TikTok launches ‘TikTok Q&A,’ a new feature for creators to engage with viewers’ questions

Earlier this year, TikTok was spotted testing a new Q&A feature that would allow creators to more directly respond to their audience’s questions using either text or video. Today, the company has announced the feature is now available to all users globally. With the release of TikTok Q&A, as the feature is officially called, creators will be able to designate their comments as Q&A questions, respond to questions with either text comments or video replies, and add a Q&A profile link to their bios, among other things. The feature also works with live videos.

TikTok Q&A grew out of a way that creators were already using the video platform to interact with viewers. Often, after posting a video, viewers would have follow-up questions about the content. Creators would then either respond to those questions in the comments section or, if the response was more involved, they might post a second video instead.

The Q&A feature essentially formalizes this process by making it easier for creators — particularly those with a lot of fans — to identify and answer the most interesting questions.

Image Credits: TikTok

To use Q&A, viewers will first designate their comment as a Q&A question using a new commenting option. To do so, they’ll tap the Q&A icon to the right side of the text entry field in comments. This will also label their comment with the icon and text that says “Asked by” followed by the username of the person asking the question. This makes it easier for creators to see when scanning through a long list of comments on their video.

The feature will also feed the question into the creator’s new Q&A page where all questions and answers are aggregated. Users can browse this page to see all the earlier questions and answers that have already been posted or add a new question of their own.

Creators will respond to a Q&A question with either text or video replies, just as they did before — so there isn’t much new to learn here, in terms of process.

They can also add Q&A comments as stickers in their responses where the new video will link back to the original, where the question was first asked, similar to how they’re using comment stickers today.

The feature will also be available in TikTok LIVE, making it easier for creators to see the incoming questions in the stream’s chat from a separate panel.

Image Credits: TikTok

As a part of this launch, a Q&A profile link can be added to creators’ Profile bios, which directs users to the Q&A page where everything is organized.

During tests, the feature was only made available to creators with public accounts that had more than 10,000 followers and who opted in. Today, TikTok says its available to all users with Creator Accounts.

To enable the feature on your own profile, you’ll go to the privacy page under Settings, then select “Creator,” tap “Q&A” and then “Turn on Q&A.” (If users don’t already have a Creator account, they can enable it for themselves under settings.)

The feature is rolling out to users worldwide in the latest version of the TikTok app now, the company says.

@tiktokYou can now ask and answer any questions on LIVE with the new Q&A feature. Check it out now!

♬ original sound – TikTok

#apps, #media, #mobile, #qa, #social, #social-media, #tiktok, #videos

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Square buys majority of Tidal, adds Jay Z to its board in bid to shake up the artist economy

This morning Square, a fintech company that serves both individuals and companies, announced that it has purchased a majority stake in Tidal, a music streaming service. The deal, worth some $297 million, will Tidal allow artist-partners to keep their ownership in the music company.

Square CEO Jack Dorsey used his other company, Twitter, this morning to explain the deal. Dorsey seemed to expect the transaction to generate skepticism – which it definitely has. In his opening message, he asked a rhetorical question: “Why would a music streaming company and a financial services company join forces?!”

Why indeed. Dorsey’s expectation is that his company can replicate the success of Cash App and other Square products in the world of music. Noting that “new ideas are found at the intersection,” Dorsey argued that the confluence of “music and the economy” is one such point of convergence.

The deal also installs musician and businessperson Jay Z on Square’s board.

Some early reaction to the deal has proved negative. It’s not hard to riff on the seeming-strangeness of Square and Tidal as a pair. And Square has made acquisitions in the past that appeared adjacent and failed to stick. The company bought food-delivery service Caviar in 2014 before selling it to DoorDash in 2019, for example; that Square appears to have made a venture-level return on the transaction is immaterial to the focus argument.

But the bull-case for the Square-Tidal tie-up is easy to make as well. The American fintech just spent a minute fraction of a single percent of its market capitalization on the smaller company, and through its choice to let artists keep their stake, has effectively onboarded a host of ambassadors for its brand.

And Dorsey is not wrong that Square did shake up the commerce game for many offline businesses with its original card reader. Why not take a swing at a part of the economy — music — that has migrated from the physical world to the digital in the past few years, much like small businesses in recent quarters?

Square’s business users, it’s “seller ecosystem,” as it likes to call it, are increasingly digital. In its most recent quarterly earnings report, “in-person only” usage is falling as a percentage of seller gross payment volume (GPV), while “online only” and “omnichannel” GPV are taking up the slack.

Square has a known win in its consumer-focused Cash App service, which reached 36 million monthly actives in December of 2020, up from 24 million in the same period one year prior. You can imagine tie-ups between the music company and the youth-skewing Cash App audience. And having Jay Z at the Square boardroom table will hardly make the company less innovative; he may bring fresh perspective.

And then there’s the question of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, a new form of digital asset that have recently become the cause célèbre of the cryptocurrency community. Given that Square has a growing cryptocurrency business via Cash App, and has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into bitcoin itself. If there is space in the market for Square to bring music-based NFTs to its larger consumer user base is an interesting question. If the answer is yes, Square could now be in a leading position to create that market.

Perhaps the Square-Tidal deal won’t generate the future growth that Square imagines. But the deal is cheap, snagging Jay Z as a leader is a win, and it’s hard to win by only playing corporate defense.

#apps, #cash-app, #fundings-exits, #jay-z, #mobile, #music-streaming, #square

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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

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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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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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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

Twilio to become minority owner in Syniverse Technologies with $750M investment

Syniverse Technologies, a company that helps mobile providers move communications across public and private networks, announced an extensive partnership with Twilio this morning. Under the agreement, Twilio is investing up to $750 million to become a minority owner in the company.

The idea behind the partnership is to combine Twilio’s API communications expertise with Syniverse’s mobile carrier contacts to create this end-to-end communications system. Twilio’s strength has always been its ability to deliver communications like texts without having a carrier relationship. This deal gives them access to that side of the equation.

James Attwood, executive chairman at Syniverse certainly saw the value of the two companies working together. “The partnership will provide Syniverse access to Twilio’s extensive enterprise and API services expertise, creating opportunities to continue to build on Syniverse’s highly innovative product portfolio that helps mobile network operators and enterprises make communications better for their customers,” Atwood said in a statement.

Today’s deal comes on the heels of the company’s $3.2 billion acquisition of Segment at the end of last year as it continues to look for ways to expand its markets. Will Townsend, an analyst at Moor Insight & Strategy who covers the network and carrier markets, sees this deal giving Twilio access to a broader set of technologies.

“Twilio [gets] access to Syniverse’s significant capabilities in massive industrial IoT and private 4G LTE and 5G cellular networking. Both are poised to ramp significantly given new found enterprise access to licensed spectrum via recent C-Band and CBRS auctions,” Townsend told me. He believes this will help Twilio reach parts of the enterprise not connected by WiFI or where the customers are dealing with “a mishmash of solutions that don’t scale or propagate well.”

As it turns out, it’s not a coincidence the two companies are coming together like this. In fact, Twilio has been a Syniverse customer for some time, according to Chee Chew, chief product officer at Twilio.

It’s a case of an old school company like Syniverse, which was founded in 1987 combining forces with a more modern approach to communications like Twilio, which provides developers with APIs to deliver communications services inside applications with just a couple of lines of code.

The Wall Street Journal, which broke the news of this deal, is also reporting the company could go public via SPAC at a value of between $2 and $3 billion some time later this year. That would suggest that it has not gained much value since the 2010 deal.

