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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Microsoft acquires video creation and editing software maker Clipchamp

Video editing software may become the next big addition to Microsoft’s suite of productivity tools. On Tuesday, Microsoft announced it’s acquiring Clipchamp, a company offering web-based video creation and editing software that allows anyone to put together video presentations, promos or videos meant for social media destinations like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. According to Microsoft, Clipchamp is a “natural fit” to extend its exiting productivity experiences in Microsoft 365 for families, schools, and businesses.

The acquisition appealed to Microsoft for a few reasons. Today, more people are creating and using video, thanks to a growing set of new tools that allow anyone — even non-professionals — to quickly and easily perform advanced edits and produce quality video content. This, explains Microsoft, has allowed video to establish itself as a new type of “document” for businesses to do things like pitch an idea, explain a process, or communicate with team members.

The company also saw Clipchamp as an interesting acquisition target due to how it combined “the simplicity of a web app with the full computing power of a PC with graphics processing unit (GPU) acceleration,” it said. That makes the software a good fit for the Microsoft Windows customer base, as well.

Clipchamp itself had built a number of online tools in the video creation and editing space, including its video maker Clipchamp Create, which offers features for trimming, cutting, cropping, rotating, speed control, and adding text, audio, images, colors, and filters. It also provides other tools that make video creation easier, like templates, free stock video and audio libraries, screen recorders, text-to-speech tools, and others for simplifying a brand’s fonts, colors and logos for use in video. A discontinued set of utilities called Clipchamp Utilities had once included a video compressor and converters, as well as an in-browser webcam recorder. Some of this functionality was migrated over to the new Clipchamp app, however.

After producing the videos with Clipchamp, creators can choose between different output styles and aspect ratios for popular social media networks, making it a popular tool for online marketers.

Image Credits: Clipchamp

Since its founding in 2013, Clipchamp grew to attract over 17 million registered users and has served over 390,000 companies, growing at a rate of 54% year-over-year. As the pandemic forced more organizations towards remote work, the use of video has grown as companies adopted the medium for training, communication, reports, and more. During the first half of 2021, Clipchamp saw a 186% increase in video exports. Videos using the 16:9 aspect ratio grew by 189% while the 9:16 aspect ratio for sharing to places like Instagram Stories and TikTok grew by 140% and the 1:1 aspect ratio for Instagram grew 72%. Screen recording also grew 57% and webcam recording grew 65%.

In July, Clipchamp CEO Alexander Dreiling commented on this growth, noting the company had nearly tripled its team over the past year.

“We are acquiring two times more users on average than we did at the same time a year ago while also doubling the usage rate, meaning more users are creating video content than ever before. While social media videos have always been at the forefront of business needs, during the past year we’ve also witnessed the rapid adoption of internal communication use cases where there is a lot of screen and webcam recording taking place in our platform,” he said.

Microsoft didn’t disclose the acquisition price, but Clipchamp had raised over $15 million in funding according to Crunchbase.

This is not Microsoft’s first attempt at entering the video market.

The company was recently one of the suitors pursuing TikTok when the Trump administration was working to force a sale of the China-owned video social network which Trump had dubbed a national security threat. (In order to keep TikTok running in the U.S., ByteDance would have needed to have divested TikTok’s U.S. operations. But that sale never came to be as the Biden administration paused the effort.) Several years ago, Microsoft also launched a business video service called Stream, that aimed to allow enterprises to use video as easily as consumers use YouTube. In 2018, it acquired social learning platform Flipgrid, which used short video clips for collaboration. And as remote work became the norm, Microsoft has been adding more video capabilities to its team collaboration software, Microsoft Teams, too.

Microsoft’s deal follows Adobe’s recent $1.28 acquisition of the video review and collaboration platform Frame.io, which has been used by over a million people since its founding in 2014. However, unlike Clipchamp, whose tools are meant for anyone to use at work, school, or home, Frame.io is aimed more directly at creative professionals.

Dreiling said Clipchamp will continue to grow at Microsoft, with a focus on making video editing accessible to more people.

“Few companies in tech have the legacy and reach that Microsoft has. We all grew up with iconic Microsoft products and have been using them ever since,” he explained. “Becoming part of Microsoft allows us to become part of a future legacy. Under no other scenario could our future look more exciting than what’s ahead of us now. At Clipchamp we have always said that we’re not suffering from a lack of opportunity, there absolutely is an abundance of opportunity in video. We just need to figure out how to seize it. Inside Microsoft we can approach seizing our opportunity in entirely new ways,” Dreiling added.

Microsoft did not say when it expected to integrate Clipchamp into its existing software suite, saying it would share more at a later date.

 

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Google Workspace opens up spaces for all users

Employee location has become a bit more complicated as some return to the office, while others work remotely. To embrace those hybrid working conditions, Google is making more changes to its Google Workspace offering by going live with spaces — its tool for small group sharing — in Google Chat for all users.

Spaces integrates with Workspace tools, like the calendar, Drive and documents, to provide a more hybrid work experience where users can see the full history, content and context of conversations regardless of their location.

Google’s senior director of product management Sanaz Ahari wrote in a blog post that customers wanted spaces to be more like a “central hub for collaboration, both in real time and asynchronously. Instead of starting an email chain or scheduling a video meeting, teams can come together directly in a space to move projects and topics along.”

Here are some new features users can see in spaces:

  • One interface for everything — inbox, chats, spaces and meetings.
  • Spaces, and content therein, can be made discoverable for people to find and join in the conversation.
  • Better search ability within a team’s knowledge base.
  • Ability to reply to any message within a space.
  • Enhanced security and admin tools to monitor communication.

Employees can now indicate if they will be virtual or in-person on certain days in Calendar for collaboration expectations. As a complement, users can call colleagues on both mobile and desktop devices in Google Meet.

Calendar work location

In November, all customers will be able to use Google Meet’s Companion Mode to join a meeting from a personal device while tapping into in-room audio and video. Also later this year, live-translated captions will be available in English to French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, with more languages being added in the future.

In addition, Google is also expanding its Google Meet hardware portfolio to include two new all-in-one video conferencing devices, third-party devices — Logitech’s video bar and Appcessori’s mobile device speaker dock — and interoperability with Webex by Cisco.

Google is tying everything together with a handbook for navigating hybrid work, which includes best practice blueprints for five common hybrid meetings.

 

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Driven by live streams, consumer spending in social apps to hit $17.2B in 2025

The live streaming boom is driving a significant uptick in the creator economy, as a new forecast estimates consumers will spend $6.78 billion in social apps in 2021. That figure will grow to $17.2 billion annually by 2025, according to data from mobile data firm App Annie, which notes the upward trend represents a five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 29%. By that point, the lifetime total spend in social apps will reach $78 billion, the firm reports.

Image Credits: App Annie

Initially, much of the livestream economy was based on one-off purchases like sticker packs, but today, consumers are gifting content creators directly during their live streams. Some of these donations can be incredibly high, at times. Twitch streamer ExoticChaotic was gifted $75,000 during a live session on Fortnite, which was one of the largest ever donations on the game streaming social network. Meanwhile, App Annie notes another platform, Bigo Live, is enabling broadcasters to earn up to $24,000 per month through their live streams.

Apps that offer live streaming as a prominent feature are also those that are driving the majority of today’s social app spending, the report says. In the first half of this year, $3 out every $4 spend in the top 25 social apps came from apps that offered live streams, for example.

Image Credits: App Annie

During the first half of 2021, the U.S. become the top market for consumer spending inside social apps with 1.7x the spend of the next largest market, Japan, and representing 30% of the market by spend. China, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea followed to round out the top 5.

Image Credits: App Annie

While both creators and the platforms are financially benefitting from the live streaming economy, the platforms are benefitting in other ways beyond their commissions on in-app purchases. Live streams are helping to drive demand for these social apps and they help to boost other key engagement metrics, like time spent in app.

One top app that’s significantly gaining here is TikTok.

Last year, TikTok surpassed YouTube in the U.S. and the U.K. in terms of the average monthly time spent per user. It often continues to lead in the former market, and more decisively leads in the latter.

Image Credits: App Annie

Image Credits: App Annie

In other markets, like South Korea and Japan, TikTok is making strides, but YouTube still leads by a wide margin. (In South Korea, YouTube leads by 2.5x, in fact.)

Image Credits: App Annie

Beyond just TikTok, consumers spent 740 billion hours in social apps in the first half of the year, which is equal to 44% of the time spent on mobile globally. Time spent in these apps has continued to trend upwards over the years, with growth that’s up 30% in the first half of 2021 compared to the same period in 2018.

Today, the apps that enable live streaming are outpacing those that focus on chat, photo or video. This is why companies like Instagram are now announcing dramatic shifts in focus, like how they’re “no longer a photo sharing app.” They know they need to more fully shift to video or they will be left behind.

The total time spent in the top five social apps that have an emphasis on live streaming are now set to surpass half a trillion hours on Android phones alone this year, not including China. That’s a three-year CAGR of 25% versus just 15% for apps in the Chat and Photo & Video categories, App Annie noted.

