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This Week in Apps: Parler deplatformed, alt apps rise, looking back at 2020 trends

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

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.

Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

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

Top Stories

The right-wing gets deplatformed

Last weekend, Google and Apple removed Parler from their respective app stores, the latter after first giving the app 24 hours to come up with a new moderation strategy to address the threats of violence and illegal activity taking place on the app in the wake of the Capitol riot. When Parler failed to take adequate measures, the app was pulled down.

What happened afterwards was unprecedented. All of Parler’s technology backend services providers pulled support for Parler, too, including Amazon AWS (which has led to a lawsuit), Stripe and even Okta, which Parler was only using as a free trial. Other vendors also refused to do business with the app, potentially ending its ability to operate for good.

But although Parler is down, its data lives on. Several efforts have been made to archive Parler data for posterity — and for tipping off the FBI. Gizmodo made a map using the GPS data of 70,000 Parler posts. Another effort, Y’all Qaeda, is also using location data to map videos from Parler to locations around the Capitol building.

These visualizations are possible because the data itself was quickly archived by internet archivist @donk_enby before Parler was taken down, and because Parler stored rich metadata with each user’s post. That means each user’s precise location was recorded when they uploaded their photos and videos to the app.

It’s a gold mine for investigators and a further indication of the privilege these rioters believed they had to avoid prosecution or the extent to which they were willing to throw their life away for their cause — the false reality painted for them by Trump, his allies and other outlets that repeated the “big lie” until they truly believed only a revolution could save our democracy.

The move to kick Parler offline followed the broader deplatforming of Trump, who’s accused of inciting the violence, in part by his refusal to concede and his continued lies about a “rigged election.” As a result, Trump has been deplatformed across social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitch, YouTube, Reddit, Discord and Snapchat, while e-commerce platform Shopify kicked out Trump merch shops and PayPal refused to process transactions for some groups of Trump supporters.

Alternative social apps post gains following Capitol riot

Parler was the most high-profile app used by the Capitol rioters, but others found themselves compromised by the same crowd. Walkie-talkie app Zello, for instance, was used by some insurrectionists during the January 6 riot to communicate. Telegram, meanwhile, recently had to block dozens of hardcore hate channels that were threatening violence, including those led by Nazis (which were reported for years with no action by the company, some claim).

Now, many in the radical right are moving to new platforms outside of the mainstream. Immediately following the Capitol riot, MeWe, CloutHub and other privacy-focused rivals to big tech began topping the app stores, alongside the privacy-focused messengers Signal and Telegram. YouTube alternative Rumble also gained ground due to recent events. Right-wingers even mistakenly downloaded the wrong “Parlor” app and a local newspaper app they thought was the uncensored social network Gab. (They’re not always the brightest bulbs.)

This could soon prove to be another difficult situation for the platforms to address, as we already came across highly concerning posts distributed on MeWe, which had used extreme hate speech or threatened violence. MeWe claims it moderates its content, but its recent growth to now 15 million users may be making that difficult — especially since it’s inheriting the former Parler users, including the radical far-right. The company has not been able to properly moderate the content, which may make it the next to be gone.

2020 annual review

App Annie this week released its annual review of the mobile app industry finding (as noted above) that mobile app downloads grew by 7% year-over-year to a record 218 billion in 2020. Consumer spending also grew by 20% to also hit a new milestone of $143 billion, led by markets that included China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom. Consumers spent 3.5 trillion minutes on Android devices in 2020. Meanwhile, U.S. users now spend more time in apps (four hours) than watching live TV (3.7 hours).

The full report examines other key trends across social, gaming, finance, e-commerce, video and streaming, mobile food ordering, business apps, edtech and much more. We pulled out some highlights here, such as TikTok’s chart-topping year by downloads, the rise in livestreamed and social shopping, consumers spending 40% more time streaming on mobile YoY and other key trends.

Sensor Tower also released its own annual report, which specifically explored the impact of COVID-19; the growth in business apps, led by Zoom; mobile gaming; and the slow recovery of travel apps, among other things.

Samsung reveals its new flagships

Image Credits: Samsung

Though not “apps” news per se, it’s worth making note of what’s next in the Android ecosystem of high-end devices. This week was Samsung’s Unpacked press event, where the company revealed its latest flagship devices and other products. The big news was Samsung’s three new phones and their now lower prices: the glass-backed Galaxy S21 ($799) and S21 Plus ($999), and the S21 Ultra ($1,199), which is S Pen compatible.