Holger Mueller, an analyst at Constellation Research, says the SPAC provides an interesting additional component to the deal. “The high flying stock market creates all kind of new chickens, one of the, being a SPAC, and that’s the financial opportunity that Twilio is likely pursuing with the investment into Syniverse. The more immediate benefit is for Twilio to use the messaging vendor for its services. Call it a partnership with investment upside,” Mueller said.

According to Syniverse, “the company is one of the largest private IP Packet Exchange (IPX) providers in the world and offers a range of networking solutions, excelling in scenarios where seamless connections must cross over networks – either across multiple private networks or between public and private networks.”

The company is currently owned by the Carlyle Group private equity firm, which bought it in 2010 for $2.6 billion. Twilio launched in 2008 and raised over $236 million before going public in 2016 at $15 per share. The stock was up 3.82% in early trading, suggesting that Wall Street approves of the deal.

#apis, #developer, #enterprise, #investment, #mobile, #networking, #syniverse-technologies, #tc, #twilio

0

Istanbul’s Dream Games snaps up $50M and launches its first game, the puzzle-based Royal Match

On the back of Zynga acquiring Turkey’s Peak Games for $1.8 billion last year and then following it up with another gaming acquisition in the country, Turkey has been making a name for itself as a hub for mobile gaming startups, and specifically those building casual puzzle games, the wildly popular and very sticky format that takes players through successive graphic challenges that test their logic, memory and ability to think under time pressure.

Today, one of the more promising of those startups, Istanbul-based, Peak alum-founded Dream Games, is announcing the GA launch of its first title, Royal Match (on both iOS and Android), along with $50 million in funding to double down on the opportunity ahead — the largest Series A raised by a startup in Turkey to date.

While Dream Games will focus for the moment on building out the audience for puzzle games with more innovative ideas, it also has its sights set on a bigger goal.

“We’re building this as an entertainment company,” CEO Soner Aydemir said in an interview, where he described Pixar as a key inspiration not just for size but for quality in its category. “What they did for animated movies, we want to do for mobile gaming. We are focusing on casual puzzle games first because everyone plays these, but we will also move forward with other genres. We want to be a huge interactive entertainment company that builds high quality games.”

The Series A is being led by Index Ventures, with participation also from Balderton Capital and Makers Fund. The latter two backed Dream Games previously, in a $7.5 million seed round in 2019. Index, meanwhile, is a notable VC to have on board: other successful gaming startups it has backed include Discord, King, Roblox and Supercell.

Interestingly, this is not Index’s first investment in a gaming startup founded by Peak Games alums: in December it led a $6 million round for another Istanbul mobile casual puzzle gaming startup founded by ex-Peak employees: Bigger Games.

Dream Games is not disclosing its valuation with this round.

Dream Games raising $57.5 million ahead of launching any games — or proving whether they get any traction — may sound like a risky bet, but there is some context to the story that sets up the odds in this startup’s favor.

The founding team all come from Peak Games, the Istanbul gaming startup that was so nice, Zynga bought it twice — first, in the form of one small acquisition of some specific titles, and then the whole company some years later.

CEO Soner Aydemir is Peak’s former director of product who built the company’s two biggest hits, Toy Blast and Toon Blast. Ikbal Namli and Hakan Saglam were Peak’s former engineering leads. And Peak product manager Eren Sengul and an ex-Peak 3D artist Serdar Yilmaz round out the rest of the founding team.

(Aydemir notes that the team left and formed Dream Games in 2019, about a year before Zynga’s full acquisition.)

The other indicators that Dream Games is on to something are its metrics for its limited test run of Royal Match.

Royal Match — in which players are tasked with helping King Robert restore his royal castle “to its former glory” by rebuilding it through a series of match-3 levels and obstacles, with new rooms, royal chambers and gardens making up the different levels of the game — was launched first as a limited test on iOS and Android in the U.K. and Canada in July leading up to this launch. In that time, Aydemir said it saw 1 million downloads and 200,000 daily average users.

“We think the numbers are very promising compared to previous experiences,” he said.

While Aydemir likes to describe Dream as an “entertainment” company, there is a lot of technology going into the product, from the graphics and the mechanics of the puzzles themselves through to the data science behind them.

“If you want to create an iconic game, you need to combine engineering, art and data science together with high quality user acquisition and a strong marketing approach,” he said.

And he believes that when you focus on these it will inevitably lead to quality, which means you no longer have to focus on simply trying to find a hit.

“We don’t like that approach,” he said. “We don’t want to find a hit.”

That was also the mix that Index also wanted to back.

“Building iconic titles requires a harmonious mix of craft, science and flawless execution,” said Index Ventures partner Stephane Kurgan, who led the round together with Index’s Sofia Dolfe. “The Dream Games team has perfected this mix over many years of working together, and has put it on full display in Royal Match. We could not be more excited to work with them in their journey to build the next global casual champion.”

While Dream Games’ long-term ambition is to build out interactive experiences around different audiences and genres, Aydemir said that casual games, and puzzles in particular, have proven to be a huge hit with consumers.

The strength of that trend has up to now meant that puzzle games generally have proven to have more staying power than other genres in mobile games, which have soared in popularity but also somewhat fizzled out.

“Every year we see the bigger market of users growing by 20%,” he said. “It will remain for decades.”

Interestingly, the focus on casual gaming startups in Turkey seems like a perfect storm of sorts. Undeniably, the proven success of Peak has brought in more punters, but it has also shown the way to developers: you can build a successful and global consumer tech startup out of Turkey, and perhaps puzzles — which focus on shapes — are especially good at transcending different language barriers.. Alongside that, Aydemir pointed out that the country is strong on engineers and developers but slim on opportunities with bigger tech companies.

“Mobile gaming is a younger industry, so that presents an opportunity,” he said.

Updated to correct that Index is not an investor in Rovio, and that the limited test had 200,000, not 200, DAUs.

#casual-gaming, #dream-games, #europe, #funding, #gaming, #index-ventures, #mobile, #mobile-games, #peak-games

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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

0

BigCommerce customers can now sell on Walmart’s online marketplace

BigCommerce has partnered with Walmart to allow its customers to sell on the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer’s ecommerce marketplace, it announced this morning. Shares of Austin-based BigCommerce rose sharply in pre-market trading after the news, gaining around 10% before the bell.

Walmart, best-known for in-person shopping, has proven an ecommerce success story in recent years. For example, in its most recent quarter while Walmart as a whole grew 7.3%, its ecommerce sales advanced 69%.

BigCommerce has also reported strong growth in recent quarters, supported in part by partnerships similar to the one that it announced today. The ecommerce SaaS provider rolled out an integration with Wish last year, for example.

In a call concerning its earnings, which were announced before the Walmart news was announced, BigCommerce CEO Brent Bellm told TechCrunch that his company had been impressed with customer uptake of the Wish integration. Regarding the Walmart partnership, in a second interview Bellm told TechCrunch that it was overdue on the BigCommerce side; given the historical success of the Wish deal, it will be curious to dig into how many of the ecommerce platform’s customers opt to sell on Walmart, and how quickly they do so.

TechCrunch also spoke with Walmart exec Jeff Clementz about the arrangement. He stressed Walmart’s online customer monthly-actives — 120 million, per his company — and the breadth of their demand; BigCommerce customers selling on Walmart could expand its product diversity, helping the traditionally physical retailer possible continue its rapid growth.

The two companies are incentivizing adoption of the deal amongst BigCommerce customers by waiving certain fees for a month for retailers that sign up to sell on Walmart; Clementz described it as the first time that his company had offered a “new-seller discount.”