Image Credits: App Annie

Thanks to growth in India, the Asia-Pacific region now accounts for 60% of the time spent in social apps. As India’s growth in this area increased over the past 3.5 years, it shrunk the gap between itself and China from 115% in 2018 to just 7% in the first half of this year.

Social app downloads are also continuing to grow, due to the growth in live streaming.

To date, consumers have downloaded social apps 74 billion times and that demand remains strong, with 4.7 billion downloads in the first half of 2021 alone — up 50% year-over-year. In the first half of the year, Asia was the largest region region for social app downloads, accounting for 60% of the market.

This is largely due to India, the top market by a factor of 5x, which surpassed the U.S. back in 2018. India is followed by the U.S., Indonesia, Brazil and China, in terms of downloads.

Image Credits: App Annie

The shift towards live streaming and video has also impacted what sort of apps consumers are interested in downloading, not just the number of downloads.

A chart that show the top global apps from 2012 to the present highlights Facebook’s slipping grip. While its apps (Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and Facebook) have dominated the top spots over the years in various positions, TikTok popped into the number one position last year, and continues to maintain that ranking in 2021.

Further down the chart, other apps that aid in video editing have also overtaken others that had been more focused on photos or chat.

Image Credits: App Annie

Video apps like YouTube (#1), TikTok (#2) Tencent Video (#4), Bigo Live (#5), Twitch (#6), and others also now rank at the top of the global charts by consumer spending in the first half of 2021.

But YouTube (#1) still dominates in time spent compared with TikTok (#5), and others from Facebook — the company holds the next three spots for Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, respectively.

This could explain why TikTok is now exploring the idea of allowing users to upload even longer videos, by increasing the limit from 3 minutes to 5, for instance.

In addition, because of live streaming’s ability to drive growth in terms of time spent, it’s also likely the reason why TikTok has been heavily investing in new features for its TikTok LIVE platform, including things like events, support for co-hosts, Q&As and more, and why it made the “LIVE” button a more prominent feature in its app and user experience.

App Annie’s report also digs into the impact live streaming has had on specific platforms, like Twitch and Bigo Live, the former which doubled its monthly active user base from the pre-pandemic era, and the latter which saw $314.2 million in consumer spend during H1 2021.

“The ability of social media users to communicate with each other using live video – or watch others’ live broadcasts – has not only maintained the growth of a social media app market, but contributed to its exponential growth in engagement metrics like time spent, that might otherwise have saturated some time ago,” wrote App Annie’s Head of Insights, Lexi Sydow, when announcing the new report.

The full report is available here.

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Playbyte’s new app aims to become the ‘TikTok for games’

A startup called Playbyte wants to become the TikTok for games. The company’s newly launched iOS app offers tools that allow users to make and share simple games on their phone, as well as a vertically scrollable, fullscreen feed where you can play the games created by others. Also like TikTok, the feed becomes more personalized over time to serve up more of the kinds of games you like to play.

While typically, game creation involves some aspect of coding, Playbyte’s games are created using simple building blocks, emoji and even images from your Camera Roll on your iPhone. The idea is to make building games just another form of self-expression, rather than some introductory, educational experience that’s trying to teach users the basics of coding.

At its core, Playbyte’s game creation is powered by its lightweight 2D game engine built on web frameworks, which lets users create games that can be quickly loaded and played even on slow connections and older devices. After you play a game, you can like and comment using buttons on the right-side of the screen, which also greatly resembles the TikTok look-and-feel. Over time, Playbyte’s feed shows you more of the games you enjoyed as the app leverages its understanding of in-game imagery, tags and descriptions, and other engagement analytics to serve up more games it believes you’ll find compelling.

At launch, users have already made a variety of games using Playbyte’s tools — including simulators, tower defense games, combat challenges, obbys, murder mystery games, and more.

According to Playbyte founder and CEO Kyle Russell — previously of Skydio, Andreessen Horowitz, and (disclosure!) TechCrunch — Playbyte is meant to be a social media app, not just a games app.

“We have this model in our minds for what is required to build a new social media platform,” he says.

What Twitter did for text, Instagram did for photos and TikTok did for video was to combine a constraint with a personalized feed, Russell explains. “Typically. [they started] with a focus on making these experiences really brief…So a short, constrained format and dedicated tools that set you up for success to work within that constrained format,” he adds.

Similarly, Playbyte games have their own set of limitations. In addition to their simplistic nature, the games are limited to five scenes. Thanks to this constraint, a format has emerged where people are making games that have an intro screen where you hit “play,” a story intro, a challenging gameplay section, and then a story outro.

In addition to its easy-to-use game building tools, Playbyte also allows game assets to be reused by other game creators. That means if someone who has more expertise makes a game asset using custom logic or which pieced together multiple components, the rest of the user base can benefit from that work.

“Basically, we want to make it really easy for people who aren’t as ambitious to still feel like productive, creative game makers,” says Russell. “The key to that is going to be if you have an idea — like an image of a game in your mind — you should be able to very quickly search for new assets or piece together other ones you’ve previously saved. And then just drop them in and mix-and-match — almost like Legos — and construct something that’s 90% of what you imagined, without any further configuration on your part,” he says.

In time, Playbyte plans to monetize its feed with brand advertising, perhaps by allowing creators to drop sponsored assets into their games, for instance. It also wants to establish some sort of patronage model at a later point. This could involve either subscriptions or even NFTs of the games, but this would be further down the road.

The startup had originally began as a web app in 2019, but at the end of last year, the team scrapped that plan and rewrote everything as a native iOS app with its own game engine. That app launched on the App Store this week, after previously maxing out TestFlight’s cap of 10,000 users.

Currently, it’s finding traction with younger teenagers who are active on TikTok and other collaborative games, like Roblox, Minecraft, or Fortnite.

“These are young people who feel inspired to build their own games but have been intimidated by the need to learn to code or use other advanced tools, or who simply don’t have a computer at home that would let them access those tools,” notes Russell.

Playbyte is backed by $4 million in pre-seed and seed funding from investors including FirstMark (Rick Heitzmann), Ludlow Ventures (Jonathon Triest and Blake Robbins), Dream Machine (former Editor-in-Chief at TechCrunch, Alexia Bonatsos), and angels such as Fred Ehrsam, co-founder of Coinbase; Nate Mitchell, co-founder of Oculus; Ashita Achuthan, previously of Twitter; and others.

The app is a free download on the App Store.

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How a Vungle-owned mobile marketer sent Fontmaker to the top of the App Store

Does this sound familiar? An app goes viral on social media, often including TikTok, then immediately climbs to the top of the App Store where it gains even more new installs thanks to the heightened exposure. That’s what happened with the recent No. 1 on the U.S. App Store, Fontmaker, a subscription-based fonts app which appeared to benefit from word-of-mouth growth thanks to TikTok videos and other social posts. But what we’re actually seeing here is a new form of App Store marketing — and one which now involves one of the oldest players in the space: Vungle.

Fontmaker, at first glance, seems to be just another indie app that hit it big.

The app, published by an entity called Mango Labs, promises users a way to create fonts using their own handwriting which they can then access from a custom keyboard for a fairly steep price of $4.99 per week. The app first launched on July 26. Nearly a month later, it was the No. 2 app on the U.S. App Store, according to Sensor Tower data. By August 26, it climbed up one more position to reach No. 1. before slowly dropping down in the top overall free app rankings in the days that followed.

By Aug. 27, it was No. 15, before briefly surging again to No. 4 the following day, then declining once more. Today, the app is No. 54 overall and No. 4 in the competitive Photo & Video category — still, a solid position for a brand-new and somewhat niche product targeting mainly younger users. To date, it’s generated $68,000 in revenue, Sensor Tower reports.

But Fontmaker may not be a true organic success story, despite its Top Charts success driven by a boost in downloads coming from real users, not bots. Instead, it’s an example of how mobile marketers have figured out how to tap into the influencer community to drive app installs. It’s also an example of how it’s hard to differentiate between apps driven by influencer marketing and those that hit the top of the App Store because of true demand — like walkie-talkie app Zello, whose recent trip to No. 1 can be attributed to Hurricane Ida

As it turns out, Fontmaker is not your typical “indie app.” In fact, it’s unclear who’s really behind it. Its publisher, Mango Labs, LLC, is actually an iTunes developer account owned by the mobile growth company JetFuel, which was recently acquired by the mobile ad and monetization firm Vungle — a longtime and sometimes controversial player in this space, itself acquired by Blackstone in 2019.

Vungle was primarily interested in JetFuel’s main product, an app called The Plug, aimed at influencers.

Through The Plug, mobile app developers and advertisers can connect to JetFuel’s network of over 15,000 verified influencers who have a combined 4 billion Instagram followers, 1.5 billion TikTok followers, and 100 million daily Snapchat views.

