Weeks after Amazon introduced an updated Fire TV lineup that included, for the first time, its own TVs, Roku today is announcing its own competitive products in a race to capture consumers’ attention before the holiday shopping season. Its updates include a new Roku Streaming Stick 4K and Roku Streaming Stick 4K+ — the latter which ships with Roku’s newer hands-free voice remote. The company is also refreshing the Roku Ultra LT, a Walmart-exclusive version of its high-end player. And it announced the latest software update, Roku OS 10.5, which adds updated voice features, a new Live TV channel for home screens, and other minor changes.
The new Streaming Stick 4K builds on Roku’s four-year-old product, the Streaming Stick+, as it offers the same type of stick form factor designed to be hidden behind the TV set. This version, however, has a faster processor which allows the device to boot up to 30% faster and load channels more quickly, Roku claims. The Wi-Fi is also improved, offering faster speeds and smart algorithms that help make sure users get on the right band for the best performance in their homes where network congestion is an increasingly common problem — especially with the pandemic-induced remote work lifestyle. The new Stick adds support for Dolby Vision and HDR 10+, giving it the “4K” moniker.
This version ships with Roku’s standard voice remote for the same price of $49.99. For comparison, Amazon’s new Fire TV Stick Max with a faster processor and speedier Wi-Fi is $54.99. However, Amazon is touting the addition of Wi-Fi 6 and support for its game streaming service, Luna, as reasons to upgrade.
Roku’s new Streaming Stick 4K+ adds the Roku Voice Remote Pro to the bundle instead. This is Roku’s new remote, launched in the spring, that offers rechargeability, a lost remote finder, and hands-free voice support via its mid-field microphone, so you can just say things like “hey Roku, turn on the TV,” or “launch Netflix,” instead of pressing buttons. Bought separately, this remote is $29.99. The bundle sells for $69.99, which translates to a $10 discount over buying the stick and remote by themselves.
Image Credits: Roku
Both versions of the Streaming Stick will be sold online and in stores starting in October.
The Roku Ultra LT ($79.99), built for Walmart exclusively, has also been refreshed with a faster processor, more storage, a new Wi-Fi radio with up to 50% longer range, support for Dolby Vision, Bluetooth audio streaming, and a built-in ethernet port.
Plus, Roku notes that TCL will become the first device partner to use the reference designs it introduced at CES for wireless soundbars, with its upcoming Roku TV wireless soundbar. This device connects over Wi-Fi to the TV and works with the Roku remote, and will arrive at major retailers in October where it will sell for $179.99.
The other big news is Roku’s OS 10.5 software release. The update isn’t making any dramatic changes this time around, but is instead focused largely on voice and mobile improvements.
The most noticeable consumer-facing change is the ability to add a new Live TV channel to your home screen which lets you more easily launch The Roku Channel’s 200+ free live TV channels, instead of having to first visit Roku’s free streaming hub directly, then navigate to the Live TV section. This could make the Roku feel more like traditional TV for cord-cutters abandoning their TV guide for the first time.
Other tweaks include expanded support for launching channels using voice commands, with most now supported; new voice search and podcast playback with a more visual “music and podcast” row and Spotify as a launch partner; the ability to control sound settings in the mobile app; an added Voice Help guide in settings; and additional sound configuration options for Roku speakers and soundbars (e.g. using the speaker pairs and soundbar in a left/center/right) or in full 5.1 surround sound system).
A handy feature for entering in email and passwords in set-up screens using voice commands is new, too. Roku says it sends the voice data off-device to its speech-to-text partner, and the audio is anonymized. Roku doesn’t get the password or store it, as it goes directly to the channel partner. While there are always privacy concerns with voice data, the addition is a big perk from an accessibility standpoint.
Image Credits: Roku
One of the more under-the-radar, but potentially useful changes coming in OS 10.5 is an advanced A/V sync feature that lets you use the smartphone camera to help Roku make further refinements to the audio delay when using wireless headphones to listen to the TV. This feature is offered through the mobile app.
The Roku mobile app in the U.S. is also gaining another feature with the OS 10.5 update with the addition of a new Home tab for browsing collections of movies and shows across genres, and a “Save List, which functions as a way to bookmark shows or movies you might hear about — like when chatting with friends — and want to remember to watch later when you’re back home in front of the TV.
The software update will roll out to Roku devices over the weeks ahead. It typically comes to Roku players first, then rolls out to TVs.
Clubhouse has hired a veteran editor from NPR to lead news publishing for the app. Nina Gregory will serve as Clubhouse’s Head of News and Media Publishers, working as a liaison between news publishers and the Clubhouse’s ecosystem of audio-based communities.
Gregory led NPR’s Arts Desk for the last seven years, shaping the news outlet’s culture and entertainment coverage. “As an audio journalist, [Clubhouse] aligned with what I’ve always believed is the best medium for news,” Gregory told CNN. “You don’t need to know how to read to be able to hear radio news. You don’t need to have an expensive subscription. You don’t need cable.”
Helping publishers and other brands get plugged in is one path toward maturation for Clubhouse. Online media properties from USA Today to TechCrunch have built a presence on the app, which exploded in growth as the pandemic limited in-person social interactions. But with competition from more entrenched competitors looming, Clubhouse may need to get creative to stay in the game.
Clubhouse’s quick ascent saw Twitter, Spotify, Facebook and other established tech companies scramble to integrate live audio rooms into their own products. Twitter quickly launched Spaces, while Spotify launched a standalone Clubhouse clone known as Greenroom. Facebook first announced its own live audio rooms in April, opening them to U.S. users two months later.
The kind of viral attention that Clubhouse enjoyed over the last year is almost impossible to maintain, but the company has added features, introduced an Android app and opened its doors to everyone. Clubhouse might not be able to top its February peak, but the app still notched 7.7 million global monthly downloads after expanding to Android this summer, and continues to build out its vision for audio-first social networking.
Fortnite maker Epic Games is appealing last week’s ruling in its court battle with Apple, where a federal judge said Apple would no longer be allowed to block developers from adding links to alternative payment mechanisms, but stopped short of dubbing Apple a monopolist. The latter would have allowed Epic Games to argue for alternative means of serving its iOS user base, including perhaps, through third-party app stores or even sideloading capabilities built into Apple’s mobile operating system, similar to those on Google’s Android OS.
Apple immediately declared the court battle a victory, as the judge had agreed with its position that the company was “not in violation of antitrust law” and had also deemed Apple’s success in the app and gaming ecosystem as “not illegal.” Epic Games founder and CEO Tim Sweeney, meanwhile, said the ruling was not a win for either developers or consumers. On Twitter, he hinted that the company may appeal the decision when he said, “We will fight on.”
In a court filing published on Sunday (see below), Epic Games officially stated its attention to appeal U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers’ final judgment and “all orders leading to or producing that judgment.”
As part of the judge’s decision, Epic Games had been ordered to pay Apple the 30% of the $12 million it earned when it introduced its alternative payment system in Fortnite on iOS, which was then in breach of its legal contract with Apple.
The appellate court will revisit how Judge Gonzalez Rogers defined the market where Epic Games had argued Apple was acting as a monopolist. Contrary to both parties’ wishes, Gonzalez Rogers defined it as the market for “digital mobile gaming transactions” specifically. Though an appeal may or may not see the court shifting its opinion in Epic Games’ favor, a new ruling could potentially help to clarify the vague language used in the injunction to describe how Apple must now accommodate developers who want to point their customers to other payment mechanisms.
So far, the expectation floating around the developer community is that Apple will simply extend the “reader app” category exception to all non-reader apps (apps that provide access to purchased content). Apple recently settled with a Japanese regulator by agreeing to allow reader apps to point users to their own website where users could sign up and manage their accounts, which could include customers paying for subscriptions — like Netflix or Spotify subscriptions, for instance. Apple said this change would be global.
In briefings with reporters, Apple said the details of the injunction issued with the Epic Games ruling, however, would still need to be worked out. Given the recency of the decision, the company has not yet communicated with developers on how this change will impact them directly nor has it updated its App Store guidelines with new language.
Reached for comment, Epic Games said it does not have any further statements on its decision to appeal at this time.