TechCrunch has had its eye on BigCommerce for some quarters now, thanks in part to its 2020 IPO. But the company is also interesting as its regular earnings results provide a lens into the world of ecommerce growth amongst independent digital retailers. Shopify, a chief BigCommerce rival, provides a similar view into the ecommerce world.

Shopify previously integrated with Walmart in the middle of 2020.

Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see if the Walmart partnership helps BigCommerce continue its improving revenue growth. The company is in a marketshare race with Shopify. But while BigCommerce’s rival has posted impressive growth from its integrated solutions, like its payments service, the Austin-based company stresses what it calls a more open model. Shopify charges many customers a percentage of their transaction volume for using a third-party payment solution over its own, for example, which Bellm described as a “tax” during an interview.

“Merchant Solutions” revenue at Shopify, which it generates “principally” from “payment processing fees from Shopify Payments,” grew 116% in 2020 to a little over $2 billion.

So with BigCommerce collecting a partnership with Walmart to match Shopify’s own, we’re seeing not merely two ecommerce platforms go toe-to-toe on providing their customers with as much market access as they can, but two different business philosophies compete. Akin to Microsoft Teams and Slack, it’s a competition to spectate.

#bigcommerce, #ecommerce, #mobile, #shopify, #tc

0

Emotive raises $50M to make text marketing more conversational

While more businesses are turning to text messages as a marketing channel, Emotive CEO Brain Zatulove argued that most marketers are just treating it as another “newsletter blast.”

“The reason the channel performs so well is it’s not saturated,” Zatulove said. But that’s changing, and as it does, companies will have to do more to “cut through the noise.”

That’s what he said Emotive provides, by enabling text marketing that feels like a real conversation with another human being, rather than just another email blast. He compared it to the sales associate who would greet you when you first walked into a department store, pre-COVID.

“The online sales associate really didn’t exist,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to provide.”

Emotive saw 466% year-over-year revenue growth in 2020 and is announcing today that it has raised $50 million in a Series B funding round that values the company at $400 million. It was led by CRV with participation from Mucker Capital, TenOneTen Ventures and Stripes.

Emotive screenshot

Image Credits: Emotive

“Never underestimate the importance of building a product that your customers, and your customers’ customers adore,” said CRV general partner Murat Bicer in a statement. “One of the things that struck us about Emotive is the sheer amount of customer love Brian and Zack get from meal delivery services, manufacturing companies and even toddler shoe brands. Small businesses find it easy to set up campaigns and their customers genuinely prefer communicating with someone over text rather than email.”

Zatulove said he founded the company with Zachary Wise after they’d worked together on cannabis loyalty startup Reefer, eventually deciding there was a bigger opportunity here after their early successes with text marketing. He explained that while Emotive works with larger customers, its sweet spot is mid-sized e-commerce businesses on Shopify, Magento, Bigcommerce and Woocommerce.

Since those businesses usually don’t have any salespeople of their own yet, Emotive serves that function. It can start conversations around shopping cart abandonment and promote promote sales and new products, resulting in what the company says are 8% to 10% conversion rates (compared to 1% or 2% for a standard text marketing campaign). Zatuolove said the platform largely relied on human responders at first, and although it’s become increasingly automated over time, Emotive still has an internal team handling responses when necessary.

“We never plan on losing that human touch as part of the dialogue,” he added. “We see ourselves as a human-to-human platform. That’s our biggest differentiator.”

Emotive had previously raised $8.2 million in funding, according to Crunchbase. Zatulove said this new round will allow the company to continue developing the product, to grow its headcount to more than 200 people and to open offices in Atlanta and Boston. Eventually, it could also expand beyond texting.

“Longer term, we see ourselves more as a conversation platform, not just as a text message platform,” he said.

#advertising-tech, #crv, #emotive, #funding, #fundings-exits, #mobile, #startups, #tc

0

RecargaPay closes a $70 million Series C

RecargaPay, a Brazil-based fintech that allows users to top off their prepaid cell phones online, announced this morning that they’ve closed their $70 million Series C. The company, which operates solely in Brazil, was launched in 2010 by Miami-based serial entrepreneur Rodrigo Teijeiro, who is co-founder and CEO. 

Unlike in the U.S. where most people have a cell phone plan through a major carrier, in Brazil — a country where the minimum wage is currently $1,100 reals per month (roughly $202 USD) — many people must buy calling cards at local shops to add credit to their phones, which allows them to avoid a monthly recurring bill.

“Most people were using prepaid [phones] for control because they didn’t trust the telephone companies — they didn’t want roaming fees or fees for going over etc.,” said Teijeiro. Many of us can relate to the days when we’d come home from an international trip and have an astronomical phone bill because of roaming fees, but imagine if that were a monthly occurrence?

In 2014, Teijeiro and his co-founders — one of whom is his brother, Alvaro, the CTO — turned the RecargaPay website into an app.

“Before RecargaPay, if your cell phone ran out of credits and it was 10 p.m. and you needed to make a phone call, you’d have to go out and find a shop that sold the prepaid cards to add the credits to your phone — it was super inconvenient,” Teijeiro added. Cell phones caught on quickly in Brazil because it has traditionally been difficult to obtain a landline — an ordeal that often took several months to solidify.

RecargaPay originally had operations in various Latin American countries, such as Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Brazil, as well as in Spain and the U.S. But in 2016 the company decided to focus on the Brazilian market, because not only is it the biggest in LatAm, but it also has the highest penetration of credit cards. 

“The number one mistake investors make when investing in LatAm is that they think that LatAm is one whole market. But especially in fintech, all the regulations are very different. That’s why it’s hard to scale in LatAm,” he said.

The company makes money by charging a monthly fee of $19.99 reals. When a customer makes an online top-off on the app, they get 4% cash back because the cell phone carriers pay RecargaPay the equivalent amount, which it then passes on to the user.

The company, which is EBITDA positive according to Teijeiro, has raised just over $100 million in capital to date and plans to use the $70 million to “expand its financial services offerings to small businesses and consumers, including further development of its popular subscription program Prime+,” the company said in a statement.

Already, RecargaPay offers much more than the ability to top off your cell phone. Other features include the ability to buy gift cards, apply for and receive microloans, refill your public transportation cards and pay bills. Teijeiro explained that RecargaPay and Nubank, LatAm’s largest digital bank, are not direct competitors, but rather operate in the same ecosystem. A lot of Nubank customers who now have a credit card, thanks to the bank’s no-fee cards, can use RecargaPay to top off their cell phones, he added.

According to a 2020 report by TechnoBlog, a Brazilian media outlet, in 2010 about 83% of cell phones in Brazil were prepaid. Today, that number is smaller, but it’s still a whopping 49%. The change started in 2012 with the advent of smartphones in Brazil and the popularization of WhatsApp. While this may sound insane, previously, Brazilians could only call others who used their same cell phone carrier — if they called people in other networks they’d incur a hefty fee.

To get around this problem, Brazilians bought multiple cell phone chips from different carriers and they would have to top off these chips individually. You’d also have to remember which of your contacts used which carrier — mind-blowing, I know. So when WhatsApp launched, it eliminated that problem altogether, hence its massive penetration in the Brazilian market.

(l-r) Renato Camargo: country manager & CMO; Alvaro Teijeiro: co-founder & CTO; Gustavo Victorica: co-founder & COO; Rodrigo Teijeiro: founder & CEO; Diego Escobar: CFO. Image Credits: RecargaPay

RecargaPay’s Series C was co-led by Miami-based Fuel Ventures and Madrid-based IDC Ventures, with additional participation from LUN Partners, Experian Ventures and ATW Partners.