While marketers could use the built-in advertising tools on each of these networks to try to reach their target audience, JetFuel’s technology allows marketers to quickly scale their campaigns to reach high-value users in the Gen Z demographic, the company claims. This system can be less labor-intensive than traditional influencer marketing, in some cases. Advertisers pay on a cost-per-action (CPA) basis for app installs. Meanwhile, all influencers have to do is scroll through The Plug to find an app to promote, then post it to their social accounts to start making money.

Image Credits: The Plug’s website, showing influencers how the platform works

So while yes, a lot of influencers may have made TikTok videos about Fontmaker, which prompted consumers to download the app, the influencers were paid to do so. (And often, from what we saw browsing the Fontmaker hashtag, without disclosing that financial relationship in any way — an increasingly common problem on TikTok, and area of concern for the FTC.)

Where things get tricky is in trying to sort out Mango Labs’ relationship with JetFuel/Vungle. As a consumer browsing the App Store, it looks like Mango Labs makes a lot of fun consumer apps of which Fontmaker is simply the latest.

JetFuel’s website helps to promote this image, too.

It had showcased its influencer marketing system using a case study from an “indie developer” called Mango Labs and one of its earlier apps, Caption Pro. Caption Pro launched in Jan. 2018. (App Annie data indicates it was removed from the App Store on Aug. 31, 2021…yes, yesterday).

Image Credits: App Annie

Vungle, however, told TechCrunch “The Caption Pro app no longer exists and has not been live on the App Store or Google Play for a long time.” (We can’t find an App Annie record of the app on Google Play).

They also told us that “Caption Pro was developed by Mango Labs before the entity became JetFuel,” and that the case study was used to highlight JetFuel’s advertising capabilities. (But without clearly disclosing their connection.)

“Prior to JetFuel becoming the influencer marketing platform that it is today, the company developed apps for the App Store. After the company pivoted to become a marketing platform, in February 2018, it stopped creating apps but continued to use the Mango Labs account on occasion to publish apps that it had third-party monetization partnerships with,” the Vungle spokesperson explained.

In other words, the claim being made here is that while Mango Labs, originally, were the same folks who have long since pivoted to become JetFuel, and the makers of Caption Pro, all the newer apps published under “Mango Labs, LLC” were not created by JetFuel’s team itself.

“Any apps that appear under the Mango Labs LLC name on the App Store or Google Play were in fact developed by other companies, and Mango Labs has only acted as a publisher,” the spokesperson said.

Image Credits: JetFuel’s website describing Mango Labs as an “indie developer”

There are reasons why this statement doesn’t quite sit right — and not only because JetFuel’s partners seem happy to hide themselves behind Mango Labs’ name, nor because Mango Labs was a project from the JetFuel team in the past. It’s also odd that Mango Labs and another entity, Takeoff Labs, claim the same set of apps. And like Mango Labs, Takeoff Labs is associated with JetFuel too.

Breaking this down, as of the time of writing, Mango Labs has published several consumer apps on both the App Store and Google Play.

On iOS, this includes the recent No. 1 app Fontmaker, as well as FontKey, Color Meme, Litstick, Vibe, Celebs, FITme Fitness, CopyPaste, and Part 2. On Google Play, it has two more: Stickered and Mango.

Image Credits: Mango Labs

Most of Mango Labs’ App Store listings point to JetFuel’s website as the app’s “developer website,” which would be in line with what Vungle says about JetFuel acting as the apps’ publisher.

What’s odd, however, is that the Mango Labs’ app Part2, links to Takeoff Labs’ website from its App Store listing.

The Vungle spokesperson initially told us that Takeoff Labs is “an independent app developer.”

And yet, the Takeoff Labs’ website shows a team which consists of JetFuel’s leadership, including JetFuel co-founder and CEO Tim Lenardo and JetFuel co-founder and CRO JJ Maxwell. Takeoff Labs’ LLC application was also signed by Lenardo.

Meanwhile, Takeoff Labs’ co-founder and CEO Rhai Goburdhun, per his LinkedIn and the Takeoff Labs website, still works there. Asked about this connection, Vungle told us they did not realize the website had not been updated, and neither JetFuel nor Vungle have an ownership stake in Takeoff Labs with this acquisition.

Image Credits: Takeoff Labs’ website showing its team, including JetFuel’s co-founders.

Takeoff Labs’ website also shows off its “portfolio” of apps, which includes Celeb, Litstick, and FontKey — three apps that are published by Mango Labs on the App Store.

On Google Play, Takeoff Labs is the developer credited with Celebs, as well as two other apps, Vibe and Teal, a neobank. But on the App Store, Vibe is published by Mango Labs.

Image Credits: Takeoff Labs’ website, showing its app portfolio.

(Not to complicate things further, but there’s also an entity called RealLabs which hosts JetFuel, The Plug and other consumer apps, including Mango — the app published by Mango Labs on Google Play. Someone sure likes naming things “Labs!”)

Vungle claims the confusion here has to do with how it now uses the Mango Labs iTunes account to publish apps for its partners, which is a “common practice” on the App Store. It says it intends to transfer the apps published under Mango Labs to the developers’ accounts, because it agrees this is confusing.

Vungle also claims that JetFuel “does not make nor own any consumer apps that are currently live on the app stores. Any of the apps made by the entity when it was known as Mango Labs have long since been taken down from the app stores.”

JetFuel’s system is messy and confusing, but so far successful in its goals. Fontmaker did make it to No. 1, essentially growth hacked to the top by influencer marketing.

But as a consumer, what this all means is that you’ll never know who actually built the app you’re downloading or whether you were “influenced” to try it through what were, essentially, undisclosed ads.

Fontmaker isn’t the first to growth hack its way to the top through influencer promotions. Summertime hit Poparrazzi also hyped itself to the top of the App Store in a similar way, as have many others. But Poparazzi has since sunk to No. 89 in Photo & Video, which shows influence can only take you so far.

As for Fontmaker, paid influence got it to No. 1, but its Top Chart moment was brief.

#app-developer, #app-store, #apps, #blackstone, #co-founder, #federal-trade-commission, #google-play, #indie-developer, #itunes, #linkedin, #mobile-applications, #mobile-software, #snapchat, #social-media, #software, #spokesperson, #tc, #technology, #tiktok, #vibe, #video-hosting, #vungle

Instagram is ditching ‘swipe-up’ links in favor of stickers

Instagram is ditching the “swipe-up” link in Instagram Stories starting on August 30. The popular feature has historically allowed businesses and high-profile creators a way to direct their Story’s viewers to a website where they could learn more about a product, read an article, sign-up for a service, or do anything else the creator wanted to promote. In place of the “swipe up” call-to-action, Instagram users who previously had access to the feature will instead be able to use the new Link Sticker, the company says.

This sticker had been in testing starting in June with a small handful of users, the company said. But on August 30, it will begin to roll out more broadly.

App researcher Jane Manchun Wong first noticed the announcement which warned creators of the plan to shut down swipe-up links.

Instagram says it will begin to convert those who currently have access to the swipe-up link to the Link Sticker starting on August 30, 2021. This will include businesses and creators who are either verified or who have met the threshold for follower count. (While Instagram doesn’t publicly comment on this count, it’s widely reported to be at least 10,000 followers.)

The new Link Sticker has a couple of key advantages over the older “swipe-up” link.

For starters, it offers greater creator control over their Stories.

Like polls, questions and location stickers, the Link Sticker lets creators toggle between different styles, resize the sticker, and then place it anywhere on the Story for maximum engagement. In addition, viewers will now be able to react and reply to posts that have the Link Sticker attached, just like any other Story. Before, that sort of feedback wasn’t possible on posts with the swipe-up link, Instagram noted.

While there isn’t a change to who will gain access to the Link Sticker for now, Instagram says it’s evaluating whether or not to expand link access to more accounts in the future. The decision to expand access is one that has to be made carefully, however, as it could impact the app’s integrity and safety. For instance, if Link Sticker were to be adopted by bad actors, it could be used to spread misinformation or post spam. The shift to the Link Sticker is the first step in making it possible to broaden access to link sharing in Stories, if Instagram chooses to go that route.

Overall, the move away from a gesture to sticker is more in line with Instagram’s current creative direction, where interactive features are added to posts in the form of stickers. The new Link Sticker will join others already available in the app, including stickers for donations, music, and polls.

#apps, #businesses, #creators, #facebook, #instagram, #links, #marketing, #mobile-software, #social, #software, #sticker, #stories

A new Senate bill would totally upend Apple and Google’s app store dominance

With two giants calling the shots and collecting whatever tolls they see fit, mobile software makers have long complained that app stores take an unfair cut of the cash that should be flowing directly to developers. Hearing those concerns, a group of senators introduced a new bill this week that, if passed, would greatly diminish Apple and Google’s ability to control app purchases in their operating systems and completely shake up the way that mobile software gets distributed.

The new bill, called the Open App Markets Act, would enshrine quite a few rights that could benefit app developers tired of handing 30 percent of their earnings to Apple and Google. The bill, embedded in full below, would require companies that control operating systems to allow third party apps and app stores.

It would also prevent those companies from blocking developers from telling users about lower prices for their software that they might find outside of official app stores. Apple and Google would also be barred from leveraging “non-public” information collecting through their platforms to create competing apps.

