News aggregator SmartNews raises $230 million, valuing its business at $2 billion

SmartNews, a Tokyo-headquartered news aggregation website and app that’s grown in popularity despite hefty competition from built-in aggregators like Apple News, today announced it has closed on $230 million in Series F funding. The round brings SmartNews’ total raise to date to over $400 million and values the business at $2 billion — or as the company touts in its press release, a “double unicorn.” (Ha!)

The funding included new U.S. investors Princeville Capital and Woodline Partners, as well as JIC Venture Growth Investments, Green Co-Invest Investment, and Yamauchi-No.10 Family Office in Japan. Existing investors participating in this round included ACA Investments and SMBC Venture Capital.

Founded in 2012 in Japan, the company launched to the U.S. in 2014 and expanded its local news footprint early last year. While the app’s content team includes former journalists, machine learning is used to pick which articles are shown to readers to personalize their experience. However, one of the app’s key differentiators is how it works to pop users’ “filter bubbles” through its “News From All Sides” feature, which allows its users to access news from across a range of political perspectives.

It has also developed new products, like its Covid-19 vaccine dashboard and U.S. election dashboard, that provide critical information at a glance. With the additional funds, the company says it plans to develop more features for its U.S. audience — one of its largest, in addition to Japan —  that will focus on consumer health and safety. These will roll out in the next few months and will include features for tracking wildfires and crime and safety reports. It also recently launched a hurricane tracker.

The aggregator’s business model is largely focused on advertising, as the company has said before that 85-80% of Americans aren’t paying to subscribe to news. But SmartNews’ belief is that these news consumers still have a right to access quality information.

In total, SmartNews has relationships with over 3,000 global publishing partners whose content is available through its service on the web and mobile devices.

To generate revenue, the company sells inline ads and video ads, where revenue is shared with publishers. Over 75% of its publishing partners also take advantage of its “SmartView” feature. This is the app’s quick-reading mode, and alternative to something like Google AMP. Here, users can quickly load an article to read, even if they’re offline. The company promises publishers that these mobile-friendly stories, which are marked with a lightning bolt icon in the app, deliver higher engagement — and its algorithm rewards that type of content, bringing them more readers. Among SmartView partners are well-known brands like USA Today, ABC, HuffPost, and others. Currently, over 70% of all SmartNews’ pageviews are coming from SmartView first.

SmartNews’ app has proven to be very sticky, in terms of attracting and keeping users’ attention. The company tells us, citing App Annie July 2021 data, that it sees an average time spent per user per month on U.S. mobile devices that’s higher than Google News or Apple News combined.

Image Credits: App Annie data provided by SmartNews

The company declined to share its monthly active users (MAUs), but had said in 2019 it had grown to 20 million in the U.S. and Japan. Today, it says its U.S. MAUs doubled over the last year.

According to data provided to us by Apptopia, the SmartNews app has seen around 85 million downloads since its October 2014 launch, and 14 million of those took place in the past 365 days. Japan is the largest market for installs, accounting for 59% of lifetime downloads, the firm noted.

“This latest round of funding further affirms the strength of our mission, and fuels our drive to expand our presence and launch features that specifically appeal to users and publishers in the United States,” said SmartNews co-founder and CEO Ken Zuzuki. “Our investors both in the U.S. and globally acknowledge the tremendous growth potential and value of SmartNews’s efforts to democratize access to information and create an ecosystem that benefits consumers, publishers, and advertisers,” he added.

The company says the new funds will be used to invest in further U.S. growth and expanding the company’s team. Since its last fundraise in 2019, where it became a unicorn, the company more than doubled its headcount to approximately 500 people globally. it now plans to double its headcount of 100 in the U.S., with additions across engineering, product, and leadership roles.

The Wall Street Journal reports SmartNews is exploring an IPO, but the company declined to comment on this.

The SmartNews app is available on iOS and Android across more than 150 countries worldwide.

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Box, Zoom chief product officers discuss how the changing workplace drove their latest collaboration

If the past 18 months is any indication, the nature of the workplace is changing. And while Box and Zoom already have integrations together, it makes sense for them to continue to work more closely.

Their newest collaboration is the Box app for Zoom, a new type of in-product integration that allows users to bring apps into a Zoom meeting to provide the full Box experience.

While in Zoom, users can securely and directly access Box to browse, preview and share files from Zoom — even if they are not taking part in an active meeting. This new feature follows a Zoom integration Box launched last year with its “Recommended Apps” section that enables access to Zoom from Box so that workflows aren’t disrupted.

The companies’ chief product officers, Diego Dugatkin with Box and Oded Gal with Zoom, discussed with TechCrunch why seamless partnerships like these are a solution for the changing workplace.

With digitization happening everywhere, an integration of “best-in-breed” products for collaboration is essential, Dugatkin said. Not only that, people don’t want to be moving from app to app, instead wanting to stay in one environment.

“It’s access to content while never having to leave the Zoom platform,” he added.

It’s also access to content and contacts in different situations. When everyone was in an office, meeting at a moment’s notice internally was not a challenge. Now, more people are understanding the value of flexibility, and both Gal and Dugatkin expect that spending some time at home and some time in the office will not change anytime soon.

As a result, across the spectrum of a company, there is an increasing need for allowing and even empowering people to work from anywhere, Dugatkin said. That then leads to a conversation about sharing documents in a secure way for companies, which this collaboration enables.

The new Box and Zoom integration enables meeting in a hybrid workplace: chat, video, audio, computers or mobile devices, and also being able to access content from all of those methods, Gal said.

“Companies need to be dynamic as people make the decision of how they want to work,” he added. “The digital world is providing that flexibility.”

This long-term partnership is just scratching the surface of the continuous improvement the companies have planned, Dugatkin said.

Dugatkin and Gal expect to continue offering seamless integration before, during and after meetings: utilizing Box’s cloud storage, while also offering the ability for offline communication between people so that they can keep the workflow going.

“As Diego said about digitization, we are seeing continuous collaboration enhanced with the communication aspect of meetings day in and day out,” Gal added. “Being able to connect between asynchronous and synchronous with Zoom is addressing the future of work and how it is shaping where we go in the future.”

#apps, #artificial-intelligence, #box, #cloud-computing, #computing, #diego-dugatkin, #enterprise, #mobile-devices, #oded-gal, #remote-work, #saas, #tc, #telecommunications, #video, #web-conferencing, #zoom

Microsoft is discontinuing its Office apps for Chromebook users in favor of web versions 

Since 2017, Microsoft has offered its Office suite to Chromebook users via the Google Play store, but that is set to come to an end in a few short weeks.

As of September 18, Microsoft is discontinuing support for Office (which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Outlook) on Chromebook. Microsoft is not, however, abandoning the popular mobile device altogether. Instead of an app that is downloaded, Microsoft is encouraging users to go to the web instead.

“In an effort to provide the most optimized experience for Chromebook customers, Microsoft apps (Office and Outlook) will be transitioned to web experiences (Office.com and Outlook.com) on September 18, 2021,” Microsoft wrote in a statement emailed to TechCrunch. 

Microsoft’s statement also noted that “this transition brings Chromebook customers access to additional and premium features.” 

The Microsoft web experience will serve to transition its base of Chromebook users to the Microsoft 365 service, which provides more Office templates and generally more functionality than what the app-based approach provides. The web approach is also more optimized for larger screens than the app.

In terms of how Microsoft wants Chromebook users to get access to Office and Outlook, the plan is for customers to, “…sign in with their personal Microsoft Account or account associated with their Microsoft 365 subscription,” according to the statement. Microsoft has also provided online documentation to show users how to run Office on a Chromebook.

Chromebooks run on Google’s Chrome OS, which is a Linux-based operating system. Chromebooks also enable Android apps to run, as Android is also Linux based, with apps downloaded from Google Play. It’s important to note that while support for Chromebooks is going away, Microsoft is not abandoning other Android-based mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones.

For those Chromebook users that have already downloaded the Microsoft Office apps, the apps will continue to function after September 18, though they will not receive any support or future updates.

#android, #chrome-os, #chromebook, #cloud, #enterprise, #google-play-store, #laptops, #microsoft, #microsoft-365, #microsoft-office, #mobile-devices, #operating-systems, #outlook-com

Apple lowers commissions on in-app purchases for news publishers who participate in Apple News

Apple today is launching a new program that will allow subscription news organizations that participate in the Apple News app and meet certain requirements to lower their commission rate to 15% on qualifying in-app purchases taking place inside their apps on the App Store. Typically, Apple’s model for subscription-based apps involves a standard 30% commission during their first year on the App Store which then drops to 15% in year two. But the new Apple News Partner Program, announced today, will now make 15% the commission rate for participants starting on day one.