“RecargaPay is a pioneer in the payments sector as one of the first all-in-one platforms to serve such a wide array of everyday needs of Brazilians,” said Maggie Vo, Fuel Venture Capital managing general partner and chief investment officer. “We are thrilled to back a company that is actively improving the lives of so many people by giving them more control over their finances, all the while challenging the status quo of banking systems.”

“Often people think that RecargaPay is for the unbanked, but it’s actually for the unbanked and the banked,” Teijeiro added. “What we always had in mind was to build — in the long-term — a mobile money ecosystem. Our approach was to solve problems one-by-one, and now we have a vertically integrated payment platform that offers financial services.”

#brazil, #fuel-ventures, #idc-ventures, #latin-america, #mobile, #recargapay, #recent-funding, #startups

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Android’s latest update will let you schedule texts, secure your passwords, and more

Google today announced the next set of features coming to Android, including a new password checkup tool, a way to schedule your texts, along with other improvements to products like its screen reader TalkBack, Maps, Assistant, and Android Auto. This spring 2021 release is latest in a series of smaller update bundles, similar to iOS “point releases,” that add new functionality and features to Android outside of the larger update cycle.

One the security front, this update will integrate a feature called Password Checkup into devices running Android 9 and above to alert you to passwords you’re using that have been previously exposed.

The feature works with Autofill with Google, which lets you quickly sign in to apps and other services on Android. Now, when you use Autofill, Password Checkup will check your credentials against a list of known compromised passwords, then notify you if your credentials appear on that list and what to do about it.

Image Credits: Google

The prompt can also direct you to your Password Manager page on Google, where you can review all your other saved Autofill passwords for similar issues.

To use this feature, you’ll need to have Autofill enabled. (Settings > System > Languages & Input > Advanced, the tap Autofill. Tap Google to ensure the setting is enabled.)

The new Messages feature rolling out this update could see profilifc texters considering a switch to Android, as it’s one of the most in-demand features since SMS was invented: the ability to schedule your texts.

Image Credits: Google

Android’s new scheduled send feature will allow you to compose a message ahead of time, whenever it’s convenient for you, then schedule it to be sent later when it’s a more appropriate time. This can be particularly helpful if you have friends, family or coworkers and colleagues in other timezones, and are hesitant to bother them when they could be sleeping or enjoying family time after work. It can also help those who often remember something they meant to text when it’s late at night and too late to send the message.

To use this feature, you’ll just write the text as usual, then press and hold the send button to select a date and time to deliver the message. You’ll need the latest version of the Android Messages app for this feature to work.

Another flagship feature arriving in this Android release is aimed at making Android’s screen reader, known as TalkBack, easier to use for those users who are blind or have low vision. TalkBack today allows users to navigate their device with their voice and gestures in order to read, write, send emails, share social media, order delivery and more.

Image Credits: Google

The updated version (TalkBack 9.1) will now include a dozen new multi-finger gestures to interact with apps and perform common actions, like selecting and editing text, controlling media or getting help. This will work on Pixel and Samsung Galaxy devices from One UI 3 onwards, Google says.

Google is also responding to user feedback over TalkBack’s confusing multiple menu system, and has returned to the single menu system users wanted. This single menu will adapt to context while also providing consistent access to the most common functions.

Other TalkBack improvements includes new gestures — like an up and right swipe to access over 25 voice commands — and new reading controls that let users either skim a page, read only headlines, listen word-by-word or even character-by-character.

 

Users can also now add or remove options from the TalkBack menu or the reading controls to further customize the interface to their needs. Plus, TalkBack’s braille keyboard added support for Arabic and Spanish.

The spring update also adds more minor improvements to Maps, Assistant and Android Auto.

Maps is getting a dark mode that you can enable as the default under Settings > Theme and then selecting “Always in Dark Theme.”

 

Image Credits: Google

 

Google Assistant’s update will let you use the feature when the phone is locked or further away from you, by turning on Lock Screen Personal Results in Assistant’s Settings then saying “Hey Google,” as needed.

The new cards that appear when the phone is locked are meant to be easier to read with just a glance, Google says.

And finally, Android Auto will now include custom wallpapers and voice-activated games like trivia and “Jeopardy!” which you can ask for via the “Hey Google” command.

There are also now shortcuts on the launch screen for accessing your contacts, or using Assistant to complete tasks like checking the weather or adjusting the thermostat, for example. Cars with wider screens will gain access to a split screen view with Google Maps on one side and media controls on the other.

Android Auto’s features will roll out in the “coming days” on phones running Android 6.0 and higher and work with compatible cars, Google notes.

 

#accessibility, #android, #apps, #google, #maps, #messages, #mobile, #mobile-os

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IronSource acquires video and playable ad platform Luna Labs

Mobile advertising company ironSource is announcing its second acquisition of the year — Luna Labs, a startup that that’s built a platform allowing app developers to create and manage video and playable ads.

When I first wrote about the startup in 2019, its main selling point was the ability to create those ads directly from from the Unity game engine used by many developers. Since then, it has expanded its platform to support the creation of both playable and video ads (including unlimited variations of a gameplay video), manage their entire ad library, analyze their performance and even automatically optimize them based on install data. Its customers include Crazy Labs, Supersonic Studios, Lion Studios, Kwalee and Voodoo.

IronSource, meanwhile, has built a platform for mobile user growth and monetization. It was valued at more than $1 billion in its most recent funding round of more than $400 million, and in January it announced the acquisition of ad measurement company Soomla.

In a statement, ironSource’s co-founder and chief revenue officer Omer Kaplan said:

Our vision at ironSource is to build the most comprehensive growth platform for app developers, allowing them to focus on content creation and on building a great user experience, while we provide the infrastructure for their business expansion. Creatives are a key part of that and have only become more important as competition for user attention grows. But ad creative development and testing at scale is incredibly difficult and costly. Luna Labs solves that by bringing high quality end-to-end ad creation management to app developers, and we’re excited to be able to add that capability into the ironSource platform.

The financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed. IronSource says that the Luna Labs team (currently based in the United Kingdom) will remain in its current offices, where it will continue developing its technology “under the ironSource umbrella.”

#advertising-tech, #fundings-exits, #ironsource, #luna-labs, #mobile, #startups, #tc

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Daily Crunch: Spotify announces a high-end subscription

Spotify makes a bunch of announcements, Netflix introduces an intriguing new feature and Clubhouse faces security concerns. This is your Daily Crunch for February 22, 2021.

The big story: Spotify announces a high-end subscription

Spotify listeners will get the chance to pay for higher-quality audio when the streaming service launches a new tier that it says will offer “CD-quality, lossless audio.” The pricing and launch date have yet to be announced, but Spotify HiFi will, unsurprisingly, cost more than Spotify Premium and be marketed as a Premium add-on.

That was probably the biggest news that Spotify made at today’s “Stream On” event, where it also announced an audience development tool for artists, an audio ad marketplace, continued international expansiona podcast co-hosted by Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen and a test of paid podcast subscriptions.

The tech giants

Netflix launches ‘Downloads for You,’ a new feature that automatically downloads content you’ll like — After turning on the feature for the first time, you’ll be able to select the amount of storage space you want to dedicate for these recommended downloads.

Twitter explored buying India’s ShareChat and turning Moj into a global TikTok rival — According to sources, Twitter offered to buy the five-year-old Indian startup for $1.1 billion.