“This legislation will tear down coercive anticompetitive walls in the app economy, giving consumers more choices and smaller startup tech companies a fighting chance,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who introduced the bipartisan bill with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). Klobuchar chairs the Senate’s antitrust subcommittee and Blackburn and Blumenthal are both subcommittee members.

Senator Blackburn called Apple and Google’s app store practices a “direct affront to a free and fair marketplace” and Sen. Klobuchar noted that their behavior raises “serious competition concerns.”

The bill draws on information collected earlier this year from that subcommittee’s hearing on app stores and competition. In the hearing, lawmakers heard from Apple and Google as well as Spotify, Tile and Match Group, three companies that argued their businesses have been negatively impacted by anti-competitive app store policies.

“… We urge Congress to swiftly pass the Open App Markets Act,” Spotify Chief Legal Officer Horacio Gutierrez said of the new bill. “Absent action, we can expect Apple and others to continue changing the rules in favor of their own services, and causing further harm to consumers, developers, and the digital economy.”

The Coalition for App Fairness, a developer advocacy group, praised the bill for its potential to spur innovation in digital markets. “The bipartisan Open App Markets Act is a step towards holding big tech companies accountable for practices that stifle competition for developers in the U.S. and around the world,” CAF executive director Meghan DiMuzio said.

Hoping to head off future regulatory headaches, Apple dropped its own fees for companies that generate less than $1 million in App Store revenue from 30 to 15 percent last year. Google followed suit with its own gesture, dropping fees to 15 percent for the first $1 million in revenue a developer earns through the Play Store in a year. Some developers critical of the companies’ practices saw those changes as little more than a publicity stunt.

Developers have long complained about the high tolls they pay to distribute their software through the world’s two major mobile operating systems. That fight escalated over the last year when Epic Games circumvented Apple’s payments rules by allowing Fortnite players to pay Epic directly, setting off a legal fight that has huge implications for the mobile software world. Following a May trial, the verdict is expected later this year.

Unlike Apple, Google does allow apps to be “sideloaded,” installed onto devices outside of the Google Play Store. But documents unsealed in Epic’s parallel case against Google revealed that the Play Store’s creator knows the sideloading process is a terrible experience for users — something the company brings up when pressuring developers to stick with its official app marketplace.

The counterargument here is that official app stores make apps safer and smoother for consumers. While Apple and Google extract heavy fees for selling mobile software through the App Store and the Google Play Store, the companies both argue that streamlining apps through those official channels protects people from malware and allows for prompt software updates to patch security concerns that could jeopardize user privacy.

Adam Kovacevich, a former Google policy executive who leads the new tech-backed industry group Chamber of Progress, called the new bill “a finger in the eye” for Android and iPhone owners.

“I don’t see any consumers marching in Washington demanding that Congress make their smartphones dumber,” Kovacevich said. “And Congress has better things to do than intervene in a multi-million dollar dispute between businesses.”

At least in Google’s case, the counterargument has its own counterargument. Android has long been notorious for malware, but apparently most of that malicious software isn’t making its way onto devices through sideloading — it’s walking through the Google Play Store’s front door.

 

#amazon-underground, #amy-klobuchar, #android, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #coalition-for-app-fairness, #companies, #computing, #congress, #google, #google-play-store, #iphone, #itunes, #marsha-blackburn, #match-group, #mobile, #mobile-app, #mobile-software, #operating-systems, #play-store, #richard-blumenthal, #senate, #smartphones, #spotify, #tc, #technology, #tile, #united-states, #washington

In the wake of recent racist attacks, Instagram rolls out more anti-abuse features

Instagram today is rolling out a set of new features aimed at helping people protect their accounts from abuse, including offensive and unwanted comments and messages. The company will introduce tools for filtering abusive direct message (DM) requests as well as a way for users to limit other people from posting comments or sending DMs during spikes of increased attention — like when going viral. In addition, those who attempt to harass others on the service will also see stronger warnings against doing so, which detail the potential consequences.

The company recently confirmed it was testing the new anti-harassment tool, Limits, which Instagram head Adam Mosseri referenced in a video update shared with the Instagram community last month. The feature aims to give Instagram users an easy way to temporarily lock down their accounts when they’re targeted with a flood of harassment.

Such an addition could have been useful to combat the recent racist attacks that took place on Instagram following the Euro 2020 final, which saw several England footballers viciously harassed by angry fans after the team’s defeat. The incidents, which had included racist comments and emoji, raised awareness of how little Instagram users could do to protect themselves when they’ve gone viral in a negative way.

Image Credits: Instagram

During these sudden spikes of attention, Instagram users see an influx of unwanted comments and DM requests from people they don’t know. The Limits feature allows users to choose who can interact with you during these busy times.

From Instagram’s privacy settings, you’ll be able to toggle on limits that restrict accounts that are not following you as well as those belonging to recent followers. When limits are enabled, these accounts can’t post comments or send DM requests for a period of time of your choosing, like a certain number of days or even weeks.

Twitter had been eyeing a similar set of tools for users who go viral, but has yet to put them into action.

Instagram’s Limits feature had already been in testing, but is now becoming globally available.

The company says it’s currently experimenting with using machine learning to detect a spike in comments and DMs in order to prompt people to turn on Limits with a notification in the Instagram app.

Another feature, Hidden Words, is also being expanded.

Designed to protect users from abusive DM requests, Hidden Words automatically filters requests that contain offensive words, phrases and emojis and places them into a Hidden Folder, which you can choose to never view. It also filters out requests that are likely spam or are otherwise low-quality. Instagram doesn’t provide a list of which words it blocks to prevent people from gaming the system, but it has now updated that database with new types of offensive language, including strings of emoji — like those that were used to abuse the footballers — and included them in the filter.

Hidden Words had already been rolled out to a handful of countries earlier this year, but will reach all Instagram users globally by the end of the month. Instagram will push accounts with a larger following to use it, with messages both in their DM inbox and in their Stories tray.

The feature was also expanded with a new option to “Hide More Comments,” which would allow users to easily hide comments that are potentially harmful, but don’t go against Instagram’s rules.

Another change will involve the warnings that are displayed when someone posts a potentially abusive comment. Already, Instagram would warn users when they first try to post a comment, and it would later display an even stronger warning when they tried to post potentially offensive comments multiple times. Now, the company says users will see the stronger message the first time around.

Image Credits: Instagram

The message clearly states the comment may “contain racist language” or other content that goes against its guidelines, and reminds users that the comment may be hidden when it’s posted as a result. It also warns the user if they continue to break the community guidelines, their account “may be deleted.”

While systems to counteract online abuse are necessary and underdeveloped, there’s also the potential for such tools to be misused to silence dissent. For example, if a creator was spreading misinformation or conspiracies, or had people calling them out in the comments, they could turn to anti-abuse tools to hide the negative interactions. This would allow the creator to paint an inaccurate picture of their account as one that was popular and well-liked. And that, in turn, can be leveraged into marketing power and brand deals.

As Instagram puts more power into creators’ hands to handle online abuse, it has to weigh the potential impacts those tools have on the overall creator economy, too.

“We hope these new features will better protect people from seeing abusive content, whether it’s racist, sexist, homophobic or any other type of abuse,” noted Mosseri, in an announcement about the changes. “We know there’s more to do, including improving our systems to find and remove abusive content more quickly, and holding those who post it accountable.”

#adam-mosseri, #apps, #computing, #dms, #instagram, #like-button, #machine-learning, #mobile-software, #private-message, #social, #social-media, #software, #united-kingdom

Google unveils its proposed ‘Safety Section’ for apps on Google Play

In the wake of Apple’s advances into consumer privacy with initiatives like App Tracking Transparency and App Store privacy labels, Google recently announced its own plans to introduce a new “safety section” on Google Play that offers more information about the data apps collect and share, and other security and privacy details. Today, the company is sharing for the first time what the new section’ user interface will look like, along with other requirements for developers.

In May, Google explained the safety section would be designed to easily communicate to users how apps are handling their data, so they could make informed choices. It said app developers would need to disclose to users whether their app uses security practices like data encryption, whether it follows Google Play’s Families policy for apps aimed at kids, whether users have a choice in data sharing, whether the app’s safety section had been verified by a third party, and if the app allowed users to request data deletion at the time of uninstall, among other things.

In the user interface concept Google debuted today, developers are now able to see how this feature will look to the end user.

Image Credits: Google

In the safety section, users will be able to see the developer’s explanation of what data the app collects followed by those other details, each with their own icon to serve as a visual indicator.

When users tap into the summary, they’ll be able to then see other details like what data is collected or shared — like location, contacts, personal information (e.g., name, email address), financial information and more.

They’ll also be able to see how the data is used — for app functionality, personalization, etc. — and whether data collection is optional. 

Image Credits: Google

Google says it wants to give developers plenty of time to prepare for these Play Store changes which is why it’s now sharing more information about the data type definitions, user journey and policy requirements of the new feature. 

