asteroid mining, for example, and when we investigated that, we found hyperspectral imaging was the imaging tech that would enable us to map these asteroids as to whether they contain these metal or these minerals. So that knowledge sort of transferred to this more short-term problem that we were looking at solving.”

Part of the reason that Pixxel’s founders couldn’t find existing available hyperspectral imaging at the resolutions they needed was that as a technology, it has previously been restricted to internal governmental use through regulation. The U.S. recently opened up the ability for commercial entities to pursue very high-resolution hyperspectral imaging for use on the private market, effectively because they realized that these technical capabilities were becoming available in other international markets anyway. Ahmed told me that the main blocker was still technical, however.

Pixxel's Hyperspectral imaging satellite at its production facility in Bangalore

Image Credits: Pixxel

“If we were to build a camera like this even two or three years ago, it would not have been possible because of the miniaturized sensors, the optics, etc.,” he said. “The advances that have happened only happened very recently, so it’s also the fact that this the right time to take it from the scientific domain to the commercial domain.”

Pixxel now aims to have its first hyperspectral imaging satellite launched and operating on orbit within the next few months, and it will then continue to launch additional satellites after that once it’s able to test and evaluate the performance of its first spacecraft in an actual operating environment.


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This Week in Apps: TikTok viral hit breaks Spotify records, inauguration boosts news app installs, judge rules against Parler

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.

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 how President Biden’s inauguration impacted news apps, the latest in the Parler lawsuit, and how TikTok’s app continues to shape culture, among other things.

Top Stories

Judge says Amazon doesn’t have to host Parler on AWS

logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler

Logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler. Image Credits: TechCrunch

U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein in Seattle this week ruled that Amazon won’t be required to restore access to web services to Parler. As you may recall, Parler sued Amazon for booting it from AWS’ infrastructure, effectively forcing it offline. Like Apple and Google before it, Amazon had decided that the calls for violence that were being spread on Parler violated its terms of service. It also said that Parler showed an “unwillingness and inability” to remove dangerous posts that called for the rape, torture and assassination of politicians, tech executives and many others, the AP reported.

Amazon’s decision shouldn’t have been a surprise for Parler. Amazon had reported 98 examples of Parler posts that incited violence over the past several weeks before its decision. It told Parler these were clear violations of the terms of service.

Parler’s lawsuit against Amazon, however, went on to claim breach of contract and even made antitrust allegations.

The judge shot down Parler’s claims that Amazon and Twitter were colluding over the decision to kick the app off AWS. Parler’s claims over breach of contract were denied, too, as the contract had never said Amazon had to give Parler 30 days to fix things. (Not to mention the fact that Parler breached the contract on its side, too.) It also said Parler had fallen short in demonstrating the need for an injunction to restore access to Amazon’s web services.

The ruling only blocks Parler from forcing Amazon to again host it as the lawsuit proceeds, but is not the final ruling in the overall case, which is continuing.

TikTok drives another pop song to No. 1 on Billboard charts, breaks Spotify’s record

@livbedumb♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

We already knew TikTok was playing a large role in influencing music charts and listening behavior. For example, Billboard last year noted how TikTok drove hits from Sony artists like Doja Cat (“Say So”) and 24kGoldn (“Mood”), and helped Sony discover new talent. Columbia also signed viral TikTok artists like Lil Nas X, Powfu, StaySolidRocky, Jawsh 685, Arizona Zervas and 24kGoldn. Meanwhile, Nielsen has said that no other app had helped break more songs in 2020 than TikTok.

This month, we’ve witnessed yet another example of this phenomenon. Olivia Rodrigo, the 17-year-old star of Disney+’s “High School Musical: The Musical: the Series” released her latest song, “Drivers License” on January 8. The pop ballad and breakup anthem is believed to be referencing the actress’ relationship with co-star Joshua Bassett, which gave the song even more appeal to fans.

Upon its release the song was heavily streamed by TikTok users, which helped make it an overnight sensation of sorts. According to a report by The WSJ, Billboard counted 76.1 million streams and 38,000 downloads in the U.S. during the week of its release. It also made a historic debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100, becoming the first smash hit of 2021.

On January 11, “Drivers License” broke Spotify’s record for most streams per day (for a non-holiday song) with 15.17 million global streams. On TikTok, meanwhile, the number of videos featuring the song and the views they received doubled every day, The WSJ said.