Startups, funding and venture capital

EquityBee raises $20M to help startup employees actually afford their stock options — EquityBee CEO Oren Barzilai says his company’s mission is to help educate startup employees on the meaning of their stock options, as well as provide them with funds to be able to purchase those options.

Splice gets $55M for its software bringing beats from bedrooms to bandstands — Splice gained a following for its ability to help electronic dance music creators save, share, collaborate and remix music.

A race to reverse-engineer Clubhouse raises security concerns — The fact that it takes programmers little effort to reverse-engineer and fork Clubhouse is sounding an alarm about the app’s security.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

If Coinbase is worth $100B, what’s a fair valuation for Stripe? — We dig into Coinbase’s 2019 and 2020 financial performance.

Bain’s Matt Harris and Justworks’ Isaac Oates to talk through the Series B deal that brought them together — All the way back in 2016, Bain Capital Ventures caught a whiff of Justworks’ potential for success.

Winning enterprise sales teams know how to persuade the Chief Objection Officer — Many enterprise software startups have at some point faced the invisible wall.

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

Everything else

Watch Perseverance’s harrowing descent to the surface of Mars — NASA has released video taken by the Perseverance landing module and rover showing the famous “seven minutes of terror.”

Calling Oslo VCs: Be featured in The Great TechCrunch Survey of European VC — TechCrunch is embarking on a major project to survey the venture capital investors of Europe, and their cities.

Original Content podcast: Apple’s ‘Ted Lasso’ is all about relentless optimism — This will be our last episode on TechCrunch, as Original Content goes independent!

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, #media, #mobile, #spotify

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Huawei launches its next foldable in China

Huawei’s first foldable feels like a distant memory. Announced in 2019, the company went back to the drawing board prior to release, as Samsung ran into its own much publicized issues with the innovative form factor.

The Mate X was well-received among journalists — I had the opportunity to spend some time with it at the company’s HQ in China and was impressed with the build quality. But for various reasons, it never made its way outside of China. And there’s some reason to believe that the newly announced X2 will suffer a similar fate.

The new handset has already drawn its share of comparisons to Samsung’s early models — and rightfully so, to be honest. The X2’s form factor appears to share much more in common with the Galaxy Fold from a design standpoint than its own predecessor. And while Samsung’s model got off to a rocky start or two, the company was also the first to get things fairly right after a bit of public trial and error.

And like Samsung, Huawei is leading with improvements to the hinge mechanism as a big selling point here. It’s the sort of meat and potatoes thing that would be glossed over in most other devices, but the hinge has proven one of the major pain points for these devices — and as much as a company might test behind the scenes, there’s no replacing real-world usage.

The primary, foldable display is eight inches, with a 6.45-inch screen on the outside — a bit more than the Galaxy Fold 2, in both cases (at 7.6 and 6.2 inches, respectively). In the rendering, the front screen occupies most of the device, with a bit of a bezel and a camera cut out. There’s 5G on board, too, paired with Huawei’s proprietary Kirin 9000 chip and a 4,400mAh battery.

The system is, of course, missing a pretty significant feature, courtesy of all of those blacklists. The company is pushing the presence of the Android 10-based EMUI 11.0 (Based on Android 10). Likely the device will also feature Huawei’s own HarmonyOS, in lieu of Android. The company’s been building out its operating system in recent years with the understanding that it would likely become a flashpoint in U.S./China tensions.

We have yet to see a full version of the software, but it’s hard to imagine it being as complete or robust as Google’s 12-year-old mobile OS — not to mention Google’s various apps.

The Mate X2 arrives in China on February 25, starting at around $2,800.

#5g, #foldable, #foldables, #harmonyos, #huawei, #mobile, #smartphones

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Spotify to test paid podcast subscriptions this spring via new Anchor feature

During its live-streamed event today, Spotify officially confirmed its plans to launch paid podcast subscriptions on its platform. As a first step, the company will this spring begin beta testing a new feature in its Anchor podcast creation tool that will allow U.S. creators to publish paid podcast content aimed at their “most dedicated fans.” It also opened up signups for this and other new features, starting today.

Spotify had hinted at its plans for paid podcast content during its fourth-quarter earnings call earlier this month, when it said it was exploring ideas like paid podcast subscriptions and à la carte payments. But it didn’t detail when these new options would go live or how they would work.

At its online event today, Spotify more formally announced its plans to enter the market of paid podcasts, initially with a new service that would allow Anchor creators the ability to offer paid podcast subscriptions supported by their listeners.

This sort of idea is not new, to be clear. Already, some podcasters offer paid access to bonus material — for example, through a service like Stitcher Premium, which promises both an ad-free experience and bonus episodes. Some creators may even independently offer paid feeds through their own platforms.

But until now, a similar option was not available to Spotify creators.

Anchor co-founder Michael Mignano said the company believes paid bonus material can work well as a means of podcast monetization, in addition to ads.

Image Credits: Spotify

“We have found that, through our research, it seems to work especially well for creators who have really engaged and dedicated audiences — regardless of the audience size,” he told TechCrunch in an interview following Spotify’s event. “We’ve also found that podcast listeners do tend to be open to financially supporting the shows they love,” he added.

The company was hesitant to detail some of the specifics of how paid subscriptions would work at launch, but did say that the model would involve a revenue share between creators and Anchor, where creators keep the majority of the earnings. Anchor will also allow creators to determine what price to charge their listeners for the paid experience and what that experience would include — like bonus episodes or interviews, or even ad-free content, if they prefer.

It will then use its understanding of what creators actually do with paid subscriptions to inform its product product launch and its “best practices” recommendations in the future.

We also understand the offering will be limited to those who use Anchor to record and publish across podcast platforms. However, it will more immediately benefit creators with a strong Spotify presence and a loyal listenership.

But Mignano points out that creators may be able to grow their paid subscriber base thanks to Spotify’s tools for podcast discovery.

“The problem is the system for doing this type of paid subscription so far in podcasts has been really disjointed,” he explained. “It hasn’t been a really seamless experience for the listener, and it hasn’t really been a great experience for the creator. We feel like that’s really held this model back and hindered creators’ reach and ability to gain paid subscribers,” he said.

Image Credits: Spotify/Anchor

In other words, users may be open to the idea of paid bonus material, but they don’t necessarily want to switch between apps to gain access, nor do they want to figure out how to get paid RSS feeds into some third-party podcast listening app.

Spotify, meanwhile, will try to make discovery easier. It will highlight the paid content alongside the free material on the podcast’s main page, for example. Plus, in the same way that Spotify today helps users discover new podcasts they may like to try, it will also point to paid subscription-based podcasts in the future as the new model rolls out further.

Anchor says it will initially open up the beta test in the U.S. to a small number of creators, but aims to expand access to more creators as soon as reasonably possible. The test, for the time being, will only focus on paid subscriptions, but Mignano told us the company may explore the à la carte model in the future.

Paid podcasts were only one of several new features Anchor announced today at the Spotify event.

The company also announced the launch of a WordPress partnership that makes it easier for bloggers to turn their posts into posts, either by reading the blog posts themselves or leveraging third-party text-to-speech technology Anchor provides.

Anchor will also expand beta testing of video podcasts, which so far have been tested by only a handful of creators, including Higher Learning from The Ringer.

And it will begin beta testing new, interactive features, like polls and Q&A, with a small number of creators in the months ahead.

These features could potentially overlap with paid subscriptions. For example, some podcast creators may choose to make their videos a paid feature, or perhaps other interactive features. It remains to be seen how they’re put to use.