There are a few caveats to this condition, and they benefit Apple. To qualify, the news publisher must maintain a presence on Apple News and they have to provide their content in the Apple News Format (ANF). The latter is the JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) format that’s used to create articles for Apple News which are optimized for Mac, iPhone and other Apple mobile devices. Typically, this involves a bit of setup to translate news articles from a publisher’s website or from their CMS (content management system) to the supported JSON format. For WordPress and other popular CMS’s, there are also plugins available to make this process easier.

Meanwhile, for publishers headquartered outside one of the four existing Apple News markets — the U.S., U.K., Australia, or Canada — they can instead satisfy the program’s obligations by providing Apple with an RSS feed.

On the App Store, the partner app qualifying for the 15% commission must be used to deliver “original, professionally authored” news content, and they must offer their auto-renewable subscriptions using Apple’s in-app purchase system.

While there is some initial work involved in establishing the publisher’s connection to Apple News, it’s worth noting that most major publishers already participate on Apple’s platform. That means they won’t have to do any additional work beyond what they’re already doing in order to transition over to the reduced commission for their apps. However, the program also serves as a way to push news organizations to continue to participate in the Apple News ecosystem, as it will make more financial sense to do so across their broader business.

That will likely be an area of contention for publishers, who would probably prefer that the reduced App Store commission didn’t come with strings attached.

Some publishers already worry that they’re giving up too much control over their business by tying themselves to the Apple News ecosystem. Last year, for example, The New York Times announced it would exit its partnership with Apple News, saying that Apple didn’t allow it to have as direct a relationship with readers as it wanted, and it would rather drive readers to its own app and website.

Apple, however, would argue that it doesn’t stand in the way of publishers’ businesses — it lets them paywall their content and keep 100% of the ad revenue from the ads they sell. (If they can’t sell it all or would prefer Apple to do so on their behalf, they then split the commission with Apple, keeping 70% of revenues instead.) In addition, for the company’s Apple News+ subscription service — where the subscription revenue split is much higher — it could be argued that it’s “found money.” That is, Apple markets the service to customers the publisher hadn’t been able to attract on its own anyway.

The launch of the new Apple News Partner program comes amid regulatory scrutiny over how Apple manages its App Store business and more recently, proposed legislation aiming to address alleged anticompetitive issues both in the U.S. and in major App Store markets, like South Korea.

Sensing this shift in the market, Apple had already been working to provide itself cover from antitrust complaints and lawsuits — like the one underway now with Epic Games — by adjusting its App Store commissions. Last year, it launched the App Store Small Business Program, which also lowered commissions on in-app purchases from 30% to 15% — but only for developers earning up to $1 million in revenues.

This program may have helped smaller publishers, but it was clear some major publishers still weren’t satisfied. After the reduced commissions for small businesses were announced in November, the publisher trade organization Digital Content Next (DCN) — a representative for the AP, The New York Times, NPR, ESPN, Vox, The Washington Post, Meredith, Bloomberg, NBCU, The Financial Times, and others — joined the advocacy group and lobbying organization the Coalition for App Fairness (CAF) the very next month.

These publishers, who had previously written to Apple CEO Tim Cook to demand lower commissions — had other complaints about the revenue share beyond just the size of the split. They also didn’t want to be required to use Apple’s services for in-app purchases for their subscriptions, saying this “Apple tax” forces them to raise their prices for consumers.

It remains to be seen how these publishers will now react to the launch of the Apple News Partner program.

While it gives them a way to lower their App Store fees, it doesn’t address their broader complaints against Apple’s platform and its rules. If anything, it ties the lower fees to a program that locks them in further to the Apple ecosystem.

Apple, in a gesture of goodwill, also said today it would recommit support to three leading media non-profits, Common Sense Media, the News Literacy Project, and Osservatorio Permanente Giovani-Editori. These non-profits offer nonpartisan, independent media literacy programs, which Apple views as key to its larger mission to empower people to become smart and active news readers. Apple also said it would later announce further media literacy projects from other organizations. The company would not disclose the size of its commitment from a financial standpoint however, or discuss how much it has sent such organizations in the past.

“Providing Apple News customers with access to trusted information from our publishing partners has been our priority from day one,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Services, in a statement. “For more than a decade, Apple has offered our customers many ways to access and enjoy news content across our products and services. We have hundreds of news apps from dozens of countries around the world available in the App Store, and created Apple News Format to offer publishers a tool to showcase their content and provide a great experience for millions of Apple News users,” he added.

More details about the program and the application form will be available at the News Partner Program website.

#advocacy, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #apple-news, #apps, #australia, #canada, #ceo, #coalition-for-app-fairness, #common-sense, #common-sense-media, #computing, #content-management-system, #eddy-cue, #epic-games, #ios, #iphone, #itunes, #javascript, #json, #major, #media, #mobile-devices, #software, #south-korea, #the-financial-times, #the-new-york-times, #the-washington-post, #tim-cook, #united-kingdom, #united-states

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

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

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

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

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

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

Top Stories

OnlyFans to ban sexually explicit content

OnlyFans logo displayed on a phone screen and a website

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

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

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

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

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

The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max

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

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

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

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Image Credits: Apple

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

Platforms: Google

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

Augmented Reality

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

Fintech

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

Social

Image Credits: Facebook

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

Photos

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

Messaging

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

Streaming & Entertainment

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

Dating

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

Gaming

Image Source: The Pokémon Company

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

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Health & Fitness

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

Image Credits: Samsung

Adtech

Government & Policy

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

Security & Privacy

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

Funding and M&A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Markets

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

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

Downloads

Polycam (update)

Image Credits: Polycam

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

Jiobit (update)

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

Tweets

When your app redesign goes wrong…

Image Credits: Twitter.com

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

Image Credits: Twitter.com

Anyone have app ideas?

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Pokémon Unite is coming to iOS and Android on September 22

During today’s Pokémon Presents livestream, The Pokémon Company announced that Pokémon Unite will become available for iOS and Android on September 22. The strategic battle game came out for Nintendo Switch in late July, but its arrival on mobile devices will expand the game’s potential user base.

For users already playing on Nintendo Switch, fear not — the game allows cross-platform play, which means you can play on your Switch, then pick up where you left off on mobile. All users can play together regardless of what device they’re using, and it’s not necessary to have a Switch to get the mobile game. Pokémon Unite is free-to-start with microtransactions — you can purchase in-game currency to get certain items or Pokémon.

The presentation also unveiled new gameplay footage and feature news for upcoming Nintendo Switch releases: Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl (November 19, 2021), remakes of the Nintendo DS games from 2006, and Pokémon Legends: Arceus (January 28, 2022), the first open world RPG in the Pokémon universe.

Image Credits: Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl

Like previous main series game remakes, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl will expand upon the original games’ foundation and introduce features that appeared in later games, like Following Pokémon, Secret Bases, and — very importantly — changing your trainer’s outfit. The game will also include re-designed features from its original release, like designing Poké Ball capsules and competing in Pokémon Contests. But for the first time in a Pokémon Game, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl will introduce a new aspect of gameplay called the Sinnoh Underground. Players can collect statues of Pokémon for their Secret Base, and depending on what statues are on display, different Pokémon will appear in Pokémon Hideaways within the Sinnoh Underground. To commemorate the fifteen-year-old games’ remakes, on November 5, 2021, Nintendo will release a “Dialga and Palkia Edition” of the Nintendo Switch Lite, which features the legendary Pokémon in gold and silver on a grey console.

Then, the Pokémon Company shared more information about Pokémon Legends Arceus, a first-of-its-kind release for the iconic franchise. Fans have compared its open world design to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which is the fourth best-selling Nintendo Switch game with 23.2 million copies sold, but others say it’s more similar to Monster Hunter. The new game introduces the Hisui Region (an ancient version of the Sinnoh Region), along with new Pokémon like a grandpa-esque Growlithe, and an evolution of Basculin called Basculegion, which can evolve when “possessed by the souls of other Basculin from their school that could not withstand the harsh journey upstream”… Yes, this is a children’s franchise.

Nightmare-inducing new Pokémon aside, the livestream revealed more information about how exactly this new type of Pokémon game will work.

Like standard Pokémon games, players will set out on a mission to complete a Pokédex, but rather than training to become “the best like no one ever was,” they will be part of an expedition team, conducting survey work to learn more about the nature of Pokémon and the secrets they hold. In between field assignments, players can heal their party, craft items, and buy supplies at outposts (ancient Pokémon Centers?). Pokémon Legends: Arceus will also introduce a new battle style — like Pokémon Unite, it won’t simply repurpose the turn-based gameplay we’ve been accustomed to since the first Pokémon games were released in 1998.