Charli D’Amelio’s dance to it on the app has now generated 5 million “Likes” across nearly 33 million views, as of the time of writing.

@charlidamelio♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

Of course, other TikTok hits have broken out in the past, too — even reaching No. 1 like “Blinding Lights” (The Weeknd) and “Mood” (24kGoldn). But the success of “Drivers License” may be in part due to the way it focuses on a subject that’s more relevant to TikTok’s young, teenage user base. It talks about first loves and being dumped for the other girl. And its title and opening refer to a time many adults have forgotten: the momentous day when you get your driver’s license. It’s highly relatable to the TikTok crowd who fully embraced it and made it a hit.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

  • Apple stops signing iOS 12.5, making iOS 12.5.1 the only versions of iOS available to older devices.
  • A report claims Apple’s iOS 15 update will cut support for devices with an A9 chip, like the iPhone 6, iPhone 6s Plus and the original iPhone SE.
  • New analysis estimates Apple’s upcoming iOS privacy changes will cause a roughly 7% revenue hit for Facebook in Q2. The revenue hit will continue in following quarters and will be “material.”

Platforms: Google

  • Google adds “trending” icons to the Play Store. New arrow icons appeared in the Top Charts tab, which indicate whether an app’s downloads are trending up or down, in terms of popularity. This could provide an early signal about those that may still be rising in the charts or beginning to fall out of favor, despite their current high position.
  • Google appears to be working on a Restricted Networking mode for Android 12. The mode, discovered by XDA Developers digging in the Android Open Source Project, would disable network access for all third-party apps.

Gaming

  • Goama (or Go Games) introduced a way for developers to integrate social games into their apps, which was showcased at CES. The company focuses on Asia and Latin America and has more than 15 partners, including GCash and Rappi, for digital payments and communications.
  • Fortnite maker Epic Games is getting into movies. The animated feature film Gilgamesh will use Epic’s Unreal Engine technology to tell the story of the king-turned-deity. The movie is not an in-house project, but rather is financed through Epic’s $100M MegaGrants fund.

Augmented Reality

  • Patents around Apple’s AR and VR efforts describe how a system could be identified in a way that’s similar to FaceID, then either permitted or denied the ability to change their appearance in the game.
  • Pinterest launches AR try-on for eyeshadow in its mobile app using Lens technology and ModiFace data. The app already offered AR try-on for lipsticks.

Entertainment

  • The CW app became the No. 1 app on the App Store this week, topping TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, thanks to CW’s season premieres of Batwoman, All American, Riverdale and Nancy Drew.
  • Users of podcasting app Anchor, owned by Spotify, say the app isn’t bringing them any sponsorship opportunities, as promised, beyond those from Spotify and Anchor itself.
  • YouTube launches hashtag landing pages on the web and in its mobile app. The pages are accessible when you click hashtags on YouTube, not via search, and weirdly rank the “best” videos through some inscrutable algorithm.
  • Apple’s Podcasts app adds a new editorial feature, Apple Podcasts Spotlight, meant to increase podcast listening by showcasing the best podcasts as selected by Apple editors.

E-commerce

  • WeChat facilitated 1.6 trillion yuan (close to $250 billion) in annual transactions through its “mini programs” in 2020. The figure is more than double that of 2019.

Fintech

  • Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, launched an e-wallet, Douyin Pay. The wallet will supplement the existing payment options, Alipay and WeChat Pay, and will help to support the Douyin app’s growing e-commerce business.
  • Neobank Monzo founder Tom Blomfield left the startup, saying he struggled during the pandemic. “I think [for] a lot of people in the world…going through a pandemic, going through lockdown and the isolation involved in that has an impact on people’s mental health,” he told TechCrunch.
  • New estimates indicate about 50% of the iPhone user base (or 507 million users) now use Apple Pay. 
  • Samsung’s newest phones drop support for MST, which emulates a mag stripe at terminals that don’t support NFC.

Social

  • Indian messaging app, StickerChat, owned by Hike, is shutting down. Founder Kavin Bharti Mittal said India will never have a homegrown messenger unless it bars Western companies from its market. Hike pivoted this month to virtual social apps, Vibe and Rush, which it believes have more potential.
  • Instagram head Adam Mosseri, in a Verge podcast, said he’s not happy with Reels so far, and how he feels most people probably don’t understand the difference between Instagram video and IGTV. He says the social network needs to simplify and consolidate ideas.
  • Facebook and Instagram improve their accessibility features. The apps’ AI-generated image captions now offer far more details about who or what is in the photos, thanks to improvements in image recognition systems.
  • TikTok launches a Q&A feature that lets creators respond to fan questions using text or videos. The feature, rolled out to select creators with more than 10,000 followers, makes it easier to see all the questions in one place.