This summer, Spotify launched its live audio app and Clubhouse rival, Spotify Greenroom, with the promises of more programming to come in the months ahead to augment its then primarily user-generated live content. Today, the company is making good on that earlier commitment, with the launch of six new shows on Spotify Greenroom focused on pop culture and music, in addition to what Spotify calls “playlist-inspired shows” — meaning those that are inspired by Spotify’s own playlists.
This includes a new show based on the popular playlist Lorem, which launched in 2019, showcasing an eclectic mix of music that has included indie pop, R&B, garage rock, hip-hop, and more, focused on a younger, Gen Z audience. That playlist today has over 884,000 “likes” on Spotify and has risen to become one of the places new artists are able to break through on the platform. Now, Lorem listeners will be connected to “Lorem Life,” a Spotify Greenroom show that will feature a mix of culture and discussions about music, the environment, sustainability, fashion, and space, Spotify says. The show is hosted by Gen Z influencers and TikTok stars, Dev Lemons and Max Motley, who will engage with other artists and influencers. It begins airing on Wednesday, September 15, at 9 PM ET.
Another new “playlist-inspired” show is “The Get Up LIVE.” If the name sounds familiar, it’s because “The Get Up” was introduced last fall as Spotify’s own take on a daily morning show by mixing music with talk radio-style content led by hosts who discuss the news, pop culture, entertainment, and other topics. To date, that content has not been provided as a live program, however. Instead, the show has been pre-recorded then made available as a playlist that gives listeners the feel of a daily FM radio show. Now, “The Get Up’s” co-hosts Kat Lazo and Xavier “X” Jernigan will record their show live on Greenroom, starting on Wednesday, Sept. 15 at 11 AM ET.
This odd time seems to contradict Spotify’s original intention of providing a show for those who commute to the office. But with the rise of remote work in the face of the unending pandemic, addressing the commuter audience may be of less interest, with the new program. However, Spotify tells us “The Get up LIVE” will be complementary to the daily show, which will still run as normal — that’s why it has a later airing.
Other new Greenroom shows include “A Gay in the Life,” hosted by the married couple, actor Garrett Clayton and writer and educator Blake Knight, who will discuss LGBTQIA+ news and issues (weekly, 8 PM ET, starting today); “Take a Seat,” hosted by Ben Mandelker and Ronnie Karam of the “Watch What Crappens” podcast, who will recap reality shows and dive into other pop culture fascinations (weekly, 10 PM ET, starting today); “The Movie Buff,” hosted by film buff and comedian Jon Gabrus, who will review and break down the latest hot movies (weekly, 11 PM ET, starting today); and “The Most Necessary: Live,” a complement to Spotify’s “Most Necessary” playlist, where host B.Dot will discuss up-and-comers in hip-hop (weekly, 9 PM ET, starting Tuesday).
In addition to the new programs, Deuxmoi’s show “Deux Me After Dark” will also air this evening (Sept. 13) at 9 PM ET to recap the red carpet looks and gossip from this year’s Met Gala alongside guest Hillary Kerr, co-founder of Who What Wear.
Image Credits: Spotify
Greenrom is now available to listeners in over 135 global markets and has been quietly expanding with live audio from sports site and podcast network “The Ringer” as well as from artists like Pop Smoke, the company says. Other programs added include Men In Blazers, Deaux Me After Dark, True Crime Rewind and Ask The Tarot.
The app had gotten off to a slower start this year, given its roots had been in sports talk live programming, which didn’t necessarily connect with Spotify’s music fans. Plus, it has faced growing competition from not only Clubhouse, which inspired its creation, but also other top social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Discord, and more. Without dedicated programs to garner user interest in yet another live audio app, the company had only seen 141,000 new downloads for Greenroom on iOS a little over a month after its launch, and fewer on Google Play. But Spotify’s long-term vision for the service was to more closely tie Greenroom to the music, artists, programs, and podcasts that were already available on its flagship music streaming app — and these new shows are an example of that plan in action.
Apple Music announced today that it’s created a process to properly identify and compensate all of the individual creators involved in making a DJ mix. Using technology from the audio-recognition app Shazam, which Apple acquired in 2018 for $400 million, Apple Music is working with major and independent labels to devise a fair way to divide streaming royalties among DJs, labels, and artists who appear in the mixes. This is intended to help DJ mixes retain long-term monetary value for all creators involved, making sure that musicians get paid for their work even when other artists iterate on it. And, as one of Apple’s first major integrations of Shazam’s technology, it appears that the company saw value in
Historically, it’s been difficult for DJs to stream mixes online, since live streaming platforms like YouTube or Twitch might flag the use of other artists’ songs as copyright infringement. Artists are entitled to royalties when their song is played by a DJ during a live set, but dance music further complicates this, since small samples from various songs can be edited and mixed together into something unrecognizable.
Apple Music already hosts thousands of mixes, including sets from Tomorrowland’s digital festivals from 2020 and 2021, but only now is it formally announcing the tech that enables it to do this, even though Billboard noted it in June. As part of this announcement, Studio K7!’s DJ Kicks archive of mixes will begin to roll out on the service, giving fans access to mixes that haven’t been on the market in over 15 years.
“Apple Music is the first platform that offers continuous mixes where there’s a fair fee involved for the artists whose tracks are included in the mixes and for the artist making those mixes. It’s a step in the right direction where everyone gets treated fairly,” DJ Charlotte de Witte said in a statement on behalf of Apple. “I’m beyond excited to have the chance to provide online mixes again.”
Still, Apple Music’s dive into the DJ royalties conundrum doesn’t necessarily address the broader crises at play among live musicians and DJs surviving through a pandemic.
Though platforms like Mixcloud allow DJs to stream sets and monetize using pre-licensed music, Apple Music’s DJ mixes will not include user-generated content. MIDiA Research, in partnership with Audible Magic, found that user-generated content (UGC) — online content that uses music, whether it’s a lipsync TikTok or a Soundcloud DJ mix — could be a music industry goldmine worth over $6 billion in the next two years. But Apple is not yet investing in UGC, as individuals cannot yet upload their personal mixes to stream on the platform like they might on Soundcloud. According to a Billboard report from June, Apple Music will only host mixes after the streamer has identified 70% of the combined tracks.
Apple Music didn’t respond to questions about how exactly royalties will be divided, but this is only a small step in reimagining how musicians will make a living in a digital landscape.
While these innovations help get artists compensated, streaming royalties only account for a small percentage of how musicians make money — Apple pays musicians one cent per stream, while competitors like Spotify pay only fractions of cents. This led the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) to launch a campaign in March called Justice at Spotify, which demands a one-cent-per-stream payout that matches Apple’s. But live events remain a musician’s bread and butter, especially given platforms’ paltry streaming payouts — of course, the pandemic hasn’t been conducive to touring. To add insult to injury, the Association for Electronic Music estimated in 2016 that dance music producers missed out on $120 million in royalties from their work being used without attribution in live performances.
Earlier this year, Apple officially discontinued Music Memos, an iPhone app that allowed musicians to quickly record audio and develop new song ideas. Now, a new startup called Tape It is stepping in to fill the void with an app that improves audio recordings by offering a variety of features, including higher-quality sound, automatic instrument detection, support for markers, notes, and images, and more.
They’re joined by designer and musician Christian Crusius, previously of the design consultancy Fjord, which was acquired by Accenture.
The founders, who had played in a band together for many years, were inspired to build Tape It because it was something they wanted for themselves, Walther says. After ending his stint at Spotify working in their new Soundtrap division (an online music startup Spotify also bought in 2017), he knew he wanted to work on a project that was more focused on the music-making side of things. But while Soundtrap worked for some, it wasn’t what either Walther or his friends had needed. Instead, they wanted a simple tool that would allow them to record their music with their phone — something that musicians often do today using Apple’s Voice Memos app and, briefly, Music Memos — until its demise.
Image Credits: Tape It
“Regardless of whether you’re an amateur or even like a touring professional…you will record your ideas with your phone, just because that’s what you have with you,” Walther explains. “It’s the exact same thing with cameras — the best camera is the one you have with you. And the best audio recording tool is the one you have with you.”
That is, when you want to record, the easiest thing to do is not to get out your laptop and connect a bunch of cables to it, then load up your studio software — it’s to hit the record button on your iPhone.
The Tape It app allows you to do just that, but adds other features that make it more competitive with its built-in competition, Voice Memos.