The now more streamlined camera systems are the key feature of the new phones, and include:

  • S21 and S21 Plus: A 12-megapixel ultrawide, 12-megapixel wide and 64-megapixel telephoto with 30x space zoom.
  • S21 Ultra: A 12-megapixel ultra-wide, 108-megapixel wide and, for the first time, a dual-telephoto lens system with 3x and 10x optical zoom. The Ultra also improves low-light shooting with its Bright Night sensor.

The devices support UWB and there’s a wild AI-powered photo feature that lets you tap to remove people from the background of your photos. (How well it works is TBD). Other software imaging updates allow you to pull stills from 8K shooting, better image stabilization and a new “Vlogger view” for shooting from front and back cameras as the same time.

Also launched were Samsung’s AirPods rival, the Galaxy Buds Pro, and its Tile rival, the Galaxy SmartTag.

 

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

  • Apple releases second iOS 14.2 developer beta. The update brings improvements to the HomePod mini handoff experience and an update to the Find My app to ready it for supporting third-party accessories.
  • Apple will soon allow third-parties to join the Find My app ahead of its AirTags launch. Tile had argued before regulators last year that Apple was giving itself first-party advantage with AirTags in Find My. Apple subsequently launched the Find My Accessory Program to begin certifying third-party products. AirTags’ existence was also leaked again this week.
  • Apple is working to bring its Music and Podcasts apps to the Microsoft Store.
  • Apple may be working on a podcast subscription service, per The Information.

Platforms: Google

  • Google appears to be working on an app hibernation feature for Android 12. The feature would hibernate unused apps to free up space.
  • Google pulls several personal loan apps from the Play Store in India. The company said several of the apps had been targeting vulnerable borrowers, then abusing them and using other extreme tactics when they couldn’t pay. Critics say Google took too long to respond to the outcry, which has already prompted suicides. Police have also frozen bank accounts holding $58 million for alleged scams conducted through 30 apps, none of which had approval from India’s central bank.

Gaming

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

  • 48,000 mobile games were purged from the China App Store in December 2020, reports Sensor Tower. The games removed in 2020 for not having acquired the proper Chinese gaming license, had generated nearly $3 billion in lifetime revenue.
  • The top grossing mobile game in December 2020 was Honor of Kings with $258 million in player spending, up 58% year-over-year, according to Sensor Tower. PUBG Mobile was No. 2. followed by Genshin Impact.
  • Among Us was the most downloaded mobile game in December 2020, per Apptopia. with an estimated 48 million new downloads in the month, most through Google Play.
  • Epic Games demands Fortnite to be reinstated on the App Store, in a U.K. legal filing. The game maker is engaged in multiple lawsuits over the “Apple tax.”

Security

  • Amazon’s Ring app exposed users’ home addresses. Amazon says there’s no evidence the security flaw had been exploited by anyone.
  • New research details how law enforcements gets into iOS and Android smartphones and cloud backups of their data.

Privacy

  • Signal’s Brian Acton says recent outrage over WhatsApp’s terms are driving installs of the private messaging app. Third-party data indicates Signal has around 20 million MAUs as of December 2020. The app also saw a surge due to the U.S. Capitol riots, with 7.5 million downloads from January 6-10.
  • Telegram user base in India was up 110% in 2020. The app now has 115 million MAUs in India, which could allow it to better compete with WhatsApp.
  • Privacy concerns are also driving sign-ups for encrypted email providers, ProtonMail and Tutanota. The former reports a 3x rise in recent weeks, while the latter said usage has doubled size WhatsApp released its new T&Cs.
  • FTC settled with period-tracking app Flo for sharing user health data with third-party analytics and marketing services, when it had promised to keep data private. The app must now obtain user consent and will be subject to an independent review of its practices.
  • FTC settled with Ever, the maker of a photo storage app that had pivoted to selling facial recognition services. The company used the photos it collected to train facial recognition algorithms. It’s been order to delete that data and all face embeddings derived from photos without user consent.
  • Muslim prayer app Salaat First (Prayer Times) was found to be recording and selling user location info to a data broker. The firm collecting the data had been linked to a supply chain that involved a U.S. government contractor who worked with ICE, Customs and Border Protection, and the FBI.
  • TikTok changed the privacy settings and defaults for users under 18. Children 13-15 will have private accounts by default. Other restrictions apply on features like commenting, Dueting, Stitching and more for all under 18. TikTok also partnered with Common Sense Networks to help it curate age-appropriate content for users under 13.