Health & Fitness

  • Health and fitness app spending jumped 70% last year in Europe to record $544 million, a Sensor Tower report says. The year-over-year increase is far larger than 2019, when growth was just 37.2%. COVID-19 played a large role in this shift as people turned to fitness apps instead of gyms to stay in shape.

Government & Policy

  • Biden’s inauguration boosted installs of U.S. news apps up to 170%, Sensor Tower reported. CNN was the biggest mover, climbing 530 positions to reach No. 41 on the App Store, and up 170% in terms of downloads. News Break was the second highest, climbing 13 positions to No. 65. Right-wing outlet Newsmax climbed 43 spots to reach No. 108. In 2020, the top news apps were: News Break (23.7 million installs); SmartNews (9 million); CNN (5 million); and Fox News (4 million). This month, however, News Break saw 1.2 million installs, followed by Newsmax with about 863,000 installs, the report said.
  • Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) sent a draft decision to fellow EU Data Protection Authorities over the WhatsApp-Facebook data sharing policy. This means a decision on the matter is coming closer to a resolution in terms of what standards of transparency is required by WhatsApp.
  • German app developer Florian Mueller of FOSS Patents filed a complaint with the EU, U.S. DOJ and other antitrust watchdogs around the world over Apple and Google’s rejection of his COVID-related mobile game. Both stores had policies to only approve official COVID-19 apps from health authorities. Mueller renamed the game Viral Days and removed references to the novel coronavirus to get the app approved. However, he still feels the stores’ rules are holding back innovation.

Productivity

  • Basecamp’s Hey, which famously fought back against Apple’s App Store rules over IAP last year, has launched a business-focused platform, Hey for Work, expected to be public in Q1. The app has more App Store ratings than rival Superhuman, a report found. Currently, Hey has a 4.7-star rating across 3.3K reviews; Superhuman has 3.9 rating across only 274 reviews.

Trends

  • Baby boomers are increasingly using apps. Baby boomers/Gen Xers in the U.S. spent 30% more time year-over-year in their most used apps, App Annie reports. That’s a larger increase than either Millennials or Gen Z, at 18% and 16%, respectively.

Funding and M&A

  • Curtsy, a clothing resale app for Gen Z women, raised an $11 million Series A led by Index Ventures. The app tackles some of the problems with online resale by sending shipping supplies and labels to sellers, and by making the marketplace accessible to new and casual sellers.
  • Storytelling platform Wattpad acquired by South Korea’s Naver for $600 million. The reading apps whose stories have turned into book and Netflix hits will be incorporated into Naver’s publishing platform Webtoon.
  • On-demand delivery app Glovo partnered with Swiss-based real estate firm, Stoneweg, which is investing €100 million in building and refurbishing real estate in key markets to build out Glovo’s network of “dark stores.”
  • Pocket Casts app is up for sale. The podcast app was acquired nearly three years ago by a public radio consortium of top podcast producers (NPR, WNYC Studios, WBEZ Chicago and This American Life). The owners have now agreed to sell the app, which posted a net loss in 2020. (NPR’s share of the loss was over $800,000.)
  • Travel app Maps.me raised $50 million in a round led by Alameda Research. The funding will go toward the launch of a multi-currency wallet. Cryptocurrency lender Genesis Capital and institutional cryptocurrency firm CMS Holdings also participated in the round, Coindesk reported.
  • Bangalore-based hyperlocal delivery app Dunzo raised $40 million in a round that included investment from Google, Lightbox, Evolvence, Hana Financial Investment, LGT Lightstone Aspada and Alteria.
  • London-based food delivery app Deliveroo raised $180 million in new funding from existing investors, led by Durable Capital Partners and Fidelity Management, valuing the business at more than $7 billion.
  • Dating Group acquired Swiss startup Once, a dating app that sends one match per day, for $18 million.