Anyway, these games seem promising, but just try your best not to think about Basculegion.

#android, #gaming, #mobile-devices, #nintendo, #nintendo-ds, #pokemon, #pokemon-company, #rpg, #switch, #video-games

This Week in Apps: In-app events hit the App Store, TikTok tries Stories, Apple reveals new child safety plan

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

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

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

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place, with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

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

Top Stories

Apple to scan for CSAM imagery

Apple announced a major initiative to scan devices for CSAM imagery. The company on Thursday announced a new set of features, arriving later this year, that will detect child sexual abuse material (CSAM) in its cloud and report it to law enforcement. Companies like Dropbox, Google and Microsoft already scan for CSAM in their cloud services, but Apple had allowed users to encrypt their data before it reached iCloud. Now, Apple’s new technology, NeuralHash, will run on users’ devices, tatformso detect when a users upload known CSAM imagery — without having to first decrypt the images. It even can detect the imagery if it’s been cropped or edited in an attempt to avoid detection.

Meanwhile, on iPhone and iPad, the company will roll out protections to Messages app users that will filter images and alert children and parents if sexually explicit photos are sent to or from a child’s account. Children will not be shown the images but will instead see a grayed-out image instead. If they try to view the image anyway through the link, they’ll be shown interruptive screens that explain why the material may be harmful and are warned that their parents will be notified.

Some privacy advocates pushed back at the idea of such a system, believing it could expand to end-to-end encrypted photos, lead to false positives, or set the stage for more on-device government surveillance in the future. But many cryptology experts believe the system Apple developed provides a good balance between privacy and utility, and have offered their endorsement of the technology. In addition, Apple said reports are manually reviewed before being sent to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

The changes may also benefit iOS developers who deal in user photos and uploads, as predators will no longer store CSAM imagery on iOS devices in the first place, given the new risk of detection.

In-App Events appear on the App Store

Image Credits: Apple

Though not yet publicly available to all users, those testing the new iOS 15 mobile operating system got their first glimpse of a new App Store discovery feature this week: “in-app events.” First announced at this year’s WWDC, the feature will allow developers and Apple editors alike to showcase directly on the App Store upcoming events taking place inside apps.

The events can appear on the App Store homepage, on the app’s product pages or can be discovered through personalized recommendations and search. In some cases, editors will curate events to feature on the App Store. But developers will also be provided tools to submit their own in-app events. TikTok’s “Summer Camp” for creators was one of the first in-app events to be featured, where it received a top spot on the iPadOS 15 App Store.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Apple expands support for student IDs on iPhone and Apple Watch ahead of the fall semester. Tens of thousands more U.S. and Canadian colleges will now support mobile student IDs in the Apple Wallet app, including Auburn University, Northern Arizona University, University of Maine, New Mexico State University and others.

Apple was accused of promoting scam apps in the App Store’s featured section. The company’s failure to properly police its store is one thing, but to curate an editorial list that actually includes the scams is quite another. One of the games rounded up under “Slime Relaxations,” an already iffy category to say the least, was a subscription-based slime simulator that locked users into a $13 AUD per week subscription for its slime simulator. One of the apps on the curated list didn’t even function, implying that Apple’s editors hadn’t even tested the apps they recommend.

Tax changes hit the App Store. Apple announced tax and price changes for apps and IAPs in South Africa, the U.K. and all territories using the Euro currency, all of which will see decreases. Increases will occur in Georgia and Tajikistan, due to new tax changes. Proceeds on the App Store in Italy will be increased to reflect a change to the Digital Services Tax effective rate.

Game Center changes, too. Apple said that on August 4, a new certificate for server-based Game Center verification will be available via the publicKeyUrl.

Fintech

Robinhood stock jumped more than 24% to $46.80 on Tuesday after initially falling 8% on its first day of trading last week, after which it had continued to trade below its opening price of $38.

Square’s Cash app nearly doubled its gross profit to $546 million in Q2, but also reported a $45 million impairment loss on its bitcoin holdings.

Coinbase’s app now lets you buy your cryptocurrency using Apple Pay. The company previously made its Coinbase Card compatible with Apple Pay in June.

Social

An anonymous app called Sendit, which relies on Snap Kit to function, is climbing the charts of the U.S. App Store after Snap suspended similar apps, YOLO and LMK. Snap was sued by the parent of child who was bullied through those apps, which led to his suicide. Sendit also allows for anonymity, and reviews compare it to YOLO. But some reviews also complained about bullying. This isn’t the first time Snap has been involved in a lawsuit related to a young person’s death related to its app. The company was also sued for its irresponsible “speed filter” that critics said encouraged unsafe driving. Three young men died using the filter, which captured them doing 123 mph.

TikTok is testing Stories. As Twitter’s own Stories integrations, Fleets, shuts down, TikTok confirmed it’s testing its own Stories product. The TikTok Stories appear in a left-hand sidebar and allow users to post ephemeral images or video that disappear in 24 hours. Users can also comment on Stories, which are public to their mutual friends and the creator. Stories on TikTok may make more sense than they did on Twitter, as TikTok is already known as a creative platform and it gives the app a more familiar place to integrate its effects toolset and, eventually, advertisements.

Facebook has again re-arranged its privacy settings. The company continually moves around where its privacy features are located, ostensibly to make them easier to find. But users then have to re-learn where to go to find the tools they need, after they had finally memorized the location. This time, the settings have been grouped into six top-level categories, but “privacy” settings have been unbundled from one location to be scattered among the other categories.

A VICE report details ban-as-a-service operations that allow anyone to harass or censor online creators on Instagram. Assuming you can find it, one operation charged $60 per ban, the listing says.

TikTok merged personal accounts with creator accounts. The change means now all non-business accounts on TikTok will have access to the creator tools under Settings, including Analytics, Creator Portal, Promote and Q&A. TikTok shared the news directly with subscribers of its TikTok Creators newsletter in August, and all users will get a push notification alerting them to the change, the company told us.

Discord now lets users customize their profile on its apps. The company added new features to its iOS and Android apps that let you add a description, links and emojis and select a profile color. Paid subscribers can also choose an image or GIF as their banner.

Twitter Spaces added a co-hosting option that allows up to two co-hosts to be added to the live audio chat rooms. Now Spaces can have one main host, two co-hosts and up to 10 speakers. Co-hosts have all the moderation abilities as hosts, but can’t add or remove others as co-hosts.

Messaging

Tencent reopened new user sign-ups for its WeChat messaging app, after having suspended registrations last week for unspecified “technical upgrades.” The company, like many other Chinese tech giants, had to address new regulations from Beijing impacting the tech industry. New rules address how companies handle user data collection and storage, antitrust behavior and other checks on capitalist “excess.” The gaming industry is now worried it’s next to be impacted, with regulations that would restrict gaming for minors to fight addiction.

WhatsApp is adding a new feature that will allow users to send photos and videos that disappear after a single viewing. The Snapchat-inspired feature, however, doesn’t alert you if the other person takes a screenshot — as Snap’s app does. So it may not be ideal for sharing your most sensitive content.

Telegram’s update expands group video calls to support up to 1,000 viewers. It also announced video messages can be recorded in higher quality and can be expanded, regular videos can be watched at 0.5 or 2x speed, screen sharing with sound is available for all video calls, including 1-on-1 calls, and more.

Streaming & Entertainment

American Airlines added free access to TikTok aboard its Viasat-equipped aircraft. Passengers will be able to watch the app’s videos for up to 30 minutes for free and can even download the app if it’s not already installed. After the free time, they can opt to pay for Wi-Fi to keep watching. Considering how easy it is to fall into multi-hour TikTok viewing sessions without knowing it, the addition of the addictive app could make long plane rides feel shorter. Or at least less painful.

Chinese TikTok rival Kuaishou saw stocks fall by more than 15% in Hong Kong, the most since its February IPO. The company is another victim of an ongoing market selloff triggered by increasing investor uncertainty related to China’s recent crackdown on tech companies. Beijing’s campaign to rein in tech has also impacted Tencent, Alibaba, Jack Ma’s Ant Group, food delivery company Meituan and ride-hailing company Didi. Also related, Kuaishou shut down its controversial app Zynn, which had been paying users to watch its short-form videos, including those stolen from other apps.

Twitch overtook YouTube in consumer spending per user in April 2021, and now sees $6.20 per download as of June compared with YouTube’s $5.60, Sensor Tower found.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Spotify confirmed tests of a new ad-supported tier called Spotify Plus, which is only $0.99 per month and offers unlimited skips (like free users get on the desktop) and the ability to play the songs you want, instead of only being forced to use shuffle mode.