Government & Policy

  • Italy’s data protection agency, the GPDP, said it contacted the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) to raise concerns over WhatsApp’s requirement for users to accept its updated T&Cs to continue to use the service. The law requires that users are informed of each specific use of their data and given a choice as to whether their data is processed. The new in-app notification doesn’t make the changes clear nor allow that option.
  • Turkey starts an antitrust investigation into Facebook and WhatsApp. The investigation was prompted by WhatsApp’s new Terms of Service, effective February 8, which allows data sharing with Facebook.
  • WhatsApp then delayed its T&C changes, as a result.

Health & Fitness

  • Google this week fixed an issue with its Android Exposure Notification System that’s used by COVID-19 tracking apps. The impacted apps took longer to load and carry out their exposure checks.

Edtech

  • Amazon makes an education push in India with JEE preparation app. The company launched Amazon Academy, a service that will help students in India prepare for the Joint Entrance Examinations (JEE), a government-backed entrance assessment for admission into various engineering colleges.

Funding and M&A (and IPOs)

  • PayPal acquired the 30% stake it didn’t already own in China’s GoPay, making it the first foreign firm in China with full ownership of its payments business.
  • Therapy app Talkspace will go public through a $1.4 billion merger with SPAC Hudson Executive Investment Corp.
  • Snap acquired location data startup StreetCred. The team will join the company and work on maps and location-related products for Snapchat.
  • BlaBla raised $1.5 million for its language-learning app that teaches English using TikTok-like videos. The startup, a participant in Y Combinator’s 2020 summer batch, had previously applied to YC seven times. Other investors include Amino Capital, Starling Ventures and Wayra X.
  • Poshmark, the online and mobile app for reselling clothing, IPO’d and closed up more than 140% on day one.
  • Dating app Bumble also filed to go public. The company claims 42 million MAUs, with 2.4 million paying users through the first nine months of 2020. It lost $117 million on $417 million in revenue during that time.
  • Blog platform Medium acquired Paris-based Glose, a mobile app that lets you buy and read books on mobile devices.
  • Indonesian investment app Ajaib raised $25 million Series A led by Horizons Venture and Alpha JWC. Inspired by Robinhood, the app offers low-fee stock trading and access to mutual funds.
  • Mailchimp acquired Chatitive, a B2B messaging startup that helps businesses reach customers over text messages.
  • Chinese fitness app Keep raised $360 million Series F led by SoftBank Vision Fund. The six-year-old startup that allows fitness influencers to host live classes over video is now valued at $2 billion.
  • Google finalized Fitbit acquisition. Google confirmed it will allow Fitbit users to continue to connect with third-party services and said the health data will be kept separate and not used for ads.
  • On-demand U.K. supermarket Weezy raised $20 million Series A for its Postmates-like app that delivers groceries in as fast as 15 minutes, on average.

Downloads

Bandsintown

COVID has cancelled concerts, which required Bandsintown to pivot from helping people find shows to attend to a new subscription service for live music. The company this week launched Bandsintown Plus, a $9.99 per month pass that gives users access to more than 25 concerts per month. The shows offered are exclusive to the platform, and not available on other sites like YouTube, Twitch, Apple Music or Spotify.

Piñata Farms

Image Credits: Piñata Farms

This new social video app lets you put anyone or anything into an existing video to make humorous video memes. The computer vision-powered app lets you do things like crop out a head from a photo, for example, or use thousands of in-app items to add to your existing video. The resulting creations can be shared in the app, privately through messaging or out to other social platforms. Available on iOS only.

Capture App

Image Credits: Numbers Protocol

This new blockchain camera app, reviewed here on TechCrunch, uses tech commercialized by the Taiwan-based startup, Numbers Protocol. The app secures the metadata associated with photos you take on the blockchain, also allowing users to adjust privacy settings if they don’t want to share a precise location. Any subsequent changes to the photo are then traced and recorded. Use cases for the technology include journalism (plus combating fake news), as well as a way for photographers to assure their photos are attributed correctly. The app is available on the App Store and Google Play.