When you record using Tape It, the app leverages A.I. to automatically detect the instrument, then annotate the recording with a visual indication to make those recordings easier to find by looking for the colorful icon. Musicians can also add their own markers to the files right when they record them, then add notes and photos to remind themselves of other details. This can be useful when reviewing the recordings later on, Walther says.
Image Credits: Tape It
“If I have a nice guitar sound, I can just take a picture of the settings on my amplifier, and I have them. This is something musicians do all the time,” he notes. “It’s the easiest way to re-create that sound.”
Another novel, but simple, change in Tape It is that breaks longer recordings into multiple lines, similar to a paragraph of text. The team calls this the “Time Paragraph,” and believes it will make listening to longer sessions easier than the default — which is typically a single, horizontally scrollable recording.
Image Credits: Tape It
The app has also been designed so it’s easier to go back to the right part of recordings, thanks to its smart waveforms, in addition to the optional markers and photos. And you can mark recordings as favorites so you can quickly pull up a list of your best ideas and sounds. The app offers full media center integration as well, so you can play back your music whenever you have time.
However, the standout feature is Tape It’s support for “Stereo HD” quality. Here, the app takes advantage of the two microphones on devices like the iPhone XS, XR, and other newer models, then improves the sound using A.I. technology and other noise reduction techniques which it’s developed in-house. This feature is part of its $20 per year premium subscription.
Over time, Tape It intends to broaden its use of A.I. and other IP to improve the sound quality further. It also plans to introduce collaborative features and support for importing and exporting recordings into professional studio software. This could eventually place Tape It into the same market that SoundCloud had initially chased before it shifted its focus to becoming more of a consumer-facing service.
But first, Tape It wants to nail the single-user workflow before adding on more sharing features.
“We decided that it’s so important to make sure it’s useful, even just for you. The stuff that you can collaborate on — if you don’t like using it yourself, you’re not going to use it,” Walther says.
Tape It’s team of three is dually based in both Stockholm and Berlin and is currently bootstrapping.
The app itself is a free download on iOS and will later support desktop users on Mac and Windows. An Android version is not planned.
A number of Spotify playlist curators are complaining that the streaming music company is not addressing the ongoing issue of playlist abuse, which sees bad actors reporting playlists that have gained a following in order to give their own playlists better visibility. Currently, playlists created by Spotify users can be reported in the app for a variety of reasons — like sexual, violent, dangerous, deceptive, or hateful content, among other things. When a report is submitted, the playlist in question will have its metadata immediately removed, including its title, description, and custom image. There is no internal review process that verifies the report is legitimate before the metadata is removed.
Bad actors have learned how to abuse this system to give themselves an advantage. If they see a rival playlist has more users than their own, they will report their competitors in hopes of giving their playlist a more prominent ranking in search results.
According to the curators affected by this problem, there is no limit to the number of reports these bad actors can submit, either. The curators complain that their playlists are being reported daily, and often multiple times per day.
The problem is not new. Users have been complaining about playlist abuse for years. A thread on Spotify’s community forum about this problem is now some 30 pages deep, in fact, and has accumulated over 330 votes. Victims of this type of harassment have also repeatedly posted to social media about Spotify’s broken system to raise awareness of the problem more publicly. For example, one curator last year noted their playlist had been reported over 2,000 times, and said they were getting a new email about the reports nearly every minute. That’s acommon problem and one that seems to indicate bad actors are leveraging bots to submit their reports.
Hi @askmikewarner looking for help So many curators and artists are suffering because of constant, groundless playlist reports on @Spotify. Some are being hit systematically and repeatedly. @SpotifyCares and distributors are aware of what's going on, but nothing is being done!
Many curators say they’ve repeatedly reached out to Spotify for help with this issue and were given no assistance.
Curators can only reply to the report emails from Spotify to appeal the takedown, but they don’t always receive a response. When they ask Spotify for help with this issue, the company only says that it’s working on a solution.
While Spotify may suspend the account that abused the system when a report is deemed false, the bad actors simply create new accounts to continue the abuse. Curators on Spotify’s community forums suggested that an easy fix to the bot-driven abuse would be to restrict accounts from being able to report playlists until their accounts had accumulated 10 hours of streaming music or podcasts. This could help to ensure they were a real person before they gained permission to report abuse.
One curator, who maintains hundreds of playlists, said the problem had gotten so bad that they created an iOS app to continually monitor their playlists for this sort of abuse and to reinstate any metadata once a takedown was detected. But not all curators have the ability to build an app or script of their own to deal with this situation.
Image Credits: Spotify (screenshot of reporting flow)
TechCrunch asked Spotify what it planned to do about this problem, but the company declined to provide specific details.
“As a matter of practice, we will continue to disable accounts that we suspect are abusing our reporting tool. We are also actively working to enhance our processes to handle any suspected abusive reports,” a Spotify spokesperson told us.
The company said it is currently testing several different improvements to the process to curb the abuse, but would not say what those tests may include, or whether tests were internal or external. It could not provide any ballpark sense of when its reporting system would be updated with these fixes, either. When pressed, the company said it doesn’t share details about specific security measures publicly as a rule, as doing so could make abuse of its systems more effective.
Often, playlists are curated by independent artists and labels who are looking to promote themselves and get their music discovered, only to have their work taken down immediately, without any sort of review process that could sort legitimate reports from bot-driven abuse.
Curators complain that Spotify has been dismissing their cries for help for far too long, and Spotify’s vague and non-committal response about a coming solution only validates those complaints further.
Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review.
Last week, we dove into the truly bizarre machinations of the NFT market. This week, we’re talking about something that’s a little bit more impactful on the current state of the web — Apple’s NeuralHash kerfuffle.
If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny
the big thing
In the past month, Apple did something it generally has done an exceptional job avoiding — the company made what seemed to be an entirely unforced error.
In early August — seemingly out of nowhere** — the company announced that by the end of the year they would be rolling out a technology called NeuralHash that actively scanned the libraries of all iCloud Photos users, seeking out image hashes that matched known images of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). For obvious reasons, the on-device scanning could not be opted out of.
This announcement was not coordinated with other major consumer tech giants, Apple pushed forward on the announcement alone.
Researchers and advocacy groups had almost unilaterally negative feedback for the effort, raising concerns that this could create new abuse channels for actors like governments to detect on-device information that they regarded as objectionable. As my colleague Zach noted in a recent story, “The Electronic Frontier Foundation said this week it had amassed more than 25,000 signatures from consumers. On top of that, close to 100 policy and rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, also called on Apple to abandon plans to roll out the technology.”
(The announcement also reportedly generated some controversy inside of Apple.)
The issue — of course — wasn’t that Apple was looking at find ways that prevented the proliferation of CSAM while making as few device security concessions as possible. The issue was that Apple was unilaterally making a massive choice that would affect billions of customers (while likely pushing competitors towards similar solutions), and was doing so without external public input about possible ramifications or necessary safeguards.
A long story short, over the past month researchers discovered Apple’s NeuralHash wasn’t as air tight as hoped and the company announced Friday that it was delaying the rollout “to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.”
Having spent several years in the tech media, I will say that the only reason to release news on a Friday morning ahead of a long weekend is to ensure that the announcement is read and seen by as few people as possible, and it’s clear why they’d want that. It’s a major embarrassment for Apple, and as with any delayed rollout like this, it’s a sign that their internal teams weren’t adequately prepared and lacked the ideological diversity to gauge the scope of the issue that they were tackling. This isn’t really a dig at Apple’s team building this so much as it’s a dig on Apple trying to solve a problem like this inside the Apple Park vacuum while adhering to its annual iOS release schedule.
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch /
Apple is increasingly looking to make privacy a key selling point for the iOS ecosystem, and as a result of this productization, has pushed development of privacy-centric features towards the same secrecy its surface-level design changes command. In June, Apple announced iCloud+ and raised some eyebrows when they shared that certain new privacy-centric features would only be available to iPhone users who paid for additional subscription services.
You obviously can’t tap public opinion for every product update, but perhaps wide-ranging and trail-blazing security and privacy features should be treated a bit differently than the average product update. Apple’s lack of engagement with research and advocacy groups on NeuralHash was pretty egregious and certainly raises some questions about whether the company fully respects how the choices they make for iOS affect the broader internet.
Delaying the feature’s rollout is a good thing, but let’s all hope they take that time to reflect more broadly as well.