It notes that all developers will have to provide a privacy policy by April 2022. Before, only apps that collected personal and sensitive user data were required to do so. Developers will also be required to share accurate and complete information about all the data in their safety section, including how it’s used by the app’s third-party libraries and SDKs. This is in line with what Apple demands for its apps.

Image Credits: Google

In October 2021, developers will be able to submit their information in the Google Play Console for review, ahead of the planned launch of the safety section in Google Play, which is scheduled for the first quarter of 2022.

The company also notes it’s offering some buffer time after the section’s launch before apps must have their safety section approved by Google. However, the company says apps will have to be approved by Q2 2022 or risk having their app submissions or app updates rejected. And if an app doesn’t provide an approved safety section, the app will say “No information available.”

The change will help to highlight how many active developers are present on Google Play, as those will be the ones who will adopt the new policy and showcase how their apps collect and use data.

The question that remains is how stringent Google will be about enforcing its new guidelines and how carefully apps will be reviewed. One interesting note here is that conscientious developers will be able to submit their safety section for a third-party review and then be able to promote that to users concerned app data privacy and security.

This could help to address some potential criticism that these safety sections aren’t factual. That’s been a problem for Apple since the launch of its App Store privacy labels, in fact. The Washington Post discovered that a number of apps were displaying false information, making them less helpful to the users whose data they aimed to protect.

When reached for comment, however, Google declined to share more details about how the third-party verification process will work.

#android, #app-developers, #app-privacy, #app-stores, #app-store, #apps, #data-collection, #developers, #google, #google-play, #mobile, #mobile-applications, #mobile-software, #privacy, #safety, #security

Apple Music brings its spatial audio and lossless streaming to Android

It takes a really specific consumer to buy an Android phone, yet use Apple Music. But the small overlap in that venn diagram may be getting bigger. Last month at WWDC, Apple unveiled a free update for Apple Music subscribers that added lossless audio streaming and spatial audio with support for Dolby Atmos. Now, Android users can access these features too.

Last year, Google shut down its Google Play Music app (RIP) with the intent for users to migrate to YouTube Music. Some longtime Android fans are still unpleased about that decision and don’t feel that YouTube Music is up to par — but for audiophiles, these Apple Music updates might be what it takes to get them to switch. However, not all Android devices support Atmos yet.

Apple Music isn’t the only streaming platform ramping up its audio quality. On the same day that Apple announced its upgraded audio features at WWDC, Amazon Music also announced that it would support lossless streaming and spatial audio with Atmos functionality. Like Apple, Amazon offers these enhancements at no extra cost for subscribers. Spotify plans to launch a lossless audio feature as well called HiFi, but it will be a premium add-on, rather than a free upgrade like Apple Music or Amazon Music. YouTube Music doesn’t yet offer a comparable feature.

Currently, Spotify leads the streaming industry with 158 million paid subscribers. For comparison, Apple Music had 60 million subscribers in June 2019, and Amazon Music had 55 million in January 2020, but both companies haven’t shared updated numbers since then; YouTube Music has at least 20 million paid users. Even on consumer-grade headphones, you can hear the difference between a lossless FLAC file and a compressed mp3 — but if you’re such a keen audiophile that you need to listen to master-quality audio, just get Tidal.

#amazon, #amazon-music, #android, #apple-music, #apps, #atmos, #audio-streaming, #computing, #google, #google-play-music, #mobile-software, #mp3, #software, #spotify, #surround-sound, #technology

Instagram adds new controls for limiting sexual and violent content in the Explore tab

Instagram is giving its users a tiny bit more power to see what they want — and not see what they don’t want — in its content discovery hub. The company introduced a new toggle called “Sensitive Content Control” on Tuesday that allows anyone to screen posts that it thinks could be offensive, hiding them from the Explore tab.

The new feature appears in the settings menu and lets users choose to either allow more content that could be “upsetting or offensive,” limit that content or “limit even more.” The phrasing is kind of weird but it acknowledges that the company’s moderation efforts aren’t perfect, and that’s realistic at least.

“You can think of sensitive content as posts that don’t necessarily break our rules, but could potentially be upsetting to some people – such as posts that may be sexually suggestive or violent,” Instagram explained in the announcement.

TechCrunch asked the company to expand on what kinds of posts are screened out under each category and if human or algorithmic moderation determines what is sensitive but did not receive a response.

We also asked if the company has any plans to create separate toggles for violence and sexual content, considering that a lot of people comfortable with the latter might be less inclined to see violence bubble up among the app’s makeup tutorials and influencer junkets.

On Instagram, “sensitive” content is a massive catch-all category for stuff it allows but doesn’t want to be seen as directly promoting. In its own guidelines on content it recommends, Instagram states that sexually suggestive content like “pictures of people in see-through clothing” aren’t eligible for the Explore tab. Instagram’s definition of sensitive content also includes dangerous forms of content like “exaggerated health claims” and posts promoting weight loss supplements.

Instagram is notorious for over-policing content that the platform deems to be sexual. A campaign from Black plus-size model Nyome Nicholas-Williams successfully pressured the platform into relaxing one of its overly restrictive nudity rules last year.

Instagram contextualized the new content controls part of a new effort to give users more power to determine what shows up in their feed. “We believe people should be able to shape Instagram into the experience that they want,” the company wrote in a blog post, noting that recent changes like being able to disable comments also give users more choice.

While the company is giving users more control over its algorithm in some small ways, it’s also considering giving them less. Last month, Instagram began testing algorithmic suggestions mixed into the main feed, a design choice that would let the company inject the platform with even more of what it wants you to see.

#content-moderation, #instagram, #like-button, #mobile-software, #operating-systems, #social, #social-media, #social-software, #software, #tc, #youtube

Javier Soltero, Google’s head of Workspace, will join us at TC Sessions: SaaS

When it comes to big SaaS products, few are bigger than Google Workspace (formerly known as GSuite). So it’s maybe no surprise that one of the first people we contacted to speak at our SaaS conference on October 27 was Google’s Javier Soltero.

Today, Puerto Rico-born Soltero is Google’s VP and GM in charge of Workspace, which has well over 2 billion users. Today, it consists of products like Gmail and Google Calendar, Docs, Sheets, Slide Meet, Chat and Drive. Currently, Workspace is going through what may be one of its most important periods of change, too, with extensive new collaboration features and, for the first time, a paid individual plan. All of this, of course, is happening against the backdrop of the pandemic, which made remote collaboration tools and video chat services like Meet more important than ever.

All of that would be enough to make Soltera a good conversation partner for a SaaS event, but his background goes much further than that. He actually started his career as a software engineer at Netscape in the late 90s and after a few other engineering positions, co-founded launched his first startup, the monitoring service Hyperic, in 2004. Hyperic then merged with SpringSource, which was acquired by VMware, landing Soletro in the position as VMware’s CTO for its SaaS and Application Services.

It’s likely his next startup, the mobile-centric email startup Acompli, though, that you remember. Founded in mid-2013, Microsoft quickly acquired Acompli in late 2014 and then essentially turned into Outlook Mobile. At Microsoft, Soltero rose through the ranks to become a corporate VP for its Office group and Cortana, before decamping to Google in 2019. Since then, he’s become the public face of GSuite/Workspace and we’ll use our time with him to talk about the joys and challenges of managing a massive SaaS product, but also about what he learned from building products from the ground up.

Register today with a $75 early bird ticket and save $100 before tickets go up. TC Sessions: SaaS takes place on October 27 and will feature the chats with the leading minds in SaaS, networking, and startup demos.

 

#companies, #computing, #gmail, #google, #google-for-education, #google-workspace, #google-calendar, #javier-soltero, #mobile-software, #puerto-rico, #tc, #technology, #vp, #webmail

SwoonMe uses avatars and audio for its ‘less superficial’ dating app

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 of swiping through profiles, SwoonMe’s idea is to use a combination of avatars and audio to encourage users to connect based on someone’s personality, not their appearance.

To use the app, you take a selfie which SwoonMe 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. You’ll also answer a few questions — like whether you’re looking for marriage or something more casual and what your love language is (e.g. physical touch, gifts, words of affirmation, etc.), among other things.

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.

Image Credits: SwoonMe

The idea for SwoonMe comes from Tanvi Gupta, a former Facebook product specialist who was involved with a number of high-profile products, including those that shipped in Messenger and in Instagram Direct, such as Messenger reactions, a Messenger redesign, chat heads on Android, and more. This experience taught her a lot about launching new products built from scratch, and helping them to find product market fit, she says.

But Gupta decided to build SwoonMe because of her own personal struggles with modern-day dating apps, where men who messaged her immediately wanted to share selfies and meet her without having read anything on her profile.

“The dating world always felt super-indexed on looks, given the proliferation of apps like Tinder and Bumble,” Gupta explains. “And what I felt was they were not solving my personal need for somebody who wants to connect for a long-term relationship,” she says.

Gupta began work on SwoonMe during the pandemic, when the market was hungry for new ways to connect people online — a trend that had led the to the launch of audio apps like Clubhouse, and later, its many clones. The founder says she was also inspired by Clubhouse, as it demonstrated the potential in audio-based social networking, including how it could be used for more personal connections.