Marsbot for AirPods

Image Credits: Foursquare Labs, Inc.

A new experiment from Foursquare Labs, Marsbot, offers an audio guide to your city. As you walk or bike around, the app gives you running commentary about the places around you using data from Foursquare, other content providers and snippets from other app users. The app is also optimized for AirPods, making it iOS-only.

Loupe

Image Credits: Loupe

Loupe is a new app that modernizes sports card collecting. The app allows users to participate in daily box breaks, host their own livestreams with chats, collect alongside fellow collectors and purchase new sports card singles, packs and boxes when they hit the market, among other things. The app is available on iOS.

 

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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This Week in Apps: Twitter targets creators, Clubhouse security, Spotify’s plans for paid podcasts

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

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. A new forecast this week expects consumer spend to grow to $270 billion by 2025.

Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

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

This week, we’re looking into what’s next for the future of one of the top social apps (Twitter), as well as Spotify’s latest announcements around its future plans for podcasts and subscriptions, along with other top stories, including the Clubhouse security problem.

Top Stories

Twitter wakes up

Image Credits: Twitter

Twitter over the years has been slow to roll out new features that dramatically impact its platform — even going so far at one time to build an entirely separate app just to test a new way to link together conversation threads. Its slow momentum and failure to build features users actually want, like an edit button, has left Twitter feeling a lot like the same experience it was in its earlier years — a public SMS of sorts (albeit one with more utilities for tweet discovery and management).

This has also contributed slow user growth, which opened up Twitter last year to pressure from activist investors to oust CEO Jack Dorsey, who was then planning to move to Africa, while also still running Square. (He decided not to go because of the pandemic… and, well, to keep his job, we’d guess.) Following this more intensive scrutiny of Twitter’s operations, the company in recent months has begun to speed things up on the product front.

Last year, it rolled out to its global audience a stories-like feature called Fleets, offering a place for more ephemeral content to live on its platform. It began development on a Clubhouse rival, Twitter Spaces, which is surging ahead with updates and new features. And it’s working on a community-led misinformation debunking effort, Birdwatch.

Twitter also began to make a series of acquisitions to build out its product teams, with additions like social app Squad, stories template maker Chroma Labs and podcasting app Breaker. And more recently, it bought newsletter platform Revue, which is already integrated on the Twitter website.

And it’s not done. This week, Twitter announced even more new products were in the works.

One, a new product called “Super Follow,” represents Twitter’s first-ever paid feature. The idea with the Super Follow is to turn Twitter into a platform where creators can monetize their fan base — with a “Super Follow” subscription, fans can access member-only perks. These can include whatever the creator wants — newsletters, videos, deals, community access and even paywalled content like tweets, fleets and audio chats in Twitter Spaces.

Along with this, Twitter introduced “Communities,” which, in addition to allowing social networking around interests, give Super Follow-using creators a place to organize their own private networks.

And it’s finally working on tools to auto-block and mute the trolls, too. 🙌

To put it mildly, this strategy represents one of the more radical shake-ups to Twitter’s platform to date. It not only challenges other networks — like Facebook, Discord, Patreon, Substack and Clubhouse — it positions Twitter’s slew of new features not just as fun add-ons, but rather as general-purpose tools that allow anyone to build and grow their own communities whichever way they want.

The one big miss on this front is that Twitter no longer has its own social video app to throw in the mix, too. Sadly, the company shut down both Vine and now, Periscope. Though Twitter itself supports video, Vine’s closure led to a hole in the market that’s since been filled by TikTok. And unfortunately, sharing TikTok links on Twitter is poor experience — they just display as previews that take you to a new TikTok tab when clicked. To get TikTok videos to play in-line, you have to download them first — something not all creators permit.

Nevertheless, Twitter is expecting the changes to help it to double its revenues by 2023, and grow its daily user base to 315 million, up from the 192 million it has today.

Spotify looks to new subscriptions for revenue growth

Image Credits: Spotify/Anchor

Twitter isn’t the only one looking to new subscriptions to make more money. Spotify this week also announced a good handful of updates, including a high-end Premium add-on for higher-quality music streams, called Spotify HiFi.

The company also confirmed its plans to test paid podcast subscriptions. The big bet here is that some podcasts are so compelling and have such a loyal fanbase that listeners will pay for their content, or maybe just their extras. These, of course, will no longer really be “podcasts” at this point — they’re paid audio programs. The feature will be introduced to Spotify’s creation app Anchor this spring.