The company also noted in a forum posting that it’s no longer working on AirPlay2 support, due to “audio driver compatibility” issues.

Mark Cuban-backed audio app Fireside asked its users to invest in the company via an email sent to creators which didn’t share deal terms. The app has yet to launch.

YouTube kicks off its $100 million Shorts Fund aimed at taking on TikTok by providing creators with cash incentives for top videos. Creators will get bonuses of $100 to $10,000 based on their videos’ performance.

Dating

Match Group announced during its Q2 earnings it plans to add to several of the company’s brands over the next 12 to 24 months audio and video chat, including group live video, and other livestreaming technologies. The developments will be powered by innovations from Hyperconnect, the social networking company that this year became Match’s biggest acquisition to date when it bought the Korean app maker for a sizable $1.73 billion. Since then, Match was spotted testing group live video on Tinder, but says that particular product is not launching in the near-term. At least two brands will see Hyperconnect-powered integrations in 2021.

Photos

The Photo & Video category on U.S. app stores saw strong growth in the first half of the year, a Sensor Tower report found. Consumer spend among the top 100 apps grew 34% YoY to $457 million in Q2 2021, with the majority of the revenue (83%) taking place on iOS.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Gaming

Epic Games revealed the host of its in-app Rift Tour event is Ariana Grande, in the event that runs August 6-8.

Pokémon GO influencers threatened to boycott the game after Niantic removed the COVID safety measures that had allowed people to more easily play while social distancing. Niantic’s move seemed ill-timed, given the Delta variant is causing a new wave of COVID cases globally.

Health & Fitness

Apple kicked out an app called Unjected from the App Store. The new social app billed itself as a community for the unvaccinated, allowing like-minded users to connect for dating and friendships. Apple said the app violated its policies for COVID-19 content.

Google Pay expanded support for vaccine cards. In Australia, Google’s payments app now allows users to add their COVID-19 digital certification to their device for easy access. The option is available through Google’s newly updated Passes API which lets government agencies distribute digital versions of vaccine cards.

COVID Tech Connect, a U.S. nonprofit initially dedicated to collecting devices like phones and tablets for COVID ICU patients, has now launched its own app. The app, TeleHome, is a device-agnostic, HIPAA-compliant way for patients to place a video call for free at a time when the Delta variant is again filling ICU wards, this time with the unvaccinated — a condition that sometimes overlaps with being low-income. Some among the working poor have been hesitant to get the shot because they can’t miss a day of work, and are worried about side effects. Which is why the Biden administration offered a tax credit to SMBs who offered paid time off to staff to get vaccinated and recover.

Popular journaling app Day One, which was recently acquired by WordPress.com owner Automattic, rolled out a new “Concealed Journals” feature that lets users hide content from others’ viewing. By tapping the eye icon, the content can be easily concealed on a journal by journal basis, which can be useful for those who write to their journal in public, like coffee shops or public transportation.

Edtech

Recently IPO’d language learning app Duolingo is developing a math app for kids. The company says it’s still “very early” in the development process, but will announce more details at its annual conference, Duocon, later this month.

Educational publisher Pearson launched an app that offers U.S. students access to its 1,500 titles for a monthly subscription of $14.99. the Pearson+ mobile app (ack, another +), also offers the option of paying $9.99 per month for access to a single textbook for a minimum of four months.

News & Reading

Quora jumps into the subscription economy. Still not profitable from ads alone, Quora announced two new products that allow its expert creators to monetize their content on its service. With Quora+ ($5/mo or $50/yr), subscribers can pay for any content that a creator paywalls. Creators can choose to enable a adaptive paywall that will use an algorithm to determine when to show the paywall. Another product, Spaces, lets creators write paywalled publications on Quora, similar to Substack. But only a 5% cut goes to Quora, instead of 10% on Substack.

Utilities

Google Maps on iOS added a new live location-sharing feature for iMessage users, allowing them to more easily show your ETA with friends and even how much battery life you have left. The feature competes with iMessage’s built-in location-sharing feature, and offers location sharing of 1 hour up to 3 days. The app also gained a dark mode.

Security & Privacy

Controversial crime app Citizen launched a $20 per month “Protect” service that includes live agent support (who can refer calls to 911 if need be). The agents can gather your precise location, alert your designated emergency contacts, help you navigate to a safe location and monitor the situation until you feel safe. The system of live agent support is similar to in-car or in-home security and safety systems, like those from ADT or OnStar, but works with users out in the real world. The controversial part, however, is the company behind the product: Citizen has been making headlines for launching private security fleets outside law enforcement, and recently offered a reward in a manhunt for an innocent person based on unsubstantiated tips.

Funding and M&A

🤝 Square announced its acquisition of the “buy now, pay later” giant AfterPay in a $29 billion deal that values the Australian firm at more than 30% higher than the stock’s last closing price of AUS$96.66. AfterPay has served over 16 million customers and nearly 100,000 merchants globally, to date, and comes at a time when the BNPL space is heating up. Apple has also gotten into the market recently with an Affirm partnership in Canada.

🤝 Gaming giant Zynga acquired Chinese game developer StarLark, the team behind the mobile golf game Golf Rival, from Betta Games for $525 million in both cash and stock. Golf Rival is the second-largest mobile golf game behind Playdemic’s Golf Clash, and EA is in the process of buying that studio for $1.4 billion.

💰  U.K.-based Humanity raised an additional $2.5 million for its app that claims to help slow down aging, bringing the total raise to date to $5 million. Backers include Calm’s co-founders, MyFitness Pal’s co-founder and others in the health space. The app works by benchmarking health advice against real-world data, to help users put better health practices into action.

💰 YELA, a Cameo-like app for the Middle East and South Asia, raised $2 million led by U.S. investors that include Tinder co-founder Justin Mateen and Sean Rad, general partner of RAD Fund. The app is focusing on signing celebrities in the regions it serves, where smartphone penetration is high and over 6% of the population is under 35.

💰 London-based health and wellness app maker Palta raised a $100 million Series B led by VNV Global. The company’s products include Flo.Health, Simple Fasting, Zing Fitness Coach and others, which reach a combined 2.4 million active, paid subscribers. The funds will be used to create more mobile subscription products.

🤝 Emoji database and Wikipedia-like site Emojipedia was acquired by Zedge, the makers of a phone personalization app offering wallpapers, ringtones and more to 35 million MAUs. Deal terms weren’t disclosed. Emojipedia says the deal provides it with more stability and the opportunity for future growth. For Zedge, the deal provides🤨….um, a popular web resource it thinks it can better monetize, we suspect.

💰 Mental health app Revery raised $2 million led by Sequoia Capital India’s Surge program for its app that combines cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia with mobile gaming concepts. The company will focus on other mental health issues in the future.

💰 London-based Nigerian-operating fintech startup Kuda raised a $55 million Series B, valuing its mobile-first challenger bank at $500 million. The inside round was co-led by Valar Ventures and Target Global.

💰 Vietnamese payments provider VNLife raised $250 million in a round led by U.S.-based General Atlantic and Dragoneer Investment Group. PayPal Ventures and others also participated. The round values the business at over $1 billion.

Downloads

Mastodon for iPhone

Fans of decentralized social media efforts now have a new app. The nonprofit behind the open source decentralized social network Mastodon released an official iPhone app, aimed at making the network more accessible to newcomers. The app allows you to find and follow people and topics; post text, images, GIFs, polls, and videos; and get notified of new replies and reblogs, much like Twitter.

Xingtu

@_666eveITS SO COOL FRFR do u guys want a tutorial? #fypシ #醒图 #醒图app♬ original sound – Ian Asher

TikTok users are teaching each other how to switch over to the Chinese App Store in order to get ahold of the Xingtu app for iOS. (An Android version is also available.) The app offers advanced editing tools that let users edit their face and body, like FaceTune, apply makeup, add filters and more. While image-editing apps can be controversial for how they can impact body acceptance, Xingtu offers a variety of artistic filters which is what’s primarily driving the demand. It’s interesting to see the lengths people will go to just to get a few new filters for their photos — perhaps making a case for Instagram to finally update its Post filters instead of pretending no one cares about their static photos anymore.