“Platforms like Clubhouse have shown that taking video and looks out of the equation allow people to lean into actual topics,” Gupta says. “It creates new levels of intimacy and interaction, and we’re basically trying to capture this with SwoonMe, but in the dating world.”

Though SwoonMe isn’t necessarily limited only to people looking for relationships, it may initially appeal to that demographic because it requires a bit more time and focus to listen to soundbites and engage in audio-based messaging. This experience would be more likely to attract someone who is taking dating more seriously, not someone in search of a quick hookup or causal connection.

Image Credits: SwoonMe

SwoonMe is not the first social app to use avatars instead of photos, however. Avatar-based social discovery apps have been popular in other markets in Asia and in Brazil, but have yet to make their way to the U.S. That may soon change, though, as Tinder parent Match Group this year acquired Seoul-based social app maker Hyperconnect — its biggest acquisition ever at $1.73 billion. AR-powered avatars are a part of the app portfolio that came with the deal.

The startup is also not the first dating app to take the idea of the “face reveal” — a somewhat gimmicky concept popularized by online creators — into the world of dating. There are a number of voice-based based apps on the app stores today, which have seen varying degrees of success.

In February, for example, an app called Jigsaw raised $3.7 million for its own so-called “anti-superficial” dating app that places puzzle pieces over users’ faces which can only be removed after a pre-set amount of in-app engagement. But in Jigsaw’s case, the puzzle pieces were to be applied over full body photos, and it had banned selfies. That means the app was doing the opposite of what it proposes. Instead of encouraging daters to ignore images, some users were likely making decisions based on what someone’s body looked like in their photo with their face removed. That’s even worse. (After expressing my concerns to Jigsaw and declining to cover them, the startup told me it ended its selfie ban and now accepts a wide range of imagery.)

Gupta also feels strongly that women, in particular, deserve a different way to meet people that’s not about their looks alone.

“As a female, one of the main drivers behind founding company like SwoonMe, which is audio-first and not photos, is because I personally am tired, and have been tired, of being objectified by men…We’re living in 21st century and I am done with that. I want someone to like me because of my personality, because of my voice, because of what I bring into a relationship,” she says. “Sure, physical attraction is important, but that is not the only thing,” Gupta adds.

As it turns out, there’s demand for a less superficial dating app from men, too. In fact, SwoonMe currently has more male users than female at present. (The app, to be clear, is open to all gender identities and sexual orientations as the issues it aims to solve can impact everyone. It also offers an inclusive sign-up flow.)

Though it’s too soon to report user numbers and growth, Gupta says the app has “a good number” of early testers and they’ve been able to get solid user feedback so far.

The bigger question for SwoonMe is whether or not it can attract people looking for real relationships, as many of those people  avoid dating apps altogether. It’s also competing with a growing number of video-first dating apps, like Snack, aimed at Gen Z users who are more comfortable filming themselves thanks to their use of social media platforms like TikTok.

At launch, SwoonMe doesn’t generate revenue, but plans to add premium features if it reaches scale. Longer-term, the company would like to expand its platform beyond dating to help keep couples connected during their relationship, too.

SwoonMe soft-launched across both the App Store and Play Store for beta testing, but is today announcing its official launch. Currently, SwoonMe is targeting the dating markets of San Francisco and L.A., but is open to anyone who wants to try it.

The startup is a small team and currently working to raise $1 million in seed funding.

#apps, #audio, #dating, #dating-apps, #mobile-applications, #mobile-apps, #mobile-software, #relationships, #social, #social-media, #startups, #voice

Instagram may soon let you post from desktop

After years of solely focusing on its mobile product, Instagram is at long last thinking about letting users post from their computers. A number of Twitter uses noticed that the test feature had gone live Thursday and Instagram confirmed the test to TechCrunch.

“We know that many people access Instagram from their computer,” an Instagram spokesperson said. “To improve that experience, we’re now testing the ability to create a Feed post on Instagram with their desktop browser.”

Why now? Apparently over the course of the pandemic, Instagram saw a rise in people cruising Instagram from their computers rather than their phones. The test isn’t available to everyone and it only allows users to create posts for the main feed.

The new test feature is the company’s most recent sign of life for its desktop product: Instagram added the ability to view Stories on the web in 2017 and added direct messaging to desktop late last year.

“… We haven’t found any evidence that the Instagram desktop web experience cannibalizes engagement from the native apps,” a data scientist with Instagram observed with the launch of web messaging.

“In fact, it’s quite the opposite — users who use both interfaces spend more time on each interface, compared to users who use each interface exclusively.”

#desktop, #facebook, #instagram, #mobile-software, #social, #software, #tc

Instagram’s newest test mixes ‘Suggested Posts’ into the feed to keep you scrolling

The days of a scrolling to the end of your Instagram feed look to be coming to an end. After adding algorithmic suggestions to the bottom of the app last year, Instagram is running a test that would splice more recommended posts from accounts you don’t follow into the feed with those you do.

In the next few days, the company will begin testing an expansion of “Suggested Posts” which would sprinkle that content through the regular feed. As it stands now, Suggested Posts appear at the bottom of Instagram after you’ve scrolled through all of the content from people you follow and hit the “You’re all caught up” message that the app implemented in 2018. Depending on how many accounts you follow, it’s possible to not run into that message or Instagram’s recommendations very often, if at all.

In addition to boosting the prominence of Suggested Posts, Instagram will test an option that lets users “snooze” the feature, removing it from the feed for 30 days. Anyone in the test will be able to offer feedback when a specific post doesn’t interest them, but it sounds like you won’t be able to disable Suggested Posts in the feed in a permanent way.

The Suggested Posts expansion will be accompanied by a way for users to shape what they see through managing their interests — stuff like cats, makeup or basketball. If you’ve seen enough cats, you can toggle that interest off or tell Instagram that you never wanted to see those damn cats to begin with when it shows you the next one.

A Facebook spokesperson described the expansion of Suggested Posts to TechCrunch as an “extension” of the Instagram feed, noting that the ratio of these algorithmic recommendations to posts from followed accounts will be variable based on how someone uses the app.

The test will roll out to a small number of users in English-speaking countries only, though the company declined to specify how many accounts will be involved.

The experiment might not make it into the final product, but from the way the winds over at Facebook have been blowing lately it looks pretty likely. Like we mentioned, Instagram and parent company Facebook introduced some tools to give people more control over their own behavior on the notoriously addictive-by-design apps back in 2018, including the “You’re all caught up” message and a way to track time spent.

Those tools weren’t a sea change for a company that generally values keeping people glued to its services (and its ads) at all costs, but they showed that Facebook was at least mildly self aware of the conversation about social media addiction sweeping through the tech world at the time.

In 2020, it sounds like Facebook is done humoring those concerns. The new way Suggested Posts work is just a test for now, but mixing algorithmic suggestions into the feed with posts from accounts you follow would be a pretty big change to the core way the app works. As it stands, if people want a truly endless Instagram experience they could turn to the Explore tab or scroll past the “caught up” message. Many doubtless did to stave off boredom, to the likely detriment of their mental health.

But under the test, it will be less possible to use Instagram to only keep up with just the accounts that you’ve got a personal interest in, whether they’re friends, local businesses or influencers of your choosing. Instagram wants to inject more of what it wants you to see into that experience, or what the company believes you’d want to see but you just don’t know it yet.

The end result might not be that noticeable for people who follow huge swaths of accounts already and rarely meet the end of their feed, but it strays even further from the original product — a distant memory at this point — while giving Instagram a way to keep people on the app for longer while serving them more ads.

#computing, #facebook, #instagram, #mobile-software, #operating-systems, #social, #social-media, #software, #tc, #technology-addiction

Instagram’s TikTok rival, Reels, rolls out ads worldwide

Instagram Reels are getting ads. The company announced today it’s launching ads in its short-form video platform and TikTok rival, Reels, to businesses and advertisers worldwide. The ads will be up to 30 seconds in length, like Reels themselves, and vertical in format, similar to ads found in Instagram Stories. Also like Reels, the new ads will loop, and people will be able to like, comment, and save them, the same as other Reels videos.

The company had previously tested Reels ads in select markets earlier this year, including India, Brazil, Germany, and Australia, then expanded those tests to Canada, France, the U.K. and the U.S. more recently. Early adopters of the new format have included brands like BMW, Nestlé (Nespresso), Louis Vuitton, Netflix, Uber, and others.

Instagram tells us the ads will appear in most places users view Reels content, including on the Reels tab, Reels in Stories, Reels in Explore, and Reels in your Instagram Feed, and will appear in between individual Reels posted by users. However, in order to be served a Reels ad, the user first needs to be in the immersive, full-screen Reels viewer.

Image Credits: Instagram

The company couldn’t say how often a user might see a Reels ad, noting that the number of ads a viewer may encounter will vary based on how they use Instagram. But the company is monitoring user sentiment around ads themselves, and the overall commercially of Reels, it says.