But more broadly, features like polls and Q&As could help Spotify better differentiate an interactive podcast from a live audio program, like those popularized by the buzzy new app Clubhouse. The advantage of the latter is that it allows for audience participation in the “show,” rather than being a one-way street where hosts control the experience. But on the flip side, Clubhouse rooms can also have folks who drone on and on, or they can become boring, when not carefully managed.

Anchor says it doesn’t intend to charge creators for access to its tools, beyond taking a rev share on subscriptions.

“I think our vision with Anchor and Spotify has always been to really empower creators. In the Anchor suite of tools, we’ve never charged creators for any features because we believe that charging creators can often represent friction that stands in the way of them trying to actually make something and getting it out into the world,” Mignano said. “We want to enable creators to do whatever they want, as far as expressing themselves through these new tools,” he added.

 

#apps, #media, #mobile

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App spending to reach $270B by 2025, new forecast predicts

A new market forecast predicts app spending will reach $270 billion by the year 2025, including paid downloads, in-app purchases, and subscriptions. According to data from Sensor Tower, in-app spending will return to pre-pandemic levels of stable growth over the next few years, downloads will continue to grow, and, perhaps most notably, it’s predicting app store spending in non-game apps will overtake mobile game spending by 2024.

This is a big bet, given that, today, consumers spend twice as much on mobile games than on non-games. The firm, however, believes the subscription model now being adopted by a range of mobile apps will cause a shift in the market. By 2024, it expects non-game spending to reach $86 billion compared with $73 billion in game spending. And by 2025, that gap will widen, with non-games reaching $107 billion while mobile games reach $78 billion.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Last year, global consumer spending in the top 100 subscription apps was up by 34%, year-over-year, to give you an idea of the current state of the market. But there were already some indications that subscription growth was being impacted by larger apps, like Netflix and Tinder, which found workarounds to in-app purchases.

What Sensor Tower also can’t predict is how the regulatory environment of the next several years will play out across the app stores. Today, companies like Apple and Google require apps to charge customers for subscriptions via Google and Apple’s own payment mechanisms. But new anti-competition laws could be enacted that would allow publishers to market their own subscriptions inside their apps, which then redirect users to their own channels to make those purchases. Such a change would have an outsized impact on app store subscription growth trends, and, therefore, this forecast.

Though the pandemic pushed in-app spending up by 30% year-over-year to a record $111 billion in 2020, the new forecast predicts general in-app spending will return to pre-COVID levels over the next five years. It says gross revenue across both app stores will climb each year with a 19.5% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) to reach $270 billion by 2025. Of that figure, $185 billion will be App Store spending, versus $85 billion on Google Play.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

The U.S. will grow slightly slower than the rest of the global market, with a CAGR of 17.7% to reach $74 billion by 2025.

European markets will drive growth in app store spending from 2020 through 2025, led by the U.K. This not the equivalent to which markets see the most spending in total, but rather is about where growth is taking place — in other words, opportunity for app makers. By 2025, 11 European countries will pass the $1 billion in consumer spending milestone, to collectively reach $42 billion in consumer spend.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Downloads, meanwhile, will continue to grow over the next several years, to reach 230 billion by 2025, the forecast predicts, with Google Play accounting for a majority of that figure, with 187 billion global downloads. In the U.S., however, App Store downloads in 2025 (10.6B) will top those from Google Play (6.3B), the report concludes.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

#apps, #mobile

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Netflix launches ‘Downloads for You,’ a new feature that automatically downloads content you’ll like

Netflix today is launching a new feature that aims to bring more offline content to users who opt in automatic downloads. With “Downloads for You” enabled, the Netflix app will download recommended TV shows and movies to your mobile device based on your tastes, as determined by your Netflix watch history.

After turning on the feature for the first time, you’ll be able to select the amount of storage space you want to dedicate to saving these recommended downloads on your device: either 1GB, 3GB, or 5GB. The downloads will then take place when you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network, and will contain a mix of recommendations that Netflix believes you’ll like. Typically, the app will download the first few episodes of a TV show — enough to get you started.

You can also cast the downloaded content to a nearby TV, where it will stream directly from your phone.

After you’ve watched the episodes or movies, you can delete them from the device to free up more storage space for the next time you’re connected to WiFi.

Netflix notes its full catalog is available for download, not just its own original content. However, there will be some titles with download limitations due to licensing restrictions.

The feature is an addition, not a replacement for Netflix’s existing offline access feature known as Smart Downloads. First launched in 2018 before becoming globally available, Smart Downloads allows users to pick which shows or movies they want to save for offline viewing.

Netflix says it began testing Downloads for You in late 2020, but is today making the feature available to all users worldwide, initially on Android. A version for iOS is in the works and will arrive later this year.

Offline downloads can make sense for those who are traveling — for example, by plane or underground train, where internet access is not a given. But it also makes sense for users in emerging markets, where access to a reliable cellular connection or bandwidth can be a concern.

During tests, Netflix notes it saw high usage of the feature in the U.S. But it considers the emerging market use case — where Android devices are more heavily used and connections are often unreliable — to be of particular importance. This especially true for countries like India and Brazil, and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region.

“We’re excited to introduce Downloads for You. People who choose this new feature will have shows or movies automatically downloaded to their devices, with recommendations based on their tastes,” said Patrick Flemming, Netflix’s Director of Product Innovation, in a statement. “We want to make discovering your next new favorite series or film even easier, whether you’re connected or not.”

#apps, #media, #mobile

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This Week in Apps: Sneak peek at TikTok shopping, new iOS and Android betas, kids’ app Prodigy hit with FTC complaint

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’ve got a first look at one of TikTok’s early e-commerce tests, which involves a program for sellers involving product anchors on videos and the option for affiliate sales. We’re also digging into the new iOS and Android betas, the FTC complaint against math app Prodigy and more.

Top Stories

TikTok tests a new e-commerce experience in Indonesia

The Financial Times recently reported TikTok was preparing to launch a range of new e-commerce experiences in 2021, including the ability for creators to share links to products, support for affiliate sales, and even livestreamed shopping. Now, we’ve got a first look at some of the live tests around e-commerce that TikTok has in progress.

The company recently launched a “Seller University” website aimed at its Indonesian audience, where it details how brands can advertise their products on video. Here, TikTok explains brands have two ways to advertise, either by making their own videos or by working with affiliates.

“If you choose to sell through your personal page, you can then display products via livestreaming or short videos, with product anchors embedded in your content. When customers view your content, they can be redirected to the corresponding product detail page by clicking on the product anchor,” the site explains.

The Seller University also details other information, like how to sign up to be a TikTok seller and what sort of products are prohibited, along with other rules and guidelines.

Image Credits: TikTok

TikTok Sellers have to provide their contact information, including location, phone, email, shop and warehouse location, and other required documentation to be approved. They can then set up a Seller profile, where they can manage other users associated with their account. Once live as a Seller on the app, they’ll have a “TikTok Shop” on the second tab on their profile, which users can view when they visit the page.

When their videos showing their products are viewed, there are “product anchors” embedded in the content. Clicking on these anchors will redirect the viewer to the product detail page where they can transact. In addition, brands can collaborate with TikTok influencers to promote their products through a new “TikTok Affiliate” program.

Image Credits: TikTok

TikTok told TechCrunch the program is a test of its e-commerce solutions in Indonesia, and one of several product tests in the area of e-commerce.

Consumer advocacy groups file FTC complaint against edtech app Prodigy

A coalition of 20 consumer advocacy groups, led by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, have filed an FTC complaint against the popular edtech app Prodigy, which offers a math learning app for web and mobile. The app is designed much like modern-day freemium games, with math “battles” designed to improve math skills, grades and test scores.