Downloads

Bodyguard

Image Credits: Bodyguard

A French content moderation app called Bodyguard, detailed here by TechCrunch, has brought its service to the English-speaking market. The app allows you to choose the level of content moderation you want to see on top social networks, like Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Twitch. You can choose to hide toxic content across a range of categories, like insults, body shaming, moral harassment, sexual harassment, racism and homophobia and indicate whether the content is a low or high priority to block.

Beeper

Image Credits: Beeper

Pebble’s founder and current YC Partner Eric Migicovsky has launched a new app, Beeper, that aims to centralize in one interface 15 different chat apps, including iMessage. The app relies on an open-source federated, encrypted messaging protocol called Matrix that uses “bridges” to connect to the various networks to move the messages. However, iMessage support is more wonky, as the company actually ships you an old iPhone to make the connection to the network. But this system allows you to access Beeper on non-Apple devices, the company says. The app is slowly onboarding new users due to initial demand. The app works across MacOS, Windows, Linux‍, iOS and Android and charges $10/mo for the service.

 

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To fill funding gaps, VCs boost efforts to find India’s standout early-stage startups

After demonstrating scale, growth and financial improvement, one founder of a two-year-old agritech startup based in India told me that he’s now confronting a new challenge: Unlike his peers in edtech, fintech or e-commerce, there are very few investors he could approach for raising funds, he told TechCrunch, requesting anonymity. He suggested that a startup of a similar scale solving a similar problem would have little issue raising more than $50 million. But for his startup, seeking a $10 million financing round has proven very elusive in recent quarters, he said.

The story of this startup counters the narrative that fundraising for Indian startups has become easier than ever and that young firms have access to abundant capital from the market. India’s startup ecosystem raised about $14.5 billion in fundraises last year, beating its previous best of $10.6 billion in 2018, according to research firm Tracxn. But a closer look reveals that much of the capital went to a handful of late-stage startups, a trend that continues today.

In the first half of 2020, early-stage startups participated in 577 rounds to secure $1.84 billion, Tracxn told TechCrunch. That figure is the lowest the Indian startup ecosystem has seen in years. In the second half of last year, early-stage startups participated in 752 rounds to raise $3.03 billion, and in the first half of 2019, they raised $2.7 billion from 856 rounds. Series A and Series B startups are not immune to this trend either: In Q1 and Q2 2020, these startups raised $1.55 billion from 186 rounds, down from $2.69 billion from 254 rounds in the second half of last year and $2.37 billion from 279 rounds in the first half of last year, according to Tracxn. Once again, the first half of 2020 was the slowest in years for this segment.

Funding received by startups in India. Image Credits: Tracxn

Extra Crunch spoke with several VCs to understand how they were tackling this gap. We granted some of them the freedom to speak anonymously. At TechCrunch Disrupt 2020, Karthik Reddy, co-founder of Blume Ventures, India’s largest VC firm, acknowledged the gap, adding that, “There’s an artificial skew toward unicorns and chasing the unicorns.”

#apps, #asia, #bangalore, #entrepreneurship, #epifi, #funding, #india, #karthik-reddy, #ribbit-capital, #tc, #techcrunch-disrupt, #venture-capital, #y-combinator

Interswitch CEO Mitchell Elegbe to discuss African fintech at TechCrunch Disrupt

The CEO of Pan-African fintech unicorn, Mitchell Elegbe, is set to speak at TechCrunch Disrupt 2020 on September 16. He founded the company in Lagos in 2002 to connect Nigeria’s — then — largely disconnected banking system.

Over the next decade plus, Interswitch accelerated the adoption of digital payments across Africa and now stands as one of the continent’s rare fintech unicorns. The company is poised to list on a global exchange, which would also create Africa’s next big tech IPO.

At Disrupt 2020, TechCrunch will seek Elegbe’s perspective on the continent’s fintech scene, Interswitch’s venture plans, and the economic impact of Covid-19 on African startups. This year’s event is 100% virtual, making it possible for anyone with an internet connection to sign in and learn more about Elegbe’s company and digital innovation in Africa.

If you’re a VC or founder in London, Bangalore or San Francisco, you’ll likely interact with some part of Africa’s tech landscape for the first time — or more — in the near future. When measured by monetary values, the continent’s tech ecosystem is small by Shenzhen or Silicon Valley standards.

But when you look at year-over-year expansion in venture capital, startup formation and tech hubs, it’s one of the fastest-growing tech markets in the world.