** Though the announcement was a surprise to many, Apple’s development of this feature wasn’t coming completely out of nowhere. Those at the top of Apple likely felt that the winds of global tech regulation might be shifting towards outright bans of some methods of encryption in some of its biggest markets.
Back in October of 2020, then United States AG Bill Barr joined representatives from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India and Japan in signing a letter raising major concerns about how implementations of encryption tech posed “significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies like sexually exploited children.” The letter effectively called on tech industry companies to get creative in how they tackled this problem.
Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:
LinkedIn kills Stories
You may be shocked to hear that LinkedIn even had a Stories-like product on their platform, but if you did already know that they were testing Stories, you likely won’t be so surprised to hear that the test didn’t pan out too well. The company announced this week that they’ll be suspending the feature at the end of the month. RIP.
FAA grounds Virgin Galactic over questions about Branson flight
While all appeared to go swimmingly for Richard Branson’s trip to space last month, the FAA has some questions regarding why the flight seemed to unexpectedly veer so far off the cleared route. The FAA is preventing the company from further launches until they find out what the deal is.
Apple buys a classical music streaming service While Spotify makes news every month or two for spending a massive amount acquiring a popular podcast, Apple seems to have eyes on a different market for Apple Music, announcing this week that they’re bringing the classical music streaming service Primephonic onto the Apple Music team.
TikTok parent company buys a VR startup
It isn’t a huge secret that ByteDance and Facebook have been trying to copy each other’s success at times, but many probably weren’t expecting TikTok’s parent company to wander into the virtual reality game. The Chinese company bought the startup Pico which makes consumer VR headsets for China and enterprise VR products for North American customers.
Twitter tests an anti-abuse ‘Safety Mode’
The same features that make Twitter an incredibly cool product for some users can also make the experience awful for others, a realization that Twitter has seemingly been very slow to make. Their latest solution is more individual user controls, which Twitter is testing out with a new “safety mode” which pairs algorithmic intelligence with new user inputs.
Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:
Our favorite startups from YC’s Demo Day, Part 1
“Y Combinator kicked off its fourth-ever virtual Demo Day today, revealing the first half of its nearly 400-company batch. The presentation, YC’s biggest yet, offers a snapshot into where innovation is heading, from not-so-simple seaweed to a Clearco for creators….”
All the reasons why you should launch a credit card
“… if your company somehow hasn’t yet found its way to launch a debit or credit card, we have good news: It’s easier than ever to do so and there’s actual money to be made. Just know that if you do, you’ve got plenty of competition and that actual customer usage will probably depend on how sticky your service is and how valuable the rewards are that you offer to your most active users….”
Thanks for reading, and again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny
Market research and insights are often underutilized assets for enterprises but it’s usually too hard to find content and there’s a lot of duplication, or information isn’t used well.
Swedish startup Stravito says it can centralize internal and external data sources and create something more akin to a ‘Spotify or Netflix’ for these kinds of assets, making them far more usable and consumable, they say.
It’s clearly onto something, since it’s now raised a €12.4million ($14.6million USD) series A funding round led by Endeit Capital, with additional investment from existing investors HenQ, Inventure and Creades. To date, Stravito has raised €20.1million ($23.7million USD).
Founded in 2017 by market research veterans and former iZettle employees, Stravito counts among its customers Carlsberg, Edwards Lifesciences, Pepsi Lipton, Danone, Electrolux and Comcast.
Thor Olof Philogène, CEO and co-founder at Stravito said: “It has never been more important for the world’s largest enterprises to understand and react to their customer’s changing behaviors using centralized, vetted company insights. Stravito’s technology and platform makes it fast and easy for companies to use research to make better decisions.”
On a call with me he added: “We provide a search technology, and a great design, all combined to deliver an intuitive, highly automated cloud service that allows these big companies to centralise internal and external data sources so they can pull out the nuggets they need.”
Jelle-Jan Bruinsma, Partner at Endeit Capital, added: “Endeit Capital is always looking for the next generation of international software scale-ups, and Stravito stood out in the Nordics through its impressive work to raise the bar in the multibillion dollar market research and data industry.”
Stravito also appointed Elaine Rodrigo, Chief Insights & Analytics Officer at Reckitt Benckiser, to its board of directors.
Spotify today is officially rolling out its shared playlist feature called Blend to global users, with a few changes. Earlier this summer, Spotify had first launched the new shared playlist experience into beta testing. The feature, which allows two people to combine their favorite songs into one shared playlist, uses the same music mixing technology that powers other multi-person playlists like Spotify’s Family Mix and Duo Mix. However, Blend allows any Spotify user, including both free users and paid subscribers, to merge their musical tastes, too.
The feature has been further developed since its beta release, Spotify says.
Now, users who create a Blend (aka their shared playlist) will get something called a “taste match score” that shows them how similar or different their listening preferences are, when compared with their friends. After the Blend is created for the first time, this taste match score is demonstrated as a percentage and will be accompanied by text that tells users which song brings them together.
Blends will also feature new cover art to help users find their playlists more easily.
Premium subscribers will get an extra perk, as well. On their version of a Blend, listeners will be able to see which of the user’s preferences contributed to each song on the playlist.
Spotify says during tests of Blend, Olivia Rodrigo took the top spot for the most-streamed artist on Blend playlists, followed by others like Doja Cat, Taylor Swift, The Weeknd, and Lil Nas X.
The feature isn’t only meant to be serve a fun addition to Spotify. It’s also a user acquisition strategy. Since free users are able to create or join a Blend, the feature can serve as a way to entice someone to join Spotify for the first time — even if they currently don’t pay for music, or if they subscribe to a rival service. But once they’re in Spotify’s app, they may decide to stay, the thinking goes.
Blend was announced in June alongside a new in-app experience called Only You, which focuses on your favorite music and how you listen — sort of like a mid-year version of Spotify’s popular annual retrospective, Spotify Wrapped. Like Only You, Blend includes support for social sharing. Users will be able to share Blend’s “data stories” across their social channels. This is the screen that pops up immediately after a Blend is created, but can also be accessed from any time within the Blend playlist itself.
You can access Blend from the Made for You hub on Spotify’s mobile app. To get started, you’ll click “Create Blend” then “invite” to select a friend to join your Blend. When the friend accepts, Spotify will create the cover art, tracklists and display your taste match score. You can then click “Share this Story” to post your data story to your social networks.
Blend will begin rolling out to all users worldwide, starting today. Large-scale rollouts can take time, so you don’t see it immediately, just check back later.
Spotify is today opening up access to Podcast Subscriptions to all podcast creators in the U.S., after first launching the service for testing with a smaller number of creators back in April. Through Spotify’s podcast creation tool Anchor, podcasters of all sizes will now able to mark select episodes as subscriber-only content, then publish them to Spotify and other platforms. Since launch, over 100 podcasts have adopted subscriptions, Spotify says. Based on the early feedback from these creators, the company is now making a couple of key changes to both pricing and functionality as the service becomes more broadly available.
Before, creators could choose between one of three price points: either $2.99, $4.99, or $7.99 per month. Creators were able to choose which price point made the most sense for their audience.
But the company learned that creators wanted even more flexibility in pricing, which is why it’s now expanding the number of price points to 20 options, starting as low as $0.49 and then increasing all the way up to $150.
Image Credits: Spotify
Spotify explained that its research found that creators wanted some sense of where to start with pricing, rather than offering a completely open-ended system. That’s why the pricing isn’t something creators today manually enter. Going forward, Spotify will show the three price points that tested well — $0.99, $4.99 and $9.99 — before listing the other 17 options. Of those three, the company told us $4.99 was the best performing.
In addition to the ability to set pricing and gain access to a private RSS feed that can be used by listeners who prefer using a different podcast app, Spotify will now offer podcast creators the ability to download a list of contact addresses for their subscribers. This allows them to further engage with their subscriber base to offer them more benefits, the company notes. It could also be a selling point for creators who would otherwise not want to get on board with a paid subscription offering like this, if it meant losing out on a more direct relationship with their customer.
Image Credits: Spotify
Spotify is not the only service offering paid podcasts. Apple recently announced its own podcast subscription platform. But Spotify’s is currently the more affordable of the two. Apple will take a 30% cut from podcast revenue in year one, dropping to 15% in year two — similar to other subscription apps. Spotify, meanwhile, is keeping its program free for the next two years, meaning that creators keep 100% of revenues until 2023. After that, Spotify plans to take just a 5% cut of subscription revenues.