The complaint alleges a variety of abuses, including how it aggressively pushes kids using the free version provided to schools to nag parents for the paid $59 annual subscription, which includes a richer gaming experience.

The groups also take issue with the app’s in-app rewards and badges — some of which are only available to paid users, including fancier loot boxes — saying these features cause division between those who pay and those who can’t. And it alleges that Prodigy’s claims about educational improvements don’t hold merit.

In response, Prodigy says it takes the concerns seriously, but over 95% of users play the game for free and the business model involving the paid membership is how free access is provided.

“Without this model, we would be required to put all of our educational content behind a paywall, which contradicts our mission of providing full access to fun and engaging math learning,” a company spokesperson said. “The alternative would be to generate revenue via advertising, which is not a model we believe best benefits or protects our users. We never show third-party ads on our platform, nor do we sell or lease any other user information to third parties,” they noted.

The FTC has stepped up its enforcement over how apps targeting children can behave, with a focus on data collection practices and COPPA violations, which has resulted in fines for apps like TikTok and YouTube. This complaint, however, is not about children’s privacy, but rather how they’re being marketed to via edtech.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Apple rolls out iOS 14.5, beta 2. The update includes a new Apple Music interface with the ability to share lyrics on social and use new swipe gestures; new Shortcuts actions for taking screenshots, setting screen orientation switching between cellular data modes, and more; expanded support for iPad privacy features (in relation to shutting off the microphone); and more than 200 new emoji.

The most notable new emoji include the heart on fire, exhaling face, face in clouds, gender options for people with beards and an updated syringe that removes the blood, making it more useful for conversations about the COVID vaccine.

Apple welcomed the teams from 13 app companies in its inaugural cohort for Apple’s Entrepreneur Camp for Black Founders and Developers. The program focuses on building technical skills and designing a great user experience through sessions, hands-on labs, one-on-ones with Apple experts and engineers, and more. VC firm Harlem Capital will also offer mentorship.

Participants include fitness app B3am, news app Black, music app Bar Exam, 3D photos app Film3D, MIDI Controller app FormKey, healthcare app Health Auto Export, gardening app Hologarden, remote learning solution Hubli (beta testing), game Justice Royale, sneaker enthusiast app Kickstroid, nail art app Nailstry, social app Peek: Movies & TV Shows and music app TuneBend.

Platforms: Google

Google launches the first developer preview of Android 12. The update includes new privacy controls; pre-set password complexity levels of high, medium and low; other improved user experience tools and app compatibility improvements; the ability to transcode media into higher-quality formats like the AV1 image format; transitions and animations for notifications, plus the ability to decorate notifications with custom content; enrollment-specific IDs for employee-owned devices; streamlined credential management for unmanaged devices; an improved screenshot editor; better support for multi-channel audio; Project Mainline improvements; and more.

Google’s Play Store adds support for Nearby Sharing. The feature allows users to share apps and updates with nearby Android devices.

Google suspended the Trump 2020 app from the Play Store for non-functionality. The app would either hang upon first launch or immediately reported a server error. Google says the app was in violation of its policies around non-functional apps, but the app can return if it’s fixed.

E-commerce

YouTube says it’s now beta testing a new e-commerce shopping experience in the app that allows creators to market products to fans, who can then buy directly on YouTube. The feature, which aims to compete with TikTok’s growing shopping ambitions, will expand later in 2021 beyond the initial group of creators.

Image Credits: YouTube

Fintech

Robinhood’s CEO Vlad Tenev testified before Congress this week over the GameStop frenzy. Tenev denied helping hedge funds and asked for the SEC to modify trading rules. AOC pointed out that Robinhood isn’t truly free, it’s just hiding the cost from retail investors by subsidizing free trades with payment for order flow. (A percentage of its revenue Tenev ridiculously claimed he couldn’t recall, saying only “it’s over 50%.”)

From the hearing, via CSPAN

Social

TikTok parent ByteDance is exploring a sale of its TikTok operations in India to Bangalore-headquartered Glance, a mobile content platform founded by InMobi founder Naveen Tewari. Glance operates a TikTok rival Roposo, which has seen massive growth since TikTok was banned in India over national security concerns. The two companies — ByteDance and Glance parent InMobi Pte — share an investor with SoftBank, which initiated the talks, per a Bloomberg report.

Instagram is fixing the iMessage bug. Some suspected the issue was related to Apple and Facebook’s ongoing public battles, but Instagram said the problem where Instagram links in iMessage wouldn’t show a preview was just a bug. The company noted a fix will arrive soon.

TikTok inks a multi-year deal with UFC which includes livestreams of pre- and post-fight content, and other behind-the-scenes footage. The content will stream on UFC TikTok accounts including @UFC, @UFCRussia, @UFCBrasil and @UFCEurope.

Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, now has 550 million users for its in-app Search feature alone. The app last reported in September it had 600 million daily users, indicating an even larger base of MAUs.

Right-wing social network Parler announced it’s back online for existing users and will re-open to new users next week. The company also has a new interim CEO, Mark Meckler, who previously co-founded the Tea Party Patriots.

Triller is mired in controversy over its MAUs. A Billboard report says the company misrepresented the number of monthly active users it had — 25 million instead of the 50 million it claimed. Triller CEO Mike Lu had said the discrepancies didn’t matter because there’s “no legal definition” for an MAU. After the report came out, Lu denied the company was inflating its numbers. We happen to recall that Triller immediately threatened to sue over a report that it had inflated its downloads last year.

Photos

YouTube star David Dobrik’s photo-sharing app Dispo, backed by a $4 million seed, launched into private beta to a ton of buzz. The app quickly maxed out TestFlight’s 10,000-person limit, instead of being the low-key beta debut the team had expected. Dispo’s gimmick is that users have to wait 24 hours to see the photos they snap.

Messaging

 

Image Credits: WhatsApp

WhatsApp will roll out an in-app banner in an attempt to better explain its new privacy policy. When clicked, users will be directed toward policy information they can review at their leisure ahead of the May 15 deadline to accept the changes.

Streaming & Entertainment

Image Credits: App Annie

Clubhouse has topped 8 million global downloads, 2.6 million of which were in the U.S., according to a new report from App Annie. The report also highlighted the broader impact Clubhouse is having on social audio, as local audio apps are gaining new installs, too.

Global mobile users streamed 935 billion hours of video in 2020, up 40% YoY, says App Annie. The pandemic impacts were clear — users went from 146 billion hours in Q1 2019 to 240 billion in Q4 2020, a 65% rise in two years.

Cameo, the app that connects customers with celebs for paid personalized messages, is said to be raising $100 million, valuing its business at $1 billion, reports Bloomberg Quint. Not coincidentally, Facebook just began testing its Cameo clone, Super.

YouTube reveals its 2021 plans. In a blog post from Chief Product Officer Neal Mohan, YouTube gave a look at coming updates across its suite of apps:

  • YouTube to redesign its YouTube VR app homepage to improve navigation, accessibility and search functionality.
  • YouTube says it will expand its video chapters feature to add chapters automatically and update the watch experience to be more intuitive, including on the tablet.
  • YouTube TV, now with 3 million-plus users, will introduce a paid add-on that will support 4K streaming, DVR for off-line playback and unlimited simultaneous in-home streams.
  • YouTube Kids will add a feature that allows parents to specify the channels and videos their kids are allowed to watch.
  • YouTube will expand its Applause tipping feature to more creators in 2021.
  • YouTube Music will improve playlist creation and make those playlists more discoverable.
  • And as noted above, YouTube is testing an e-commerce feature that lets users check out on the app.
  • YouTube Shorts, an in-app TikTok rival of sorts, will come to the U.S. in March, following its tests in India.