Bringing the continent’s large unbanked population and underbanked consumers and SMEs online has factored prominently. Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

As such, fintech has become Africa’s highest funded tech sector, receiving the bulk of an estimated $2 billion in VC that went to startups in 2019.

Africa Top VC Markets 2019

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Interswitch became a pioneer of building the infrastructure to digitize finance on the continent. The company pre-dates the rise of mobile money in Kenya through Safaricom’s M-Pesa product, which is one of Africa’s most recognized fintech use-cases. 

Interswitch’s path from startup to unicorn traces back to the vision of CEO Mitchell Elegbe, who was a Nigerian electrical engineering graduate before founding the firm in 2002. The company has since produced a run of product innovation and expansion, starting in Nigeria. Interswitch created the first electronic switch whereby Nigerian financial institutions could communicate and operate ATMs and point of sales operations. The company now provides much of the rails for Nigeria’s online banking system.

Interswitch has since moved into high-volume personal and business finance, with its Verve payment cards and Quickteller payment app. The fintech firm (now well beyond startup phase) has also shaped a Pan-African and global reach — selling its products in 23 African countries with a physical presence in Uganda, Gambia and Kenya . In August 2019, Interswitch launched a partnership that allows its Verve cardholders to make payments on Discover’s global network.

Interswitch Quickteller

Image Credits: Interswitch

Interswitch also launched a venture arm in 2015 called its global ePayment Growth Fund. Another milestone came in November 2019 when Interswitch achieved a $1 billion unicorn valuation after Visa took a reported $200 million minority stake in the company. Other Interswitch backers include IFC and Helios Investment Partners.

The company’s Nigerian origins and operations have become more significant as Nigeria is now Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy. The West African country has become the continent’s unofficial tech hub and fintech capital. Nigerian startups now raise the majority of Africa’s annual VC haul, according to a study by Partech.

Heading into 2020, the momentum was there and the pieces were falling in place for Interswitch to mark that next big achievement — an IPO. Where that listing stands for the firm, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, is one of many topics TechCrunch is excited to discuss with CEO Mitchell Elegbe at Disrupt 2020.

The event runs from September 14 through September 18 and (as mentioned) is 100% virtual this year, making it possible for anyone from London to Lagos to sign in. Get your front row seat to see Mitchell Elegbe live with a Disrupt Digital Pro Pass or a Digital Startup Alley Exhibitor Package. We’re excited to see you there.

#africa, #african-business, #african-tech, #bangalore, #banking, #ceo, #disrupt-2020, #economy, #entrepreneurship, #finance, #financial-technology, #helios-investment-partners, #interswitch, #kenya, #lagos, #london, #mitchell-elegbe, #money, #nigeria, #private-equity, #safaricom, #san-francisco, #shenzhen, #startup-company, #tc, #tech-in-africa, #uganda, #venture-capital, #world-bank

TechCrunch’s top 16 picks from Techstars April virtual demo days

Like other accelerators, Techstars, a network of more than 40 corporate and geographically targeted startup bootcamps, has had to bring its marquee demo day events online.

Over the last two weeks of April, industry-focused accelerators working with startups building businesses around mobility technologies (broadly) and the future of the home joined programs in Abu Dhabi, Bangalore, Berlin, Boston, Boulder and Chicago to present their cohorts.

Each group had roughly 10 companies pitching businesses that ran the gamut from early-childhood education to capturing precious metals from the waste streams of mining operations. There were language companies, security companies, marketing companies and even a maker of a modular sous vide product for home chefs.

The ideas were as creative as they were varied, and while all seemed promising, about two concepts from each batch stood out above the rest.

What follows is our completely unscientific picks of the top companies that pitched at each of these virtual Techstars demo days. In late May or early June, expect to see our roundup of the next batch of top picks from the their next round of demo days.

Hub71

Techstars’ inaugural cohort for its accelerator run in conjunction with Abu Dhabi-based technology incubator Hub71 included a number of novel businesses spanning climate, security, retail, healthcare and property tech. Standouts in this batch included Sia Secure and Aumet (with an honorable mention for the novel bio-based plastic processing and reuse technology developer, Poliloop).

#abu-dhabi, #bangalore, #berlin, #boston, #chicago, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #europe, #events, #extra-crunch, #ferrari, #market-analysis, #middle-east, #munich, #nvidia, #startups, #tc, #techstars, #techstars-boston, #techstars-demo-day