Like Instagram’s other advertising products, Reels ads will launch with an auction-based model. But so far, Instagram is declining to share any sort of performance metrics around how those ads are doing, based on tests. Nor is it yet offering advertisers any creator tools or templates that could help them get started with Reels ads. Instead, Instagram likey assumes advertisers already have creative assets on hand or know how to make them, because of Reels ads’ similarities to other vertical video ads found elsewhere, including on Instagram’s competitors.

While vertical video has already shown the potential for driving consumers to e-commerce shopping sites, Instagram hasn’t yet taken advantage of Reels ads to drive users to its built-in Instagram Shops, though that seems like a natural next step as it attempts to tie the different parts of its app together.

But perhaps ahead of that step, Instagram needs to make Reels a more compelling destination — something other TikTok rivals, which now include both Snap and YouTube — have done by funding creator content directly. Instagram, meanwhile, had made offers to select TikTok stars directly.

The launch of Instagram Reels ads follows news of TikTok’s climbing ad prices. Bloomberg reported this month that TikTok is now asking for more than $1.4 million for a home page takeover ad in the U.S., as of the third quarter, which will jump to $1.8 million by Q4 and more than $2 million on a holiday. Though the company is still building its ads team and advertisers haven’t yet allocated large portions of their video budget to the app, that tends to follow user growth — and TikTok now has over 100 million monthly active users in the U.S.

Both apps, Instagram and TikTok, now have over a billion monthly active users on a global basis, though Reels is only a part of the larger Instagram platform. For comparison, Instagram Stories is used by some 500 million users, which demonstrates Instagram’s ability to drive traffic to different areas of its app. Instagram declined to share how many users Reels has as of today.

#advertising, #advertising-tech, #apps, #digital-marketing, #instagram, #instagram-reels, #mobile, #mobile-software, #online-advertising, #reels, #short-form-video, #social, #social-media-marketing, #tiktok, #vertical-video, #video, #video-hosting

Apple to introduce A/B testing and in-app events to the App Store

Apple today announced a number of coming changes and improvements to the App Store that will help developers better target their apps to users, get their apps discovered by more people, and even highlight what sort of events are taking place inside their apps to entice new users to download the app and encourage existing users to return.

The company said its App Store today sees 600 million weekly users across 175 countries, and has paid out over $230 billion to developers since the App Store launched, highlighting the business opportunity for app developers.

However, as the App Store has grown, it’s become harder for app developers to market their apps to new users or get their apps found. The new features aim to address that.

Image Credits: Apple

One change involves the app’s product page. Starting this year, app developers will be able to create multiple custom product pages to showcase different features of their app for different users. For instance, they’ll be able to try out things like different screenshots, videos, and even different app icons to A/B test what users like the most.

They’ll also be able to advertise the dynamic things that are taking place inside their apps on an ongoing basis. Apple explained that apps and games are constantly rolling out new content and limited time events like film premieres on streaming services, events like Pokémon Go fests, or Nike fitness challenges. But these events were often only discoverable by those who already had the app installed and then opted in to push notifications.

Image Credits: Apple

Apple will now allow developers to better advertise these events, with the launch in-app events “front and center on the App Store.” The events can be showcased on the app’s product page. Users can learn more about the events, sign up to be notified, or quickly join the event, if it’s happening now. They can also discover events with personalized recommendations and through App Store search.

App Store editors will curate the best events and the new App Store widget will feature upcoming events right on users’ homescreens, too.

Apple says the feature will be open to all developers, including those who already run events and those who are just getting started.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

#app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #apps, #google-play, #instagram, #ios-8, #itunes, #mobile-software, #nike, #operating-systems, #software, #streaming-services, #wwdc-2021

Facebook’s Spark AR platform expands to video calling with Multipeer API

At today’s F8 developer conference, Facebook announced new capabilities for Spark AR, its flagship AR creation software. Since Spark AR was announced at F8 2017, more than 600,000 creators from 190 countries have published over 2 million AR effects on Facebook and Instagram, making it the largest mobile AR platform, according to Facebook. If you’ve ever posted a selfie on your Instagram story with an effect that gave you green hair, or let you control a dog’s facial expression by moving your own face, then you’ve used Spark AR

Soon, these AR effects will be available for video calling on Messenger, Instagram, and Portal with the introduction of a Multipeer API. Creators can develop effects that bring call participants together by using a shared AR effect. As an example, Spark AR shared a promo video of a birthday party held over a video call, in which an AR party hat appears on each of the participants’ heads. 

Creators can also develop games for users to play during their video calls. This already exists on Facebook video calls – think of the game where you compete to see who can catch the most flying AR hamburgers in their mouth in a minute. But when the ability to make new, lightweight games opens to developers, we’ll see some new games to challenge our friends with on video calls. 

These video call effects and multipeer AR games will be bolstered by Spark’s platform exclusive multi-class segmentation capability. This lets developers augment multiple segments of a user’s body (like hair or skin) at once within a single effect. 

Facebook also discussed its ongoing ambition to build AR glasses. Chris Barber, Director of Partnerships for Spark AR, said that this goal is still “years away” – but, Barber did tease some potential features for the innovative, wearable tech. 

“Imagine being able to teleport to a friend’s sofa to watch a show together, or being able to share a photo of something awesome you see on a hike,” Barber said. Maybe this won’t sound so dystopian by the time the product launches, years down the road. 

Last October, Spark AR launched the AR Partner Network, a program for the platform’s most advanced creators, and this year, Spark launched an AR curriculum through Facebook’s BluePrint Platform to help creators learn how to improve their AR effects. Applications for the Spark Partner Network will open again this summer. For now, creators and developers can apply to start building effects for video calling through the Spark AR Video Calling Beta

#api, #apps, #ar, #augmented-reality, #facebook, #instagram, #messenger, #mobile-software, #operating-systems, #social, #social-media, #software, #spark, #spark-ar

Reface now lets users face-swap into pics and GIFs they upload

Buzzy face-swapping video app Reface is expanding its reality-shifting potential beyond selfies by letting users upload more of their own content for its AI to bring to life.

Users of its iOS and Android apps still can’t upload their own user generated video but the latest feature — which it calls Swap Animation — lets them upload images of humanoid stuff (monuments, memes, fine art portraits, or — indeed — photos of other people) which they want animated, choosing from a selection of in-app song snippets and poems for the AI-incarnate version to appear to speak/sing etc.

Reface’s freemium app has, thus far, taken a tightly curated approach to the content users can animate, only letting you face swap a selfie into a pre-set selection of movie and music video snippets (plus memes, GIFs, red carpet celeb shots, salon hair-dos and more).

But the new feature — which similarly relies on GAN (generative adversarial network) algorithms to work its reality-bending effects — expands the expressive potential of the app by letting users supply their own source material to face swap/animate.

Some rival apps do already offer this kind of functionality — so there’s an element of Reface catching up to apps like Avatarify, Wombo and Deep Nostalgia.

But it’s also going further as users can also swap their own face into their chosen source content. So you could, for example, get to see yourself as a singing Venus de Milo, or watch your visage recite a poem from the middle of a pop-art painting like Andy Warhol’s Marilyn.

The Andreessen Horowitz-backed startup is still being cautious as it expands what users can do with its high tech face-shifting tool — saying it will be manually moderating all uploads from the new feature.

Rivals in the deepfake space are arguably pushing its hand to open up functionality faster, though, with apps like Avatarify already letting users animate their own snaps. And — notably — a Reface spokeswoman told us it’s planning to make user generated video uploads available “in the near future”.

Pro users are getting a little taster — as they can upload their own GIFs to face swap into with this latest feature release too.

“We’re really excited to see what Reface users do with swap-reenactment, which is a major technical milestone in terms of the machine learning technology inside of the app,” said CEO Dima Shvets in a statement. “Reface content creators have been clamoring for more tools for personalized content and self-expression – and this feature delivers, dramatically extending the opportunities for realizing their vision and creativity.” 

The still young app has proved popular over its short run, garnering viral buzz via social media shares as users were keen to show off their funny face swaps.

As of March 2021 Reface said it had 100M installs some 14 months since going live. 

#andreessen-horowitz, #animation, #apps, #artificial-intelligence, #deep-learning, #deepfake, #machine-learning-technology, #mobile-applications, #mobile-software, #reface, #social, #social-media, #synthesized-media, #tc

Google Meet gets a refreshed UI, multi-pinning, autozoom and more

Google today announced a major update to Meet, its video-meeting service, which brings several user interface tweaks for desktop users, as well as quite a bit of new functionality, including multi-pinning so that you can highlight multiple feeds instead of just one, as well as new AI-driven video capabilities for light adjustments, autozoom, and a new Data Saver feature that limits data usage on slower mobile networks.

If you’re anything like me, you’re increasingly tired of video meetings (to the point where I often just keep the camera off). But the reality is that this style of meetings will be with us for the foreseeable future, whether we like them or not.