With this first step into a marketplace model, it’s notable to see Spotify — a staunch Apple critic in the antitrust fight — taking such a small percentage of creator revenues. Spotify has argued for years that Apple’s cut of Spotify’s own subscription business is an anticompetitive practice, especially since Apple is a business rival via its subscription-based Apple Music service, and now, its podcast subscriptions, too.
Today, Spotify hosts a number of subscription-based podcasts, including bigger names like NPR (which is on Apple’s paid podcasts service, too), as well as independent creators like Betches U Up?, Cultivating H.E.R. Space, and Mindful in Minutes. Creators who choose to work with Spotify aren’t locked in — they can share private RSS fees with their customers and publish to other platforms, like Apple Podcasts.
The news of Spotify’s broader launch follows a growing chorus of complaints from podcasters that Apple’s own subscriptions service is off to a rough start. A report from The Verge documented creators’ complaints about bugs, confusing user interfaces, interoperability issues, and more. In the meantime, Spotify claims its waitlist for creators interested in its podcast subscriptions had “thousands” of sign-ups.
The company says it will expand access to international customers soon. Starting on September 15, international listeners will gain access to subscriber-only content. And shortly after, creators will gain access to Podcast Subscriptions, too.
Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.
The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.
Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.
This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.
(Photo Illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Creator platform OnlyFans is getting out of the porn business. The company announced this week it will begin to prohibit any “sexually explicit” content starting on October 1, 2021 — a decision it claimed would ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform. The news angered a number of impacted creators who weren’t notified ahead of time and who’ve come to rely on OnlyFans as their main source of income.
However, word is that OnlyFans was struggling to find outside investors, despite its sizable user base, due to the adult content it hosts. Some VC firms are prohibited from investing in adult content businesses, while others may be concerned over other matters — like how NSFW content could have limited interest from advertisers and brand partners. They may have also worried about OnlyFans’ ability to successfully restrict minors from using the app, in light of what appears to be soon-to-comeincreasedregulations for online businesses. Plus, porn companies face a number of other issues, too. They have to continually ensure they’re not hosting illegal content like child sex abuse material, revenge porn or content from sex trafficking victims — the latter which has led to lawsuits at other large porn companies.
The news followed a big marketing push for OnlyFans’ porn-free (SFW) app, OFTV, which circulated alongside reports that the company was looking to raise funds at a $1 billion+ valuation. OnlyFans may not have technically needed the funding to operate its current business — it handled more than $2 billion in sales in 2020 and keeps 20%. Rather, the company may have seen there’s more opportunity to cater to the “SFW” creator community, now that it has big names like Bella Thorne, Cardi B, Tyga, Tyler Posey, Blac Chyna, Bhad Bhabie and others on board.
U.S. lawmakers demand info on TikTok’s plans for biometric data collection
The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max. Image Credits: Nur Photo/Getty Images
Earlier this month, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Thune (R-SD) sent a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, which said they were “alarmed” by the change, and demanded to know what information TikTok will be collecting and what it plans to do with the data. This wouldn’t be the first time TikTok got in trouble for excessive data collection. Earlier this year, the company paid out $92 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that claimed TikTok had unlawfully collected users’ biometric data and shared it with third parties.
Image Credits: Apple
Apple told developers that some of the features it announced as coming in iOS 15 won’t be available at launch. This includes one of the highlights of the new OS, SharePlay, a feature that lets people share music, videos and their screen over FaceTime calls. Other features that will come in later releases include Wallet’s support for ID cards, the App Privacy report and others that have yet to make it to beta releases.
Apple walked back its controversial Safari changes with the iOS 15 beta 6 update. Apple’s original redesign had shown the address bar at the bottom of the screen, floating atop the page’s content. Now the tab bar will appear below the page’s content, offering access to its usual set of buttons as when it was at the top. Users can also turn off the bottom tab bar now and revert to the old, Single Tab option that puts the address bar back at the top as before.
In response to criticism over its new CSAM detection technology, Apple said the version of NeuralHash that was reverse-engineered by a developer, Asuhariet Ygvar, was a generic version, and not the complete version that will roll out later this year.
The Verge dug through over 800 documents from the Apple-Epic trial to find the best emails,which included dirt on a number of other companies like Netflix, Hulu, Sony, Google, Nintendo, Valve, Microsoft, Amazon and more. These offered details on things like Netflix’s secret arrangement to pay only 15% of revenue, how Microsoft also quietly offers a way for some companies to bypass its full cut, how Apple initially saw the Amazon Appstore as a threat and more.
A beta version of the Android Accessibility Suite app (12.0.0) which rolled out with the fourth Android beta release added something called “Camera Switches” to Switch Access, a toolset that lets you interact with your device without using the touchscreen. Camera Switches allows users to navigate their phone and use its features by making face gestures, like a smile, open mouth, raised eyebrows and more.
Google announced its Pixel 5a with 5G, the latest A-series Pixel phone, will arrive on August 27, offering IP67 water resistance, long-lasting Adaptive Battery, Pixel’s dual-camera system and more, for $449. The phone makes Google’s default Android experience available at a lower price point than the soon to arrive Pixel 6.
An unredacted complaint from the Apple-Epic trial revealed that Google had quietly paid developers hundreds of millions of dollars via a program known as “Project Hug,” (later “Apps and Games Velocity Program”) to keep their games on the Play Store. Epic alleges Google launched the program to keep developers from following its lead by moving their games outside the store.
Snap on Thursday announced it hired its first VP of Platform Partnerships to lead AR, Konstantinos Papamiltiadis (“KP”). The new exec will lead Snap’s efforts to onboard partners, including individual AR creators building via Lens Studio as well as large companies that incorporate Snapchat’s camera and AR technology (Camera Kit) into their apps. KP will join in September, and report to Ben Schwerin, SVP of Content and Partnerships.
Crypto exchange Coinbase will enter the Japanese market through a new partnership with Japanese financial giant Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG). The company said it plans to launch other localized versions of its existing global services in the future.
Image Credits: Facebook
Facebook launched a “test” of Facebook Reels in the U.S. on iOS and Android. The new feature brings the Reels experience to Facebook, allowing users to create and share short-form video content directly within the News Feed or within Facebook Groups. Instagram Reels creators can also now opt in to have their Reels featured on users’ News Feed. The company is heavily investing its its battle with TikTok, even pledging that some portion of its $1 billion creator fund will go toward Facebook Reels.
Twitter’s redesign of its website and app was met with a lot of backlash from users and accessibility experts alike. The company choices add more visual contrast between various elements and may have helped those with low vision. But for others, the contrast is causing strain and headaches. Experts believe accessibility isn’t a one-size fits all situation, and Twitter should have introduced tools that allowed people to adjust their settings to their own needs.
Twitter also tapped crypto developer Jay Graber to head the company’s “bluesky” project, which aims to create a decentralized social media protocol on which a number of networks, including Twitter, will eventually operate. The project will operate independently from Twitter, but is funded by Twitter and run by Twitter employees. Elsewhere, Twitter rolled out a new option that would allow users to report misinformation.
The pro-Trump Twitter alternative Gettr’s lack of moderation has allowed users to share child exploitation images, according to research from the Stanford Internet Observatory’s Cyber Policy Center.
Pinterest rolled out a new set of more inclusive search filters that allow people to find styles for different types of hair textures — like coily, curly, wavy, straight, as well as shaved or bald and protective styles.
Photoshop for iPad gained new image correction tools, including the Healing Brush and Magic Wand, and added support for connecting an iPad to external monitors via HDMI or USB-C. The company also launched a Photoshop Beta program on the desktop.
WhatsApp is being adopted by the Taliban to spread its message across Afghanistan, despite being on Facebook’s list of banned organizations. The company says it’s proactively removing Taliban content — but that may be difficult to do since WhatsApp’s E2E encryption means it can’t read people’s texts. This week, Facebook shut down a Taliban helpline in Kabul, which allowed civilians to report violence and looting, but some critics said this wasn’t actually helping local Afghans, as the group was now in effect governing the region.
WhatsApp is also testing a new feature that will show a large preview when sharing links, which some suspect may launch around the time when the app adds the ability to have the same account running on multiple devices.