But overeager adoption of paywalls by podcasters (who can’t make a living from their ad sales) could push more users to new social audio platforms, like Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces, where content is free and conversations are more participatory. Anchor’s solution for audience engagement is to roll out Q&As and polls. But why bother clicking, when you can hit up a Clubhouse room and talk?

Clubhouse’s exclusivity leads to discovery of security problems

The demand for Clubhouse access is becoming so high that people are figuring out ways to reverse-engineer the experience, TechCrunch reported this week. A developer found a way to broadcast Clubhouse audio feeds in real time to users who couldn’t get in because they didn’t have an invite or an iPhone. Though Clubhouse blocked the effort later in the week, the fact that a developer was able to gain access to Clubhouse audio feeds in the first place was an indication that the app isn’t as locked down as one might think.

In addition, other researchers have figured out ways to “ghost listen” to rooms without displaying user profiles — essentially, eavesdropping. And users in China appear to be able to listen to a room conversation facilitated by Clubhouse’s service provider Agora by using a VPN — even though they can’t technically “join” a room due to the app itself being banned.

Clubhouse’s appeal has a lot to do with how its social audio spaces aren’t recorded, so people can be themselves. There’s an expectation that you are only speaking to a group who’s listening and there’s no way to go back for a transcript or recording later. In other words, it’s not a podcast — it’s live. It’s social. And it’s semi-private.

These security breaches prove that’s not entirely true.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Apple added guidance for app developers to help them complete App Store privacy labels. Specifically, it added information about data types, like email and messages, and gameplay content. Not coincidentally, I’m sure, Google added a privacy label to Gmail this week, too.

Apple’s “Sign in with Apple” button is now a part of the U.S. DoJ antitrust investigation against the company, reports The Information. Apple requires the option on all apps that offer sign-in buttons from other companies, like Facebook and Google, which has upset some developers. Investigators are looking to better understand how use of the button makes it more difficult for Apple device users to switch to other platforms.

Apple Entrepreneur Camp applications opened up for female founders and developers. The camp will run online July 20-29, 2021, offering attendees code-level guidance, mentorship, plus access to Apple engineers.

Apple tweaked the subscription “buy sheet” in iOS 14.5 beta. The new screen aims to make the price of an app’s subscription more clear to end users.

Apple hid an Easter egg in its Apple Store app to celebrate its 10-year anniversary.

Platforms: Google

Google this week announced the next set of features coming to Android in its spring 2021 release. Flagship items include a password checkup tool and a way to schedule your texts (!!!). The latter means you can compose a message at any time, then pick the time you want it to send. iMessage, your turn! Other improvements included updates to the screen reader TalkBack, Maps (which gets a dark mode default option), Assistant and Android Auto.

Google launches an Android Sleep API for use in health and wellness apps. The new API will use the phone’s light and motion sensors in combination with an onboard API model to generate information like a “sleep confidence” determination and daily sleep segments.

Food & Drink

Food delivery app DoorDash stock falls after its first earnings. The company reported $970 million in revenue versus $938 million expected and a loss per share of $2.67. But shares dropped as much as 13% on DoorDash’s forecast, which said some of the earlier tailwinds it saw under stay-at-home orders in the U.S. will turn around as the country gets the vaccine under control.

Food delivery apps got a boost during the Lunar New Year holiday week in China, thanks to COVID-19 travel restrictions that kept people at home and prompted more remote gift deliveries, in particular food orders from services like Meituan and Alibaba’s Ele.me.

Augmented Reality

An iPhone app called Museum Alive, reviewed by The Verge, includes narration from Sir David Attenborough as an extension of his Natural History Museum Alive film. The app includes interactive AR exhibits with extinct animals in their own habitats.

Fintech

Mobile investing app Robinhood reports seeing 6 million new customers on Robinhood Crypto just this year. By comparison, the number peaked at 401,000 customers in a single month in 2020, with a monthly average of 200,000 customers trading on Robinhood Crypto for the first time.

Google emailed users of the old Google Pay app and website that they’ll lose transactional capabilities on April 5 and will need to switch to the updated Google Pay app instead.