Tweets

Facebook still dominating top charts, but not the No. 1 spot:  

Not cool, Apple: 

This user acquisition strategy: 

Maybe Stories don’t work everywhere: 

#adt, #afterpay, #alibaba, #android, #ant-group, #api, #app-maker, #app-store, #apple, #apps, #australia, #automattic, #beijing, #biden-administration, #canada, #china, #cloud-services, #coinbase, #coinbase-card, #computing, #day-one, #dragoneer-investment-group, #driver, #dropbox, #duolingo, #emojipedia, #eta, #facebook, #fintech-startup, #food-delivery, #game-center, #game-developer, #general-atlantic, #general-partner, #georgia, #gif, #google, #hyperconnect, #instagram, #ios, #ios-devices, #ipad, #iphone, #italy, #itunes, #jam-fund, #justin-mateen, #kuaishou, #kuda, #law-enforcement, #london, #ma, #maine, #meituan, #microsoft, #middle-east, #mobile, #mobile-app, #mobile-applications, #mobile-devices, #online-creators, #onstar, #operating-system, #palta, #playdemic, #quora, #sean-rad, #sensor-tower, #sequoia-capital, #smartphone, #snap, #snapchat, #social-network, #social-networking, #software, #south-africa, #south-asia, #spotify, #stories, #target-global, #tc, #this-week-in-apps, #tiktok, #twitch, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #valar-ventures, #viasat, #vnv-global, #wi-fi, #wordpress-com, #zedge, #zynga

New Apple technology will warn parents and children about sexually explicit photos in Messages

Apple later this year will roll out new tools that will warn children and parents if the child sends or receives sexually explicit photos through the Messages app. The feature is part of a handful of new technologies Apple is introducing that aim to limit the spread of Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) across Apple’s platforms and services.

As part of these developments, Apple will be able to detect known CSAM images on its mobile devices, like iPhone and iPad, and in photos uploaded to iCloud, while still respecting consumer privacy.

The new Messages feature, meanwhile, is meant to enable parents to play a more active and informed role when it comes to helping their children learn to navigate online communication. Through a software update rolling out later this year, Messages will be able to use on-device machine learning to analyze image attachments and determine if a photo being shared is sexually explicit. This technology does not require Apple to access or read the child’s private communications, as all the processing happens on the device. Nothing is passed back to Apple’s servers in the cloud.

If a sensitive photo is discovered in a message thread, the image will be blocked and a label will appear below the photo that states, “this may be sensitive” with a link to click to view the photo. If the child chooses to view the photo, another screen appears with more information. Here, a message informs the child that sensitive photos and videos “show the private body parts that you cover with bathing suits” and “it’s not your fault, but sensitive photos and videos can be used to harm you.”

It also suggests that the person in the photo or video may not want it to be seen and it could have been shared without their knowing.

Image Credits: Apple

These warnings aim to help guide the child to make the right decision by choosing not to view the content.

However, if the child clicks through to view the photo anyway, they’ll then be shown an additional screen that informs them that if they choose to view the photo, their parents will be notified. The screen also explains that their parents want them to be safe and suggests that the child talk to someone if they feel pressured. It offers a link to more resources for getting help, as well.

There’s still an option at the bottom of the screen to view the photo, but again, it’s not the default choice. Instead, the screen is designed in a way where the option to not view the photo is highlighted.

These types of features could help protect children from sexual predators, not only by introducing technology that interrupts the communications and offers advice and resources, but also because the system will alert parents. In many cases where a child is hurt by a predator, parents didn’t even realize the child had begun to talk to that person online or by phone. This is because child predators are very manipulative and will attempt to gain the child’s trust, then isolate the child from their parents so they’ll keep the communications a secret. In other cases, the predators have groomed the parents, too.

Apple’s technology could help in both cases by intervening, identifying and alerting to explicit materials being shared.

However, a growing amount of CSAM material is what’s known as self-generated CSAM, or imagery that is taken by the child, which may be then shared consensually with the child’s partner or peers. In other words, sexting or sharing “nudes.” According to a 2019 survey from Thorn, a company developing technology to fight the sexual exploitation of children, this practice has become so common that 1 in 5 girls ages 13 to 17 said they have shared their own nudes, and 1 in 10 boys have done the same. But the child may not fully understand how sharing that imagery puts them at risk of sexual abuse and exploitation.

The new Messages feature will offer a similar set of protections here, too. In this case, if a child attempts to send an explicit photo, they’ll be warned before the photo is sent. Parents can also receive a message if the child chooses to send the photo anyway.

Apple says the new technology will arrive as part of a software update later this year to accounts set up as families in iCloud for iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and macOS Monterey in the U.S.

This update will also include updates to Siri and Search that will offer expanded guidance and resources to help children and parents stay safe online and get help in unsafe situations. For example, users will be able to ask Siri how to report CSAM or child exploitation. Siri and Search will also intervene when users search for queries related to CSAM to explain that the topic is harmful and provide resources to get help.

#apple, #apple-inc, #apple-photos, #apps, #computing, #icloud, #ios, #ipad, #iphone, #machine-learning, #messages, #mobile-devices, #operating-systems, #privacy, #security, #sexting, #siri, #software, #united-states

Magic lands $27M Series A for its ‘plug and play’ passwordless tech

Magic, a San Francisco-based startup that builds “plug and play” passwordless authentication technology, has raised $27 million in Series A funding.

The round, led by Northzone and with participation from Tiger Global, Volt Capital, Digital Currency Group and CoinFund, comes just over a year after Magic launched from stealth, rebranding from its previous name Formatic. 

The company, like many others, is on a mission to end traditional password-based authentication. Magic’s flagship SDK, which launched in April 2020, enables developers to implement a variety of passwordless authentication methods with just a few lines of code and integrates with a number of modern frameworks and infrastructures.

Not only does the SDK make it easier for companies and developers to implement passwordless auth methods in their applications, but it could also help to mitigate the expensive fallout that many have to deal with as a result of data breaches.

“This is why the password is so dangerous,” Sean Li, Magic co-founder and CEO tells TechCrunch. “It’s like a Jenga tower right now — a hacker breaching your system can download an entire database of encrypted passwords, and then easily crack them. It’s a huge central point of failure.”

The company recently built out its SDK to add support for WebAuthn, which means it can support hardware-based authentication keys like Yubico, as well as biometric-based Face ID and fingerprint logins on mobile devices. 

“It’s less mainstream right now, but we’re making it super simple for developers,” says Li. “This way we can help promote new technologies, and that’s really good for user security and privacy.” 

It’s a bet that seems to be working: Magic has recorded a 13% month-over-month increase in developer signups, and the number of identities secured is growing at a rate of 6% weekly, according to Magic. It’s also secured a number of big-name customers, from crypto news publisher Decrypt to fundraising platform Fairmint.

Wendy Xiao Schadeck, a partner at Northzone said: “We couldn’t be more excited to support Sean and the Magic team as they redefine authentication for the internet from the bottom up, solving a core pain point for developers, users, and companies. 

“It was clear to us that they’re absolutely loved by their customers because the team is so obsessed with serving every single part of the developer journey across several communities. What’s potentially even more exciting is what they will be able to do to empower users and decentralize the identity layer of the web.”

The company now plans to continue to scale its platform and expand its team to meet what Magic describes as “soaring” demand. The startup, which currently has 30 employees that work remotely on a full-time basis, expects to at least double its headcount across all core functions, including product, engineering, design, marketing, finance, people, and operations.

It’s also planning to hope to build out the SDK even further; Li says he wants to be able to plug into more kinds of technology, from low-code applications to workflow automations. 

“The vision is much bigger than that. We want to be the passport of the internet,” Li adds. 

#access-control, #coinfund, #computer-security, #cryptography, #decrypt, #developer, #digital-currency-group, #finance, #funding, #mobile-devices, #northzone, #password, #plug-and-play, #san-francisco, #security, #tiger-global, #volt-capital, #yubico, #yubikey

Amazon aims to inject new life into Alexa with release of developer tools and features

Amazon is giving its Alexa voice platform a shot in the arm after seeing further declines in skill growth over the past year, indicating lagging interest from third-party voice app developers. At the company’s Alexa Live developer event today, the company announced a slew of new features and tools for the developer community — its largest release of new tools to date, in fact. Among the new releases are those to encourage Alexa device owners to discover and engage with Alexa skills, new tools for making money from skills, and other updates that will push customers to again make Alexa more a part of their daily routines.

The retailer’s hopes for Alexa as voice shopping platform may have not panned out as it had hoped, as only a sliver of Alexa customers actually made Amazon.com purchases through the smart speakers. However, the larger Alexa footprint and developer community remains fairly sizable, Amazon said today, noting there are “millions” of Alexa devices used “billions of times” every week, and over 900,000 registered developers who have published over 130,000 Alexa skills.

However, Amazon hasn’t yet solved the challenge of helping customers find and discover skills they want to use — something that’s been historically difficult on voice-only devices. That’s improved somewhat with the launch of Alexa devices with screens, like the Alexa Show, which offers a visual component.