Gaming

Microsoft xCloud, the game streaming service that lets users play Xbox games on Android tablets and phones, has begun testing a web version. In a review by The Verge, the experience is described as similar to the mobile version, with a simple launcher, recommendations, access to cloud games through Xbox Game Pass Ultimate and the ability to resume recently played games.

Apple demanded sensitive data from Valve to aid in its legal battle with Epic Games. The request included things like total yearly sales of apps and in-app products; annual ad revenues from Steam; annual revenues from Steam; annual earnings gross or net from Steam; and more. Apple also wanted the names of all Steam apps, price and IAP, and date range available. Valve, not surprisingly, did not agree to this. PCGamer has the full report.

Epic Games expands its legal fight with Apple to the EU. The Fortnite owner filed a formal antitrust complaint with the European Commission, alleging Apple’s anti-competitive restrictions that have “eliminated competition in app distribution and payments.” Epic Games is also fighting Apple in the U.S., U.K. and Australia.

Stadia layoffs shocked team. Google Stadia, the game streaming service available via Chromecast Ultra, the Chrome browser, ChromeOS tablets and the Stadia mobile app for Android, recently shut down its in-house game development studio, Stadia Games and Entertainment. A report from Kotaku this week indicates how much of a surprise this was to team, as just days before the mass layoffs, leadership was praising staff for their “great progress.”

Health & Fitness

Apple tells developers that only apps submitted by recognized public health authorities will be able to publish “health pass” apps to the App Store. These apps are designed to show someone’s COVID-19 testing and vaccination status. Apple says it will accept apps from government, medical and other credentialed institutions, healthcare providers, laboratories and test kit manufacturers.

Apple promotes iOS health apps to Apple Card holders. In honor of American Heart Month, Apple emailed Apple Card users savings on iOS health apps including Strava, Ten Percent Happier, Sleep Cycle and Lifesum.

U.S. health & fitness apps saw over 405 million installs in 2020, up 22% year-over-year, reports Sensor Tower. The apps, which benefited from gym closures amid COVID, saw $838 million in consumer spend, up 42% YoY. The average age of users also continued climb, demonstrating better retention with older users.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

A second report from the firm indicated U.S. pharmacy app installs were up 47% as the COVID-19 vaccine began to roll out.

Productivity

Microsoft launched a unified app for iPad that combines Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote into one single app. The app is a free download with in-app subscriptions, starting at $6.99/month. A $69.99/year subscription is also available. Microsoft previously launched unified apps for the iPhone and Android.

Government & Policy

TikTok faces a new series of regulatory complaints in Europe, including unfair terms over its virtual currency, whose exchange rate can be modified by TikTok; unfair terms in relation to copyright, related to TikTok’s ability to redistribute users’ videos without paying them (e.g. for ads); child safety concerns over suggestive content and “hidden marketing” of its branded Hashtag Challenges; and other accusations of misleading data processing and privacy practices.

North Dakota’s Senate votes down the App Store bill that would have forced Apple to allow users to sideload apps on their mobile devices. The bill was funded by the advocacy group Coalition for App Fairness, which includes Epic Games, Spotify, Match Group, Tile and others with a beef against Apple over its commission structure. Similar bills are under consideration in Arizona and Georgia.

Adtech

The Post-IDFA Alliance, which consists of Liftoff, Fyber, Chartboost, InMobi, Vungle and Singular, launched a new “No IDFA? No Problem” resource that aims to help publishers and advertisers navigate the iOS 14 transition.

Security

File sharing app SHAREit, one of the world’s most popular apps, is found to have several security flaws, researchers reported. The vulnerabilities could be abused to leak sensitive user data and “execute arbitrary code” with app permissions.

Funding and M&A

✨ Robinhood rival Public.com raised $220 million just months after its $65 million Series C, as previously reported by TechCrunch. Prior investors returned, including Greycroft, Accel, Tiger Global, Inspired Capital, and others, valuing the business at $1.2 billion.

✨ Robinhood rival Webull raised $150 million in a new round that values the business at over $1 billion. The brokerage was founded by Alibaba alum Wang Anquan and, like Public.com, has benefitted from the exodus of disgruntled Robinhood users, who left over the GameStop debacle.

✨ Math learning app Photomath raised $23 million in Series B funding in a round led by Menlo Ventures. The app, now with 220 million downloads, lets you point your phone at a math problem and it explains the solution.

✨ Live video shopping startup Talkshoplive raised $3 million from Spero Ventures for its live video shopping platform that lets users watch its videos on the web and mobile web — or anywhere else they’re embedded.

✨ Event networking app Grip raised a $13 million Series A, despite the pandemic. The app pivoted last year to support virtual, hybrid and live events, instead of just in-person events.

✨ Mobile gaming startup Artie raised $10 million for its gaming platform that lets users play mobile games without installing an app, from the browser or anywhere links can be shared online. Investors included Zynga founder Mark Pincus, Kevin Durant and Rich Kleiman’s Thirty Five Ventures, Scooter Braun’s Raised In Space, Shutterstock founder Jon Oringer, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, Googler Manuel Bronstein and YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley.

✨ Low-code app development service OutSystems raised $150 million in a round led by Abdiel Capital and Tiger Global, valuing the business at $9.5 billion.

✨ Cross-border neobanking app Zolve raised $15 million in a seed round led by Accel and Lightspeed. The app was founded by the Raghunandan G, the founder of ride-hailing firm TaxiForSure, which exited to Ola. It’s aimed at people moving from India to the U.S. or vice versa.

✨ Dating app Jigsaw raised $3.7 million for its app that hides daters’ faces with puzzle pieces in an effort to push users to engage and get to know each other before the reveal. While “face reveals” are popular on social media, a dating app that does this lends itself to objectifying people by not showing the face, as users focus on the daters’ body instead.

Downloads

Outfit

Image Credits: Outfit

TechCrunch this week covered DIY home renovation startup Outfit, which leverages consumers’ mobile devices to help them with their home projects. After submitting information, including dimensions and photos, Outfit’s app offers the customer a step-by-step guide for completing the project, including documenting their space, getting items and tools delivered, a custom to-do list and receiving support while the project is underway.

Hush

Image Credits: Hush

Hush, a recently launched Safari ad blocker for Mac, iPhone and iPad, does more than just block ads. The app also works to block other invasive trackers and those annoying cookie warnings that now pop up everywhere due to GDPR laws. (it actually doesn’t consent or deny the “accept cookies?” requests — it just blocks the scripts and elements on the website. It doesn’t interact with the site or click any buttons.

Unlike some blockers, Hush doesn’t collect your data. It doesn’t log your browser habits or passwords or even collect crash reports. It’s also free, but you can sponsor the developer on GitHub.

Zillow’s update

The updated version of Zillow’s 3D Home app introduced new technology that combines into one interface 3D Home tours, listing photos and AI-generated floor plans. To create the floor plans and home tour, the app uses computer vision and machine learning on panoramic photos the agent or photographer captured using the app and a 360-degree camera. The app also leverages AI to predict things like room dimensions and square footage. Both the home tour and floor plan can then be automatically uploaded to the lists and added to a website, MLS or shared on email/social media.

Due to the pandemic, Zillow 3D Home tours published on for-sale listings increased 255% during 2020 as customers used it as a safer way to tour properties, the company also noted.

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