Streaming & Entertainment
Netflix announced it’s adding spatial audio support on iPhone and iPad on iOS 14, joining other streamers like HBO Max, Disney+ and Peacock that have already pledged to support the new technology. The feature will be available to toggle on and off in the Control Center, when it arrives.
Blockchain-powered streaming music service Audius partnered with TikTok to allow artists to upload their songs using TikTok’s new SoundKit in just one click.
YouTube’s mobile app added new functionality that allows users to browse a video’s chapters, and jump into the chapter they want directly from the search page.
Spotify’s Anchor app now allows users in global markets to record “Music + Talk” podcasts, where users can combine spoken word recordings with any track from Spotify’s library of 70 million songs for a radio DJ-like experience.
Podcasters are complaining that Apple’s revamped Podcasts platform is not working well,reports The Verge. Podcasts Connect has been buggy, and sports a confusing interface that has led to serious user errors (like entire shows being archived). And listeners have complained about syncing problems and podcasts they already heard flooding their libraries.
Tinder announced a new feature that will allow users to voluntarily verify their identity on the platform, which will allow the company to cross-reference sex offender registry data. Previously, Tinder would only check this database when a user signed up for a paid subscription with a credit card.
Pokémon Unite will come to iOS and Android on September 22, The Pokémon Company announced during a livestream this week. The strategic battle game first launched on Nintendo Switch in late July.
Developer Konami announced a new game, Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls, which will come exclusively to Apple Arcade. The game is described as a “full-fledged side-scrolling action game,” featuring a roster of iconic characters from the classic game series. The company last year released another version of Castelvania on the App Store and Google Play.
Dragon Ball Z: Dokkan Battle has now surpassed $3 billion in player spending since its 2015 debut,reported Sensor Tower. The game from Bandai Namco took 20 months to reach the figure after hitting the $2 billion milestone in 2019. The new landmark sees the game joining other top-grossers, including Clash Royale, Lineage M and others.
Sensor Tower’s mobile gaming advertising report revealed data on top ad networks in the mobile gaming market, and their market share. It also found puzzle games were among the top advertisers on gaming-focused networks like Chartboost, Unity, IronSource and Vungle. On less game-focused networks, mid-core games were top titles, like Call of Duty: Mobile and Top War.
Image Credits: Sensor Tower
Health & Fitness
Apple is reportedly scaling back HealthHabit, an internal app for Apple employees that allowed them to track fitness goals, talk to clinicians and coaches at AC Wellness (a doctors’ group Apple works with) and manage hypertension. According to Insider, 50 employees had been tasked to work on the project.
Samsung launched a new product for Galaxy smartphones in partnership with healthcare nonprofit The Commons Project, that allows U.S. users to save a verifiable copy of their vaccination card in the Samsung Pay digital wallet.
China cited 43 apps, including Tencent’s WeChat and an e-reader from Alibaba, for illegally transferring user data. The regulator said the apps had transferred users location data and contact list and harassed them with pop-up windows. The apps have until August 25 to make changes before being punished.
Security & Privacy
A VICE report reveals a fascinating story about a jailbreaking community member who had served as a double agent by spying for Apple’s security team. Andrey Shumeyko, whose online handles included JVHResearch and YRH04E, would advertise leaked apps, manuals and stolen devices on Twitter and Discord. He would then tell Apple things like which Apple employees were leaking confidential info, which reporters would talk to leakers, who sold stolen iPhone prototypes and more. Shumeyko decided to share his story because he felt Apple took advantage of him and didn’t compensate him for the work.
Gaming platform Roblox acquired a Discord rival, Guilded, which allows users to have text and voice conversations, organize communities around events and calendars and more. Deal terms were not disclosed. Guilded raised $10.2 million in venture funding. Roblox’s stock fell by 7% after the company reported earnings this week, after failing to meet Wall Street expectations.
Travel app Hopper raised $175 million in a Series G round of funding led by GPI Capital, valuing the business at over $3.5 billion. The company raised a similar amount just last year, but is now benefiting from renewed growth in travel following COVID-19 vaccinations and lifting restrictions.
Indian quiz app maker Zupee raised $30 million in a Series B round of funding led by Silicon Valley-based WestCap Group and Tomales Bay Capital. The round values the company at $500 million, up 5x from last year.
Danggeun Market, the publisher of South Korea’s hyperlocal community app Karrot, raised $162 million in a Series D round of funding led by DST Global. The round values the business at $2.7 billion and will be used to help the company launch its own payments platform, Karrot Pay.
Bangalore-based fintech app Smallcase raised $40 million in Series C funding round led by Faering Capital and Premji Invest, with participation from existing investors, as well as Amazon. The Robinhood-like app has over 3 million users who are transacting about $2.5 billion per year.
Social listening app Earbuds raised $3 million in Series A funding led by Ecliptic Capital. Founded by NFL star Jason Fox, the app lets anyone share their favorite playlists, livestream music like a DJ or comment on others’ music picks.
U.S. neobank app One raised $40 million in Series B funding led by Progressive Investment Company (the insurance giant’s investment arm), bringing its total raise to date to $66 million. The app offers all-in-one banking services and budgeting tools aimed at middle-income households who manage their finances on a weekly basis.
Indian travel booking app ixigo is looking to raise Rs 1,600 crore in its initial public offering, The Economic Times reported this week.
Trading app Robinhood disappointed in its first quarterly earnings as a publicly traded company, when it posted a net loss of $502 million, or $2.16 per share, larger than Wall Street forecasts. This overshadowed its beat on revenue ($565 million versus $521.8 million expected) and its more than doubling of MAUs to 21.3 million in Q2. Also of note, the company said dogecoin made up 62% of its crypto revenue in Q2.
Image Credits: Polycam
3D scanning software maker Polycam launched a new 3D capture tool, Photo Mode, that allows iPhone and iPad users to capture professional-quality 3D models with just an iPhone. While the app’s scanner before had required the use of the lidar sensor built into newer devices like the iPhone 12 Pro and iPad Pro models, the new Photo Mode feature uses just an iPhone’s camera. The resulting 3D assets are ready to use in a variety of applications, including 3D art, gaming, AR/VR and e-commerce. Data export is available in over a dozen file formats, including .obj, .gtlf, .usdz and others. The app is a free download on the App Store, with in-app purchases available.
Jiobit, the tracking dongle acquired by family safety and communication app Life360, this week partnered with emergency response service Noonlight to offer Jiobit Protect, a premium add-on that offers Jiobit users access to an SOS Mode and Alert Button that work with the Jiobit mobile app. SOS Mode can be triggered by a child’s caregiver when they detect — through notifications from the Jiobit app — that a loved one may be in danger. They can then reach Noonlight’s dispatcher who can facilitate a call to 911 and provide the exact location of the person wearing the Jiobit device, as well as share other details, like allergies or special needs, for example.
When your app redesign goes wrong…
Image Credits: Twitter.com
Prominent App Store critic Kosta Eleftheriou shut down his FlickType iOS app this week after too many frustrations with App Review. He cited rejections that incorrectly argued that his app required more access than it did — something he had successfully appealed and overturned years ago. Attempted follow-ups with Apple were ignored, he said.
Music streaming service Spotify today said it will spend up to $1 billion between now and April 21, 2026 to repurchase its own shares. The dollar amount represents just under 2.5% of Spotify’s market cap, with the company valued at $41.06 billion this morning as its shares rose 5.1% following the repurchase news.
A public company using some of its cash to repurchase its shares is nothing new. Many public companies, including Apple, Alphabet, and Microsoft, have active share repurchase programs, and it is common to see mature or nearly-mature companies devoting a fraction of their balance sheet or a regular percentage of their free cash flow to buying back their own equity.
The goal of such efforts is to return cash to shareholders. Buybacks, along with dividends, are among the key ways that companies can use their wealth to reward shareholders. Also, by buying their own stock, companies can boost the value of their individual shares. By limiting the shares in circulation, the company’s share count declines and the value of each share consequently rises, in theory, as it represents a larger fraction of ownership in the corporation.
Spotify shares have traded as high as $387.44 apiece in the past 12 months, but are now worth just $215.84, inclusive of today’s gains. From that perspective, seeing Spotify decide to deploy some cash to repurchase its own equity makes sense — the company is buying low.