But largely, Alexa device owners continue to use its most basic functions — smart home control, playing music, setting alarms and reminders, making lists, and other simple queries. It has yet to produce what would be considered, by most, a “runaway hit” voice app. 

Image Credits: Amazon

In an attempt to tackle this problem with more features, Amazon says it will introduce a way for developers to create Widgets for their skills which customers can then add to their Echo Show or other Alexa device with a screen sometime later this year. Developers will also be able to build Featured Skill Cards to promote their skills in the home screen rotation.

In other words, Amazon’s solution is to make Alexa more like a mobile device in terms of app discovery. While perhaps useful to those who have Alexa devices with screens, that doesn’t bode well for Alexa’s future as a voice-only platform.

Meanwhile, for voice-only devices, developers will now be able to have their skill suggested when Alexa responds to common requests, like “Alexa, tell me a story,” “Alexa, let’s play a game,” or “Alexa, I need a workout,” among others. And Alexa will begin to offer personalized skill suggestions based on customers’ use of similar skills, while new “contextual discovery” mechanisms that will allow customers to use natural language and phrases to accomplish tasks across skills. Of course, Amazon has tried other ways of suggesting skills before now, but those impacts have been negligible on the larger skill ecosystem. (Some efforts even annoyed users.)

Amazon also said it’s expanding the ways developers can get paid for their skills.

Already, it offers tools like consumables, paid subscriptions and in-skill purchases. Now, it will add support for Paid Skills, a new in-skill purchase that allows customers to pay a one-time fee to access the content a skill provides. It will also now expand in-skill purchases to India and Canada. So far, in-skill purchases have yet to drive significant revenue. A 2019 report found that Alexa skill revenue in the first 10 months of the year was only $1.4 million, far short of Amazon’s $5.5 million target. It’s uncertain that one more way to make a purchase will change that trend.

Amazon didn’t speak to how much its developers made, instead saying only that developer revenue from in-skill purchases had “more than doubled” year-over-year.

Amazon will now attempt to leverage the developer community to drive sales on its retail site, too.

With new “Shopping Actions,” developers can sell Amazon products in their skill. For example, a role-playing game could suggest customers buy the tabletop version, as sci-fi game Starfinder does. Developers can also now earn affiliate revenue on their product referrals.

Music and media skill developers will be able to use new tools for more entertaining experiences, like a Song Request Skill that DJs can use to take song requests via Alexa, which iHeartRadio will adopt. Others will shorten the time it takes for Radio, Podcast and Music providers to launch interactive experiences.

Other new features aim to make skills more practical and useful.

Image Credits: Amazon

For example, restaurants will gain access to a Food Skill API that will allow them to create pickup and delivery order experiences. A new “Send to Phone” feature will allow developers to connect their skill with mobile devices, and new event-based triggers and proactive suggestions will enable new experiences — like a skill that reminds users to lock their home when they are leaving. Amazon-owned Whole Foods will use these features for a curbside pickup experience arriving later this year, the company says.

Alexa replenishment support, which allows customers to reorder common household items like laundry detergent or batteries, will also expand to replacement parts to better tie in with other sorts of household and smart home devices. Thermostat makers Carrier and Resideo will use this to replenish air filters and Bissell will use this with its vacuum cleaners.

Menahile, safety device makers — like smoke, carbon-monoxide, and water leak detectors — will be able to tie into Alexa’s security system, Alexa Guard to send notifications to mobile devices.

Amazon is also introducing a set of new tools that make creating skills easier for developers, including the ability to use Alexa Entities, which is basically Amazon’s own set of general, Wikipedia-like knowledge. They’ll also gain access to new tools to aid with custom pronunciations plus the previously U.S.-only Alexa Conversations nature language feature (now in beta in Germany, developer preview in Japan, and live all English locales). A longer list of tools focus on regional expansions of existing toolkits (i.e. AVS, ACK), and others that enable better interoperability with smart home devices — like those that allow for unique wake words, among others.

#alexa, #alexa-skills, #amazon, #amazon-alexa, #amazon-echo, #amazon-com, #apps, #artificial-intelligence, #developers, #ecommerce, #media, #mobile-devices, #smart-home-devices, #smart-speakers, #tc, #whole-foods

This Week in Apps: Android ad prices jump, TikTok resumes, Google Play’s antitrust lawsuit

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

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

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

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

This Week in Apps will soon be a newsletter! Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

Android ad prices jump in wake of privacy updates on iOS

The Wall St. Journal reported this week how Apple’s privacy changes are changing the world of mobile advertising — in this case, ad pricing across platforms. The news outlet has been covering the broader impact of Apple’s decision to let users block apps from tracking them, noting how ad sales, including Facebook’s ad business, would be affected. (And how Apple’s own ad business would gain.)

This week, The WSJ says most users are declining tracking on iOS (less than 33% opt in), and as a result, mobile ad prices on iOS have fallen. The outlet cites data from ad measurement firm Tenjin which notes that spending on iOS mobile ads has dropped around one-third between June 1 and July 1. Around the same time, Android spending rose 10% — an indication that, for the time being, some portion of the ad market has just shifted platforms. Facebook ad spend also shifted to Android, with year-over-year growth of 46% for Android users in May to 64% in June.

The news follows a story this week from The FT, which noted that Chinese tech giants’ plan to route around the IDFA changes with CAID (the Chinese Advertising ID), had failed. Apple blocked updates to apps using CAID, which led to it losing support and the project’s failure.

For most app users, the ability to block tracking is a welcome change, as far too much user data had been shared behind-the-scenes without users’ informed consent. But the full impacts of how the update will impact app monetization long-term — and ultimately which companies then choose to build on iOS — still remain to be seen.

37 AGs target Google Play in an antitrust lawsuit

A group of 37 attorneys general filed a second major antitrust lawsuit against Google, accusing the company of using its market power to stifle competition. The suit takes aim at Google’s Play Store, which requires users to pay for apps and in-app purchases using Google’s own payments system — which gives Google a percentage of the revenue. In addition, the suit alleges that Google makes misleading security claims about the need for a walled garden app store like Google Play, in order to maintain its dominant position.

Google responded by calling the lawsuit “meritless” and noting that it ignores the openness of the Android platform, which permits other app stores and sideloading.

First Look: Pok Pok’s award-winning kids’ app Pok Pok Playroom shows off its sound design

Image Credits: Pok Pok

Recently launched Pok Pok Playroom from Pok Pok, a spinout from app maker Snowman (Alto’s Adventure, Alto’s Odyssey, Skate City), just took home an Apple Design Award in the “Delight and Fun” category for its app launched just months ago. Unlike other kids’ apps, Pok Pok promises an app that’s more of a digital “toy” that encourages real and imaginative play, not a mobile kids game. Now the company is sharing some of the techniques that helped it build this award-winning experience.

The company says it wanted to make sure there were no annoying sounds or repetitive music in the app that would bother parents or get stuck in kids’ heads. So it worked with its sound designer, Matt Miller, to ensure all the sounds in Pok Pok Playroom were sensory accessible and not overstimulating.

Miller often uses what he calls “found sounds” — that is, sounds he created by finding things to record — like a soup can, a vintage toy sourced from a local thrift shop, birds chirping, a spoon knocking on a pinecone and more. These give Pok Pok Playroom a more natural feel than other toys, which can sometimes feature loud or electronic-sounding noises that are overstimulating for kids and disruptive to those around them.

Weekly News

Platforms

A new Comscore study offers a look at how much people use their preinstalled apps from Apple and Google. Not surprisingly, these built-in utilities and services — like email, notes, messaging, maps, photos, clocks and more — dominate people’s app usage. 75% of the top 20 most-used apps on iPhone were made by Apple, and 60% of the top Android apps were made by Google, but here’s the funny thing: The study was paid for by Facebook, a company that’s looking for any angle to make it seem like it’s not a monopoly. So of course it had to find the only other bigger apps it could — the ones that ship with your smartphone.

Image Credits: comscore

OnePlus confirmed it’s throttling a number of popular apps on the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro in order to improve battery life. Apps such as Chrome, Twitter, Zoom, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Discord, Microsoft’s Office apps, Firefox and Samsung Internet, were affected. The issue was discovered due to inconsistent benchmarks in testing.

Fintech

PayPal was the most downloaded P2P payments app globally during the first half of 2021, according to Apptopia. Rounding out the top 10 were Google Play, Alipay, PhonePe, Cash App, Paytm, Venmo, Zelle, Western Union and Remitly.

Personal finance app Charlie launched a redesign and a new feature called Direct Pay, which allows users to add their credit cards to the app to make extra payments toward their debt at their own pace. Or they can let the app recommend when it’s best to make payments toward their credit card debt. The company notes its users are now saving $66 monthly, which has added up to $30K+ of interest saved over the lifetime of their loans.