Image Credits: Google

Google notes that today’s release is meant to make meetings “more immersive, inclusive, and productive.” The new UI doesn’t look to be a radical change, but it puts more of the controls and features right at your fingertips instead of hiding them in a menu. It also consolidates them in the bottom row instead of the current system that spreads out features between the main menu bar and an additional small menu at the top.

For presenters who don’t want to see themselves on the screen, Meet now also lets you minimize or completely hide your own video feed — and if you really want to glance into your own eyes, you can also pin your feed to the rest of the grid. Google says it also plans to soon let you turn off your self-feed across all Meet calls.

Image Credits: Google

Talking about pinning, one feature that seems especially useful is the ability to highlight multiple feeds. This new multi-pinning capability will make it easier to focus on the participants in a chat that are most active, for example. This feature will roll out in the coming months.

And coming in a few months, some of those highlighted feeds may look a bit more interesting (or annoying, depending on your point of view) because one new feature Google has planned — but isn’t ready to roll out yet — is video background replacement. For now, Google will only offer three scenes: a classroom, a party and a forest. The company says more will follow, but it doesn’t look like you’ll be able to bring your own videos to this feature anytime soon.

Image Credits: Google

Other new features in this release include Meet’s capability to automatically spruce up your video feed a bit to make sure you’re more visible in a dark environment and enhance your video when you are sitting in front of a bright background. This will roll out in the coming weeks. There’s also autozoom, which uses AI to automatically zoom in on you and put you in the middle of your frame. That’s coming to paid Google Workspace subscribers in the coming months.

#artificial-intelligence, #chrome-os, #google, #google-search, #google-workspace, #google-talk, #mobile-software, #operating-systems, #software, #tc

Running apps still lag behind on privacy and security

Some of the most popular running apps are still lagging behind on security and privacy. That’s the verdict from security researchers who examined the leading running apps five years apart and found only a few apps had improved — and not by much.

Running apps know and learn a lot about you as you use them. Your health data, like your height and weight, are used to calculate how many calories you burn, and your location data can track your workout route from door-to-door.

But in the wrong hands, this data can identify where you live or where you work. In 2018, Strava said it would simplify its privacy features to allow its users greater control over their data, after researchers found Strava app users were inadvertently sharing their workout data and revealing military bases and secret government facilities.

Now, researchers at U.K. cybersecurity firm Pen Test Partners say many of the top apps — Strava, Runkeeper, MapMyRun, Nike Run Club, and Runtastic — still don’t use basic security measures to prevent hackers from breaking in, or health and fitness data spilling out.

Only Runtastic had set a stronger password policy over the past five years, while the other apps still allow some of the most basic passwords like “123456” and “password,” the researchers found in their testing. Malicious hackers often automate their attacks by targeting user accounts with known or easy-to-guess passwords. Worse, none of the apps allow users to set up two-factor authentication, a feature that puts an additional barrier in place to prevent malicious hackers from reusing stolen passwords. Data from Google shows even the simplest form of two-factor authentication can prevent most automated password reuse attacks.

We asked each of the app makers why they had not implemented two-factor authentication. None of the companies commented.

The researchers also found that while Runtastic, Nike Run Club, and MapMyRun had improved their privacy controls, Strava had seen “no significant change.”

From their report: “Strava and Runkeeper are configured to publicly share user data by default. It is possible to change these settings in the application, but it takes some time to find them and set them correctly, which is probably not the first consideration for a regular user.”

“Nike Run Club, Runtastic and MapMyRun [were] found to have better privacy policy settings enabled, which means they do not share users’ data by default, like the other applications do. They only share your training information with friends or followers,” the report said.

#google, #mobile-applications, #mobile-software, #multi-factor-authentication, #nike, #password, #password-manager, #pen-test-partners, #runkeeper, #runtastic, #security, #software, #strava, #united-kingdom

Deep fake video app Avatarify, which process on-phone, plans digital watermark for videos

Making deep fake videos used to be hard. Now all you need is a smartphone. Avatarify, a startup that allows people to make deep-fake videos directly on their phone rather than in the Cloud, is soaring up the app charts after being used by celebrities such as Victoria Beckham.

However, the problem with many deep fake videos is that there is no digital watermark to determine that the video has been tampered with. So Avatarify says it will soon launch a digital watermark to prevent this from happening.

Run out of Moscow but with a US HQ, Avatarify launched in July 2020 and since then has been downloaded millions of times. The founders say that 140 million deepfake videos were created with Avatarify this year alone. There are now 125 million views of videos with the hashtag #avatarify on TikTok. While its competitors include the well-funded Reface, Snapchat, Wombo.ai, Mug Life, Xpression, Avatarify has yet to raise any money beyond an Angel round.

Despite taking only $120,000 in angel funding, the company has yet to accept any venture capital and says it has bootstrapped its way from zero to almost 10 million downloads and claims to have a $10 million annual run-rate with a team of less than 10 people.

It’s not hard to see why. Avatarify has a freemium subscription model. They offer a 7-day free trial and a 12-month subscription for $34.99 or a weekly plan for $2.49. Without a subscription, they offer the core features of the App for free, but videos then carry a visible watermark.

The founders also say the app protects privacy, because the videos are processed directly on the phone, rather than in the cloud where they could be hacked.

Avatarify processes user’s photos and turns them into short videos by animating faces, using machine learning algorithms, and adding sounds. The user chooses a picture she wants to animate, chooses the effects and music, and then taps to animate the picture. This short video can then be posted on Instagram or TikTok.

The Avatarify videos are taking off on TikTok because teens no longer need to learn a dance or be much more creative than finding a photo of a celebrity to animate to.

Avartify says you can’t use their app to impersonate someone, but there is of course no way to police this.

Founders Ali Aliev and Karim Iskakov wrote the app during the COVID-19 lockdown in April 2020. Ali spent 2 hours writing a program in Python to transfer his facial expressions to the other person’s face and use a filter in Zoom. The result was a real-time video, which could be streamed to Zoom. He joined a call with Elon Mask’s face and everyone on the call was shocked. The team posted the video, which then went viral.

The code on Github and immediately saw the number of downloads grow. The repository was published on 6 April 2020, and as of 19 March 2021 had been downloaded 50,000 times.

Ali left his job at Samsung AI Centre and devoted himself to the app. After Avatarify’s iOS app was released on 28 June 2020, viral videos on TikTok, created with the app, led it to App Store’s top charts without paid acquisition. In February 2021, Avatarify was ranked first among Top Free Apps worldwide. Between February and March, the app 2021 generated more than $1M in revenue (Source: AppMagic).

However, despite Avartify’s success, the ongoing problems with deep-fake videos remain, such as using these apps to make non-consensual porn, using the faces of innocent people.

#apps, #artificial-intelligence, #europe, #github, #instagram, #mobile-applications, #mobile-software, #moscow, #python, #reface, #samsung, #smartphone, #snapchat, #software, #tc, #tiktok, #united-states, #venture-capital, #video-hosting

Google updates Workspace

Google Workspace, the company’s productivity platform you’ll forever refer to as G Suite (or even ‘Google Docs’), is launching a large update today that touches everything from your calendar to Google Meet and how you can use Workspace with the Google Assistant.

Image Credits: Google

Indeed, the highlight here is probably that you can now use the Assistant in combination with Google Workspace, allowing you to check your work calendar or send a message to your colleagues. Until now, this feature was available in beta and ever after it goes live, your company’s admins will have to turn on the “Search and Assistant” service. And this is a bit of a slow rollout, too, with this capability now being generally available on mobile but still in beta for smart speakers and displays like Google’s own Nest Hub. Still, it’s been a long time coming, given that Google promised these features a very long time ago now.

The other new feature that will directly influence your day-to-day work is support for recurring out-of-office entries and segmentable working hours, as well as a new event type, Focus Time, to help you minimize distractions. Focus Time is a bit cleverer than the three-hour blocks of time you may block off on your calendar anyway in that limits notifications during those event windows. Google is also launching a new analytics feature that tells you how much time you waste spend in meetings. This isn’t quite as fully featured (and potentially creepy) as Microsoft’s Productivity Score, since it only displays how much time you spend in meetings, but it’s a nice overview of how you spend your days (though you know that already). None of this data is shared with your managers.

For when you go back to an office, Google is also adding location indicators to Workspace so you can share when you will be working from there and when you’ll be working from home.

And talking about meetings, since most of these remain online for the time being, Google is adding a few new features that now allow those of you who use their Google Nest Hub Max to host meetings at home and a laptop to set up their own second-screen experiences. What’s far more important, though, is that when you join a meeting on mobile, Google will now implement a picture-in-picture mode so you can be in that Meet meeting on your phone and still browse the web Gmail and get important work done during that brainstorming session.

Mobile support for background replace is also coming, as well as the addition of Q&As and polls on mobile. Currently, you can only blur your background on mobile.

Image Credits: Google

For frontline workers, Google is adding something it calls Google Workspace Frontline, with new features for this group of users, and it is also making it easier for users to build custom AppSheet apps from Google Sheets and Drive, “so that frontline workers can digitize and streamline their work, whether it’s collecting data in the field, reporting safety risks, or managing customer requests.”