But if you ask a recently public company what it intends to do with its excess cash, buybacks are not usually the answer. For example, TechCrunch asked Root Insurance CEO Alex Timm if his company intended to use cash reserves to purchase its own equity after its recent Q2 2021 earnings report. Root’s share price has declined in recent months, perhaps making it an attractive time to reward shareholders through buybacks. Timm demurred on the idea, saying instead that his company is building for the long-term. That translates to: That cash is earmarked for growth, not shareholder return.
But isn’t Spotify still a growth company? It certainly isn’t valued on the weight of its profits. In the first half of 2021, for example, Spotify posted net profit of a mere €3 million on revenues of €4.5 billion.
If Spotify is still a growth-focused company, shouldn’t it preserve its capital to invest in exclusive podcasts and the like — efforts that may grant it pricing power in the future and allow for stronger revenue growth and gross margins over time?
To answer that, we’ll have to check the company’s balance sheet. From its Q2 2021 earnings, here are the key numbers:
Spotify closed out the second quarter with “€3.1 billion in cash and cash equivalents, restricted cash, and short term investments.”
And in the second quarter, Spotify generated free cash flow of €34 million. That figure was up €7 million from a year earlier despite “higher working capital needs arising from select licensor payments (delayed from Q1), podcast-related payments, and higher ad-receivables”.
More simply, despite paying up for efforts that are generally understood to be key to Spotify’s long-term ability to improve its gross margins — and therefore its net profitability — the company is still throwing off cash. And with a huge bank account earning little, thanks to globally low prices for cash and equivalent holdings, Spotify is using a chunk of its funds to buy back stock.
By spending $1 billion over the next few years, Spotify won’t materially harm its cash position. Indeed, it will remain incredibly cash-rich. However, the move may help defend its valuation and keep itchy investors happy. Moreover, as the company is buying its stock at a firm discount to where the market valued it recently, it could get something akin to a deal, given Spotify’s long-term faith in the value of its own business.
Perhaps the better question as this juncture is not whether Spotify is a weird company for deciding to break off a piece of its wealth for shareholders, but instead why we aren’t seeing other breakeven-ish tech companies with neutral cash flows and fat accounts doing the same.
Most startup origin stories don’t begin on an NFL field, but that’s where founder, CEO and offensive tackle Jason Fox conceptualized the idea behind Earbuds. As he watched first overall draft pick Cam Newton warm up before a game in 2011, dancing to music, Fox couldn’t help but wonder what the future NFL MVP was listening to — and he bet that the crowd of 85,000 fans were curious too.
Ten years later, Earbuds has raised a $3 million Series A round for its social listening app, led by Ecliptic Capital with additional investment from the Andre Agassi Foundation and LFG Ventures.
Since its launch in 2019, Earbuds has allowed users — whether they’re famous artists, NFL stars or ordinary people — to share their favorite playlists, livestream music like a DJ and comment on other people’s music picks. Some notable figures on the app include the artist Nelly and professional quarterbacks like Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes, the highest-paid player in the NFL. Mayfield and Mahomes are also investors in the app.
With this recent raise, Fox and his team of six plan to expand the app to add creator monetization tools, incentivizing people to use the app. Plus, Earbuds also announced that it hired two former product and engineering leaders from Apple, David Ransom and Sean Moubry, who joined Earbuds as head of Product and head of Engineering, respectively. Tech veteran Drew Larner also came aboard as a senior advisor and investor — in 2015, he sold the streaming app Rdio to Pandora. Pandora was then sold to Sirius XM for $3.5 billion in 2018.
Image Credits: Earbuds’ interface allows users to search for athlete accounts/Earbuds.
To use Earbuds, users must have a paid account on Spotify or Apple Music. Soon, Fox says, Earbuds should have integrations with paid versions of Amazon Music and Pandora, too. These integrations are how the app, available on both iOS and Android, is able to source music for streaming. But regardless of which platform a listener uses, they can still take advantage of the social features on Earbuds, listening along to live playlists and commenting along with other listeners.
When you connect your account, you’re able to easily import your existing playlists. Then, on the app, you can add voice clips to comment on your song choices. When listening to a stream, users have the option to save the playlist to their streaming service or share it as an Instagram story.
Fox declined to share monthly active user numbers, but expressed confidence that soliciting users from other streaming platforms’ existing subscriber base won’t be a big hurdle for user acquisition; when it comes to paid streaming music subscribers, Spotify has 165 million users, Apple Music has at least 60 million and Amazon music has at least 55 million.
“We want to continue to add additional streaming partners to accommodate everyone. We want to connect with all users regardless of what platform they use,” Fox said.
Image Credits: Earbuds founder and CEO Jason Fox/Earbuds.
Fox wants more musical artists to use the app, but given his background as an NFL player, much of the company’s existing marketing has been targeted toward athletes and sports fans — a particularly interesting potential market for Earbuds is NCAA athletes, who are newly able to monetize their image and likeness.
“You’ve got the quarterback before the big rivalry game, and they want to be able to monetize the fans while they’re listening to music and getting amped up with them before the game,” Fox explained.
Since these monetization tools haven’t rolled out yet, there’s currently no in-app purchases available on Earbuds. This would give Earbuds, which isn’t yet profitable, another income stream. So far, the app has made money through in-app sponsored posts from partners like the NBA, the NFL playoffs, smart speaker companies and beverage companies.
“We can continue to do that, but we feel like the majority of growth and revenue moving forward will be through partnerships, integrations and supporting the creator economy,” Fox said. Currently, Earbuds has a partnership with Apple Music, so if someone subscribes to the platform via Earbuds, Earbuds gets a cut of their subscription payment.
As streaming services like Spotify grow, social listening apps like Earbuds are emerging too. Spotify itself has rolled out more social listening features lately, including a Music + Talk platform similar to Earbuds’ existing offerings.
Twitter is rolling out changes its newly rebuilt API that will allow third-party developers to build tools and other solutions specifically for its audio chatroom product, Twitter Spaces. The company today announced it’s shipping new endpoints to support Spaces on the Twitter API v2, with the initial focus on enabling discovery of live or scheduled Spaces. This may later be followed by an API update that will make it possible for developers to build out more tools for Spaces’ hosts.
The company first introduced its fully rebuilt API last year, with the goal of modernizing its developer platform while also making it easier to add support for Twitter’s newer features at a faster pace. The new support for Twitter Spaces in the API is one example of that plan now being put into action.
With the current API update, Twitter hopes developers will build new products that enable users — both on and off Twitter — to find Twitter Spaces more easily, the company says. This could potentially broaden the reach of Spaces and introduce its audio chats to more people, which could give Twitter a leg up in the increasingly competitive landscape for audio-based social networking. Today, Twitter Spaces isn’t only taking on Clubhouse, but also the audio chat experiences being offered by Facebook, Discord, Reddit, Public.com, Spotify, and smaller social apps.
According to Twitter, developers will gain access to two new endpoints, Spaces lookup and Spaces search, which allow them to lookup live and scheduled Spaces using specific criteria — like the Spaces ID, user ID, or keywords. The Spaces lookup endpoint also offers a way to begin to understand the public metadata and metrics associated with a Space, like the participant count, speaker count, host profile information, detected language being used, start time, scheduled start time, creation time, status, and whether the Space is ticketed or not, Twitter tells us.
To chose what Spaces functionality to build into its API first, Twitter says it spoke to developers who told the company they wanted functionality that could help people discover Spaces they may find interesting and set reminders for attending. Developers said they also want to build tools that would allow Spaces hosts to better understand how well their audio chats are performing. But most of these options are yet available with today’s API update. Twitter only said it’s “exploring” other functionality — like tools that would allow developers to integrate reminders into their products, as well as those that would be able to surface certain metrics fields available in the API or allow developers to build analytics dashboards.
These ideas for other endpoints haven’t yet gained a spot on Twitter’s Developer Platform Roadmap, either.
Twitter also told us it’s not working on any API endpoints that would allow developers to build standalone client apps for Twitter Spaces, as that’s not something it heard interest in from its developer community.
Several developers have been participating in a weekly Spaces hosted by Daniele Bernardi from Twitter’s Spaces team, and were already clued in to coming updates. Developers with access to the v2 API will be able to begin building with the new endpoints starting today, but none have new experiences ready to launch at this time. Twitter notes Bernardi will also host another Spaces event today at 12 PM PT to talk in more detail about the API update and what’s still to come.