Social

✨ TikTok is piloting a new program that will allow U.S. users to apply for jobs using a TikTok video as a resume. Video applicants are asked to showcase their skillsets and experiences on video, then add #TikTokResumes to their caption. Pilot testers include a number of employers — like Chipotle, Target, WWE, Alo Yoga, Shopify, Contra, Movers + Shakers and others. The question is, will TikTokers feature these videos on the same account where they’ve posted personal content, dances and trends, or will this give way to a rise in Rinsta and Finsta-like TikTok accounts, where personal and more public content remains separated?

TikTok is also testing its own version of Cameo. The company was spotted testing a new feature that allows fans to pay for a shout-out video from their favorite creators directly in the app. According to screenshots of the feature, fans can request birthday wishes, pep talks and other messages, then pay using TikTok’s in-app currency.

Twitter shared a few more ideas it’s thinking about in terms of new features around conversation health and privacy. This includes a one-stop “privacy check-in” feature that would introduce Twitter’s newer conversation controls options to users, and others that would allow people to be more private on the service, or to more easily navigate between public and private tweets or their various accounts.

TikTok on Tuesday experienced a widespread technical outage that lasted for over five hours before services were restored. U.S. users found that many videos were not loading during this time.

TikTok parent company ByteDance launched a new business arm called BytePlus, which will license the company’s various technologies to other businesses. This includes its AR effects, computer vision and machine translation tools, analytics and testing tools, and its recommendation engine that supports over 1.5 billion users. The company’s tools are being used by GOAT, Wego, Chilibeli, GamesApp, Webuy, Lark, and others, in addition to TikTok.

Trump has now sued Facebook, Twitter and Google for being “censored.” The companies enforced their terms of service in taking down Trump’s account across top social media platforms in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Trump’s lawsuit claims his First Amendment rights are being violated. The First Amendment applies to government censorship, not actions taken by businesses, however. Trump likely knows this but wanted to stir up some headlines.

Photos

Image Credits: Picsart

Popular photo-editing app PicsArt launched a brand refresh that includes a new name (Picsart), new logo, and a fresh new look across web and mobile, and more creator-friendly design flows. The app today has over 150 million monthly active users worldwide.

Everyone has thoughts on Instagram Head Adam Mosseri’s latest comments where he declared Instagram is “no longer” a photo-sharing app. His post was meant to alert users to upcoming tests that will see Instagram doing more experiments around how to better feature video in the app, but some are taking it as a sign that Instagram is more fully pivoting to a video-first experience.

Streaming & Entertainment

Reese Witherspoon’s media company, Hello Sunshine, is looking for an acquirer. The company has reportedly been in talks with multiple suitors, including Apple, The WSJ said. While the larger part of Hello Sunshine is it TV and movie film business, the company also operates the book club app, Reese’s Book Club, which serves as a place where many of the movie/TV deals are initially sourced.

More Spotify Premium users are reporting having gained access to the new feature, announced in May, that will allow them to download music to their Apple Watch so they can listen offline. The feature had been graduating rolling out, but appears to now be reaching a global audience.

Gaming

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Pokémon Go revenue from player spending has topped $5 billion as the game celebrates its five-year anniversary. According to Sensor Tower, the AR game now generates $1 billion on average per year, putting it at the op of the Geolocation AR category globally, ahead of others like Dragon Quest Walk and Square Enix.

The Alto’s Adventure series from Snowman is getting a new installment in the form of an upcoming Apple Arcade release called Alto’s Odyssey: The Lost City. The game is like a special edition of Alto’s Odyssey (the sequel to Alto’s Adventure), as it include extra features and content that’s deeply integrated, not just tacked on, including a new location called the Lost City. The game arrives on Apple Arcade on July 16th.

Health & Fitness

Amazon launched a new, employee-only app called Amazon WorkingWell for its health and wellness program that includes Associate-facing support, education and safety-prevention information across text content, videos, podcasts, and more.

Vaccine passport apps have hit 10 million global downloads, according to data from Apptopia. The firm analyzed the downloads for top apps including NHS, VeriFLY, NYS Excelsior, and CommonPass.

Image Credits: Apptopia

Government & Policy

Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi was pulled from several apps stores in China, including Apple’s App Store. According to Chinese regulators, the app was illegally collecting users’ personal info. Didi said it was making “corrections” and is halting new user sign-ups, but the app for existing users remained operational. China’s cybersecurity watchdog also suggested the company delay its IPO, and the app was removed from China’s WeChat and Alipay apps for new users.

Security & Privacy

9 Android apps with 5.8 million combined downloads were caught stealing users’ Facebook passwords. A security firm found apps offering photo editing, exercise, horoscopes and utilities that were tricking users into entering their Facebook credentials with the promise of removing ads from the app after signing into Facebook. Google has banned all the apps and their developers from the Play Store.

10 opioid addiction treatment apps were found sharing sensitive data with third parties, including a unique identifier on Android, unique device identifiers, phone numbers, and lists of installed apps. The apps have 180K combined downloads.

Google released its July 2021 security update for Pixel which patches a few “high”-priority (but not critical) vulnerabilities. The update is rolling out to a range of Pixel devices.

Funding and M&A (and a SPAC)

💰 Publishing platform Hiber raised $15 million for its web platform that allows people to create user-generated games, similar to Roblox. The company also offers a creation app for Android devices and allows players to use Safari to create games on iOS.

💰 Juni, a neobanking app for e-commerce and online marketing companies, raised $21.5 million in Series A funding. The round was co-led by DST Global and Felix Capital. The banking app has signed up 3,000 businesses on its waitlists, of which 200 have now joined.

📈 Neighborhood social networking app Nextdoor said it’s going public via a SPAC. The company plans to merge with Khosla Ventures Acquisition Co. II, taking itself public at the same time. The transaction will value the business at approximately $4.3 billion, up from its 2019 valuation of $2.17 billion. The app has 27 million weekly active users across the U.S.

💰 Pleo, a startup offering smart company cards for SMBs that automate expense reports, raised $150 million at a $1.7 billion valuation for its service that works across web and mobile.

💰 Popshop Live raised $20 million in Series A funding at a $100 million valuation for its livestream shopping service, available on web and mobile. The round was led by Benchmark, and comes after 500% growth of the number of sellers on the platform in the last 3 months.

💰 Live video shopping startup Talkshoplive raised $6 million in a seed extension round led by Raine Ventures. The company publishes an app that sellers can use with its live stream shopping platform.

💰Indian social commerce startup DealShare, which began as an e-commerce platform on WhatsApp, raised $144 million in Series D funding led by Tiger Global. The round values the company at $455 million post-money and will be used to help fund international expansion.

💰 Indian edtech Teachmint raised $20 million in a “pre-Series B” round led by Learn Capital for its mobile-first, video-first tech platform.

💰 European neobank Bunq, which offers a bank account you control from a mobile app, raised $228 million in Series A funding that values the business at $1.9 billion. The round was led by Pollen Street Capital and is the largest round for a European fintech.

Downloads

Rec Room (Android launch)

Image Credits: Rec Room

Social gaming platform Rec Room, which recently became the first VR unicorn, has launched on the Google Play Store. The platform originally targeted only the VR market but expanded to other platforms as VR headset sales remained slow. Similar to Roblox and others, Rec Room allows players to dress up their avatars and play games built by other creators. To date, the app had been available on iOS, PlayStation 4 and 5; Xbox Series X and Xbox One, PC (via Steam), Oculus Quests and other VR headsets. It’s now live on Android to serve the larger global market.

OnMail (Android launch)

Image Credits: OnMail

Email service OnMail, which has previously been available on iOS, launched its app on the Google Play Store. The app aims to solve users’ biggest problems with email, including those with unwanted mail, email trackers, and more. As on iOS, OnMail lets you accept or reject senders before they hit your mailbox, blocks spy pixels, nudges you to follow up on emails, automatically organizes mail into smart folders (shopping, travel, packages, events), offers easy unsubscribe, monitors for refunds, checks grammar, makes it easier to send large attachments, and a lot more.

SwoonMe

Image Credits: SwoonMe

A new startup called SwoonMe aims to fix the problem with superficial dating apps, where users primarily make decisions based on how someone looks in their photos. Instead, on SwoonMe, you take a selfie which the app converts into an avatar. This is what others will see when they come to your profile. You then record a voice clip to tell others about yourself and what you’re looking for in a partner. The result is that when people scroll through SwoonMe, they’re not making snap decisions based on what they’re seeing, but are rather making more thoughtful decisions based what they hear. When two people match, the app encourages them to continue to get to know each other using voice messages and soon, icebreaker games — not texting and photo-sharing. As they communicate, their avatar will slowly unveil their real photo.