Social

Image Credits: Snap

At Snap’s investor day, the company projected 50% annual revenue growth for the next several years. The company spoke of the app’s main features — Camera, Map, Chat, Stories and Spotlight — each which it believes to be multibillion-dollar revenues streams in the long-term. It also talked about its investments in AR, Snap Ads, Shows, Stories and its TikTok rival, Spotlight. Investors responded favorably to the news, with shares up 11% on Tuesday, pushing the company’s valuation over $100 billion.

Instagram adds its TikTok rival, Reels, to its slimmed-down Instagram Lite app aimed at emerging markets. Some are already dubbing it “bloatware.”

TikTok partners with Portland Timbers and Thorns FC in its first U.S. soccer deal. The multi-year deal will have the clubs distributing video content in collaboration with TikTok, and will see the clubs featuring the TikTok logo on their jerseys.

TikTok owner ByteDance agrees to $92 million privacy settlement with U.S. TikTok users after a year of litigation. The claims in the lawsuits said TikTok was using a broad array of biometric data and content from user devices for ad targeting and profit. TikTok said it disagrees with the assertions but wanted to put an end to the lengthy litigation.

TikTok’s latest transparency report for H2 2020 said the app removed over 300,000 election misinformation videos, and another 400,000 from the For You page. The percentage of deletions were in line with the prior report, despite the busy election season it covered.

The Washington Post reports conservative backer Rebekah Mercer, whose family also funds Breitbart, now controls two of the three board seats at right-wing Twitter alternative, Parler. The app’s founding CEO John Matze was pushed out last month, and Mercer has since exerted more control over the company’s direction.

Twitter banned 100 accounts linked to Russian troll farms. The accounts were caught up in part of a larger enforcement action Twitter took against 373 accounts with connections to Armenia, Iran and Russia. The Russian accounts were being used to amplify talking points in favor of the Russian government.

Facebook tests new tools to combat child exploitation. One tool will pop up a message for people who use search terms linked to child exploitation that reminds them of the consequences and points them to resources to get help from offender diversion organizations. Another will alert users to the legal ramifications of sharing viral, meme child exploitative content. The company also updated its child safety policies and updated its reporting menu across FB and IG to include a section for a report that “involves a child.”

Top social apps including TikTok, Instagram and Pinterest added new features to support those with eating disorders as part of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (February 22-28). Among the changes, TikTok and Instagram added features to encourage body inclusivity; TikTok now redirects some eating disorder searches to point to support resources; Instagram added links to local helplines in Australia, Canada and the U.K.; Pinterest donated credits to encourage people to tune into NED Awareness events; and more.

Photos

Flickr rolled out a widget for both iOS and Android devices. The widget lets you enjoy a rotating selection of photos from Explore on your home screen — great for someone looking for variety, instead of a static home screen.

Messaging / Communications

Telegram adds an auto-delete option for all messages, which lets users automatically delete messages after either 24 hours or seven days. The feature was previously available only for its encrypted Secret Chats. It also added expiring invite links and an option to create broadcast-only groups.

WhatsApp details what will happen when users don’t agree to the privacy changes by the May 15, 2021 deadline. It said for a short time (a few weeks), the users will be able to receive calls and notifications, but won’t be able to read or send messages, to give them more time to agree.

More Google Hangouts users are being migrated over to the Google Chat “preview” experience. The company had said it would split Hangouts into two services, Chat and Meet. The transition began last year, but personal account holders had only been told “early 2021” for their migration date. Early reports (see below) say the new experience is lacking when it comes to video call integration and lack of SMS support.

Streaming & Entertainment

Image Credits: YouTube

YouTube announced it will roll out parental control features for families with tweens and teens that will allow them to graduate more safely from the YouTube Kids app to “real YouTube.” Parents will be able grant kids more access through their “supervised” Google Account, then choose from one of of three levels of YouTube access ranging from a selection that’s more tween-friendly to another that’s more appropriate for older teens. By using the account, parents are also agreeing to allow YouTube to collect personal data from the kids — something it couldn’t do in YouTube Kids.

Disney’s adult-friendly Star channel launched outside the U.S. to Disney+ subscribers in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The additional channel combines content from Disney Television Studios, FX, 20th Century Studios and 20th Television, and bumps Disney+ price up by a small amount (a few pounds in the U.K., e.g.). Parental controls were also added to block kids from accessing the more adult fare.