Last fall, Spotify introduced a new format that combined spoken word commentary with music, allowing creators to reproduce the radio-like experience of listening to a DJ or music journalist who shared their perspective on the tracks they would then play. Today, the company is making the format, which it calls “Music + Talk,” available to global creators through its podcasting software Anchor.
Creators who want to offer this sort of blended audio experience can now do so by using the new “Music” tool in Anchor, which provides access to Spotify’s full catalog of 70 million tracks that they can insert into their spoken-word audio programs. Spotify has said this new type of show will continue to compensate the artist when the track is streamed, the same as it would elsewhere on Spotify’s platform. In addition, users can also interact with the music content within the shows as they would otherwise — by liking the song, viewing more information about the track, saving the song, or sharing it, for example.
The shows themselves, meanwhile, will be available to both free and Premium Spotify listeners. Paying subscribers will hear the full tracks when listening to these shows, but free users will only hear a 30-second preview of the songs, due to licensing rights.
The format is somewhat reminiscent of Pandora’s Stories, which was also a combination of music and podcasting, introduced in 2019. However, in Pandora’s case, the focus had been on allowing artists to add their own commentary to music — like talking about the inspiration for a song — while Spotify is making it possible for anyone to annotate their favorite playlists with audio commentary.
Since launching last year, the product has been tweaked somewhat in response to user feedback, Spotify says. The shows now offer clearer visual distinction between the music and talk segments during an episode, and they include music previews on episode pages.
The ability to create Music + Talk shows was previously available in select markets ahead of this global rollout, including in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.
With the expansion, creators in a number of other major markets are now gaining access, including Japan, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Colombia. Alongside the expansion, Spotify’s catalog of Music + Talk original programs will also grow today, as new shows from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, India, Japan, and the Philippines will be added.
Spotify will also begin to more heavily market the feature with the launch of its own Spotify Original called “Music + Talk: Unlocked,” which will offer tips and ideas for creators interested in trying out the format.
Eric Crowley is executive director in the San Francisco office of global investment bank GP Bullhound.
The pandemic has been extremely painful for many. But as lockdowns lifted and people began resuming their outdoor hobbies, mobile-first businesses have seen growth accelerate as consumers turned to digital tools to improve their time outdoors.
The Dyrt, for example, is the top camping app on the Apple and Google Play App Stores. The app sits at the confluence of two trends: An increased interest in outdoor recreation and travel, and an explosion in consumer subscription software (CSS).
The Dyrt launched its premium offering in 2019, The Dyrt PRO, in time to take advantage of the rising number of Americans making the great outdoors part of their lifestyle. A year later, it had a new subscriber every two minutes paying for features like offline maps and detailed camping information.
CSS businesses at the forefront of outdoor activities have closed major deals in recent years such as hunting app OnX (Summit Partners), hiking app Alltrails (Spectrum Equity), Surfline (The Chernin Group) and mountain bike leader Pinkbike (Outside Media). Companies like Netflix and Spotify have trained consumers to pay monthly or annual fees for software that enhances their lives, creating a business model investors view as reliable and poised for growth.
I think of different outdoor activities almost like individual genres on Netflix. Dominating camping or surfing might be like capturing the streaming market for comedy or horror.
Fitness and the outdoor passion space is one of the most exciting CSS categories in a growing landscape that includes everything from family planning/management services to entertainment and education. I believe CSS is still in the early stages of its growth — perhaps where B2B SaaS was a decade ago.
So what sets apart the great CSS businesses from the good ones?
Passion equals profits on the CSS flywheel
The beauty of the CSS model is the complete alignment between the business and its customers. CSS companies don’t have to please advertisers, and they can design purely for their users.
This dynamic is particularly powerful for CSS companies in the outdoors space, which make your favorite outdoor activity better with performance analytics and enhanced information such as maps, reviews, air quality reports and fire warnings. Consumers are happy to spend money on the activities and hobbies they enjoy, and CSS companies are able to make pleasing those consumers their top priority.
The result is what I call the CSS flywheel, in which a quality CSS product attracts and retains loyal users. Those users contribute their data through posts, photos and reviews, which creates a better product that further attracts new users, and so on.
The CSS flywheel shows the cycle that results when a quality CSS product attracts and retains loyal users. Image Credits: GP Bullhound
When companies get this flywheel right, it’s incredibly appealing to investors, because of the advantages of scale in CSS. Each niche will probably be dominated by one or two players, and a given niche can have tens of millions of consumers.
News is vital to society, but it’s also incredibly expensive to produce. As ad rates have suffered across the industry (minus a positive blip this summer), publishers have increasingly turned to paywalls to make ends meet. There’s just one problem: the open internet which allowed readers to range over the entire thought of humanity has transformed into row after row of walled gardens locked down by angry sentries. The subscription hell I talked about three years ago has indeed only accelerated.
Fixing hell is going to take some doing, but three veterans of news and media in Europe are ready to take a crack at it.
Benjamin Mateev, Martin Kaelble, and Axel Bard Bringéus have come together to launch informed. (official branding: no caps, mandatory period). The Berlin-based startup wants to be a layer on top of prominent paywalled news services, connecting readers with curated “playlists” of news and opinion stories called Read Lists and augmented with an original summary. The company was founded in January, is currently in beta, and has raised a “significant pre-seed by modern standards” from local shop 468 Capital.
What’s interesting here is the team. Bringéus previously spent six years at Spotify where he ultimately worked as global head of markets during the company’s rapid overseas expansion. He has most recently been a deal partner at prominent European firm EQT Ventures. Meanwhile, Mateev was a lead engineer on to-do list platform Wunderlist through its Microsoft acquisition and head of product at opinion news site The European, and Kaelble has been a long-time business journalist at places like Capital.
informed.’s founders Martin Kaelble, Benjamin Mateev, and Axel Bard Bringéus. Image Credits: informed.
The trio, who have seen success in their varied careers, took a step back to explore how they could fix the varied challenges of the news industry circle 2021. They did “diary studies” where they asked people to track what they read in the news, ran surveys across thousands of people, and also talked to media executives and investors.
They found that paywalls have been mostly successful the past few years for media companies, but that growth is flagging as core readers have purchased subscriptions. “Almost all publishers post-COVID and post-Trump have hit a wall with their paywall strategies,” Bringéus said. “Many were able to monetize their content directly in their core geo, so they are very open to working with non-cannibalizing third parties like us.”
Simultaneously, young readers in the Gen Z crowd increasingly want to peruse quality news, but lack the means to pay the exorbitant subscription fees at some of the most prestigious sites. “They want to read but financially they can’t afford [it],” Mateev put it. I asked somewhat skeptically whether our illustrious progeny actually want to read quality news over viral TikToks, but Mateev said the evidence pointed strongly to yes. “That’s where the interesting thing lies … the old publishers do have a lot of good standing with the younger audience,” he said.
Informed, which is working with the Washington Post, The Economist, Financial Times, and Bloomberg, will group articles from those sources among others onto Read Lists, while adding its own news summary to the event. For example, you could imagine today that the platform would have a Read List on Afghanistan that would include breaking news stories from the Kabul airport as well as a curated selection of deeper-dives and opinion pieces that talk about the history and perspective of the crisis in the Central Asian nation. “You can snack or you can eat if you want to,” Bringéus said of the design.
He noted that while there are similarities with Spotify playlists, a subject with which he is very familiar, news doesn’t have the same properties as music. “In news, you don’t need all the news and it is perishable, [so] you want to cluster it,” he said.
informed.’s logo and branding design. Image Credits: informed.
The company will launch its mobile-first product later this year, although you can sign up for the beta test today. Ultimately, the company is looking to pursue a freemium model with all the licensed content behind the paywall, while its own news summaries will be free. The team is testing pricing and hasn’t determined a launch price at this time.
It’s a bold initiative in a space riven with the tombstones of past startups and even larger corporate initiatives such as Apple News+, which has mostly failed to gain traction despite owning a foothold on every iOS device. That harrowing history aside, the hope here is that the timing is propitious: a new generation of news readers are clamoring for quality, and publishers are ready to let go of some control over their audience in exchange for growth in the post-Trump news landscape. If it succeeds, it’d definitely be front-page news.
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.