Slide

Image Credits: Raise.com

A new app from gift card marketplace Raise.com, Slide, offers users 4% cash back on their purchases online and at over 150 popular stores, including Lowe’s, Petco, ULTA, Office Depot, Bed Bath & Beyond, Chipotle, Panera Bread, Chili’s, DoorDash, Domino’s, Aeropostale, Express, H&M, Foot Locker, Loft, REI, GameStop, AMC, Groupon, Southwest Airlines, Uber, AutoZone, and others. To use Slide and get 4% back, users open the app at checkout, choose their store, and enter their exact purchase amount. They’ll then show the barcode to the cashier, or if paying online, enter the code. The cash back can be transferred to Venmo or PayPal or saved for a future purchase.

Users should be aware the additional cash comes at a price: the data Slide collects from users will allow companies to retarget them with ads and offers across devices, according to the app’s Privacy Policy. The app is free on iOS and Android.

#android, #app-stores, #app-store, #apple, #apple-arcade, #apps, #developers, #google, #google-play, #google-play-store, #iphone, #media, #mobile-advertising, #mobile-app, #mobile-devices, #play-store, #smartphone, #social-media-platforms, #tc, #this-week-in-apps

Family app Life360 announces $2.1M investment round from celebs and influencers

Family communication and tracking app Life360 has announced a new investment round that will see the company bringing on board a number of “celeb” investors and influencers who, combined, will form a new “Family Advisory Council” to help shape Life360’s future product direction and marketing. The round, which is approximately $2.1 million in size, was led by Bryant Stibel, the firm co-founded by the late Kobe Bryant and business partner Jeff Stibel. Others in the round included Vanessa Bryant, Joanna and Chip Gaines, Tony Hawk, Chris and Jada Paul, TikTok influencer Billy Perry, and Nicole and Michael Phelps.

Life360 has traded on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) since listing two years ago, so this round is more about bringing on new stakeholders who can also help attract more attention to Life360’s service. The company says it’s currently on track to top $110 million USD in revenue this year for its app now used by over 28 million monthly users across 195+ countries. As of March 2021, 916,000 families are paying for Life360’s service.

The celeb investors along with Life360 will form the Family Advisory Council which will draw on the advisors’ own family experiences to help inform feature developments and shape the future of the product and marketing strategy, Life360 says.

The company has been working to be more responsive to family members’ concerns, as it wants to position its app as something all family members want to use — not just helicopter parents snooping on their kids. In fact, Life360 CEO Chris Hulls took to TikTok last year to listen to teens’ complaints about their lack of privacy, then used that to develop a more privacy-respecting feature called “Bubbles.” The feature shows a bubble around a general location, not a blue dot with an exact location. This is meant to give teens a sense of the freedom they crave, while also helping parents and kids establish better trust.

The new Family Advisory Council could help Life360 streamline similar sorts of input from families, it appears.

“Investing and advising in companies is typically an adult thing, not something you do with your children,” said Hulls, in a statement about the investment. “We’re creating a unique opportunity to advise on a product side by side with your kids. Having the support of these icons speaks volumes to our long term vision to be the leading provider in family safety services. Life360 wants to create a brand that feels meaningful and relevant for both parents and kids. So it’s only natural that we would ask our investors to participate in the same spirit,” he added.

“One of my passions is ensuring children get the opportunities they deserve,” noted new investor, Vanessa Bryant (Kobe’s widow). “Life360 helps families feel safe and protected by making carpooling, pickup and drop-offs easier for parents, while also providing locations at their kids’ schools, activities and sports practices. Having modern tools like driving information, speed and phone usage makes me feel a lot more at ease, especially with my teenage driver. I love the fact that I can see my daughter’s location and speed in a vehicle whether she’s driving or as a passenger,” her statement said.

Though best known for its location services, Life360 has been working to establish itself as more than just a family tracker, given the competition from apps like Find My that now come built into mobile devices, as well as services provided by mobile operators. Today, Life360’s suite of family tools includes those for driving safety, emergency assistance, identity protection, and more.

Earlier this year, Life360 also announced the acquisition of wearable device maker Jiobit to expand its tracking abilities to include family members without phones, like young children and even pet.

That $37 million deal will close in about 30 days, the company tells us.

The addition of the new investors follows Life360’s appointment of Randi Zuckerberg to its Board of Directors earlier this year, and last year’s addition of new C-Suite execs, CFO Russell Burke and CPO Jonathan Benassaya, to focus on the company’s business mode and product offerings, respectively.

#advisors, #apps, #bryant-stibel, #ceo, #cfo, #computing, #funding, #jiobit, #kobe, #kobe-bryant, #life360, #location-services, #michael-phelps, #mobile-applications, #mobile-devices, #randi-zuckerberg, #software, #stalkerware, #tiktok, #tony-hawk

Golden Ventures raises $100M fourth fund and $20M opportunities fund

Canadian early stage venture firm Golden Ventures has raised its fourth fund, a $100 million pool of capital that it will use to invest in between 20 to 25 companies, as well as a $20 million ‘Opportunities Fund’ that it will use to make follow-on investments in standout performers among its portfolio. This is also the 10th anniversary for Golden Ventures, and its latest fund arrives at a time when the Canadian startup ecosystem looks healthier than ever, with a proliferation of angels emerging from past success stories, a number of new funds being announced, and unicorn valuations on significant funding rounds for multiple Canadian startups.

I spoke to Golden Ventures Founder and Managing Partner Matt Golden, and General Partner Ameet Shah about its plans for this fund, and about the Canadian startup and investment landscape in general.

“Over time, we’re certainly seeing more and more interest in institutional LPs, more and more interest in the Canadian ecosystem, which I think is a net positive,” Golden said. “Whereas before, the Canadian ecosystem was largely funded by Canadian institutions, so I think that’s really positive, because you have to sort of be judged on the on the world stage. And we’re starting to meet that bar as both an ecosystem and as a fund.”

Golden said that the game plan with this Fund IV doesn’t really change in terms of their investment targets; while Golden initially set out to invest primarily in companies working on software products for mobile devices, it eventually shifted to a strategy of backing North American seed stage, mission-driven founders working on venture-scale opportunities across a range of verticals and categories.

“I would say that over time, our ratio of deals, Canada to U.S., we’ve increased the number of deals on a ratio basis that we do in Canada versus the U.S., just by virtue of the fact that the Canadian ecosystem is on a terrific, high-velocity trajectory.” Golden said. “You’ve seen it coming, but I think it’s really starting to hit its stride now, with lots of founders with ‘big swing’ vision, and an increasing interest in capital playing in the ecosystem.”

Shah added that he also thinks we’re trending towards more startups that originate in Canada setting up nodes in different geographies in ways that make most sense for their talent needs, and vice versa.

“Post-COVID, a lot of companies may start here, but with the geographical boundaries just blurring, there’s really no reason they can’t set up locations in different centers of gravity and take advantage of other ecosystems’ competitive advantages,” he said. “We had one that recently set up a location in LA, as well as Toronto, capturing some the value of LA but also leveraging all the talent in Toronto as well. I think you’re gonna start seeing more and more of that, where things are moving more towards networks, and not just cities in general.”

As for this fund raise, it’s one of three recent Canadian early stage pools of venture capital to also include an ‘Opportunities Fund,’ which in each case has been described as a way for the firms to participate in later stage deals in their star portfolio companies that they wouldn’t otherwise be set up to invest in as an early stage investment organization. Golden Ventures is also introducing another new type of investment to its roster with Fund IV, however.

“There’s this concept, we call it ‘Angel allocation,’ […] it’s the idea that we can invest smaller checks, sort of 400-to-500 thousand, into companies where maybe the structure of the opportunity or of the deal may not fit what our core checks would be,” Golden explains. “That could be, for example, a case where there’s not enough room left in the round, or the valuation is outside of our core range, or maybe we’re learning about a completely new space that’s highly experimental — but we still have a high degree of conviction in the opportunity, in the people behind that opportunity, and the returns that it could generate.”

Funds for those investments will come out of the main Fund IV pool, but the majority will still be targeting those core 20-25 larger checks. Overall, though, both Golden and Shah emphasize that the primary goal of the fund at this stage is capitalizing on the growing trend they see of more opportunity emerging in the Canadian ecosystem, and the impact that’s having in terms of startups across North America.

“When you talk about who are the the top five to ten companies in Canada, for a long time, it was really the same group,” Shah said. “Now, you’ve got this new crop of people that have come in and feel like they’re still on an upward trajectory, and I think that’s just really exciting as well.”

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