South Korean media reported the country’s current prime minister, Chung Sye-kyun, has joined Clubhouse, making him the most senior political leader to join the growing app.

Gaming

Image Credits: GameSnacks

Google’s mobile-friendly online games, GameSnacks, developed by its Area 120 in-house incubator, are being integrated into Chrome on iOS and Android Pay in select emerging markets. The HTML5-powered games are a way that Google is routing around app stores, and instead delivering gaming content to users without the associated app store fees. It’s also a more lightweight model for gaming, which helps in some markets where storage space and bandwidth are concerns. The company is experimenting with bringing the games to Google Assistant next.

Chinese mobile games released on the U.S. App Store and Google Play Store raked in $5.8 billion during Q24 2020, up 34.3% from a year ago, and accounting for over a quarter of the world’s mobile gaming revenues, per Sensor Tower data. Top titles include big names like Call of Duty (a collaboration between Tencent and Activision) and Tencent’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. as well as those from smaller studios such as Mihoyo’s Genshin Impact and Magic Tavern’s Project Makeover.

In the ongoing Epic Games versus Apple legal showdown in the U.S., Epic is now trying to locate former iOS software chief Scott Forstall to testify, after Apple said Forstall didn’t respond to its request to appear.

Meanwhile, a U.K. court blocked Epic Games from challenging Apple’s Fortnite ban. The court said Epic’s lawsuit against Apple would be better to pursue in the U.S., but allowed the suit against Google to continue.

Epic Games is sending players V-Bucks to settle its Fornite loot box class action lawsuit. The settlement is supposed to be for U.S. players only, but Epic is offering the V-Bucks to global players.

Amazon’s Luna cloud gaming service, which lets users stream games across platforms including Windows, Mac, Android, web browsers on iPhone and iPad and desktop, has now arrived on Amazon’s Fire TV devices in an expansion of its early access program.

App Annie announces new features to help customers discover gaming launches, as well as measure and visualize performance of games. The features include RPD (revenue per download), Align Apps by Launch, Cumulative Downloads and Cumulative Revenue, and a Soft Launches Report.

A floating gaming toolbar has been found in the code of the Android 12 Developer Preview. Full details are not available but one button is a picture of a game controller while the other is suspected to be some sort of option to record your current gaming session.

Social casino game Coin Master from Moon Active tops $2 billion in lifetime player spending, reports Sensor Tower. The title booked $1.2 billion in 2020 alone, up 122.4% year-over-year, boosted by pandemic boredom and in-game spending.

Zynga is creating its own first-party walled garden for ad tech, due to Apple’s push for app tracking transparency. More companies could do the same, argues Mobile Dev Memo.

Health & Fitness

The New York Department of Financial Services said in an investigative report that Facebook has now taken steps to prevent it from collecting unauthorized data about people’s medical conditions, The WSJ reported. The company had been collecting the data through its SDK installed in numerous apps, then matches the sensitive, personal data to users’ Facebook accounts for ad targeting. One app involved, period tracker Flo, separately settled with the FTC in January over its involvement.

Media

Australia’s ABC News app hit the top of the App Store following the upheaval related to Facebook’s ban of Australian news sources on its platform. The app become No. 1 in News and No. 2 Overall, ahead of Facebook and its other apps, including Messenger and Instagram.

Funding and M&A

💰 YouTuber David Dobrik’s retro photo app raised $20 million in a Series A round led by Spark Capital. The app’s gimmick is that it allows you to snap photos in an old-fashioned camera interface where photos don’t “develop” until the next morning. The TestFlight, capped at 10,000 users, was full within a weekend of launching.

💰 Celebrity video platform memmo raised $10 million Series A, in a round led by Left Lane Capital. The concept is similar to U.S.-based Cameo, but Stockholm-based memmo’s strategy is both global and localized.

💰 Snack, a TikTok-like dating app, raised $3.5 million in a round led by Kindred Ventures and Coelius Capital. The startup was founded by early (Match Group-owned) Plenty of Fish exec Kimberly Kaplan, and targets Gen Z by way of a video feed with likes and comments that lead to DMs.

💰 AI-powered transcription service Otter, available on web and mobile, raised $50 million ($40 million in new funds) Series B. The service got a boost from the pandemic and its Zoom integration.

💰 Spain’s Wallapop raised $191 million at an $840 million valuation for its classifieds marketplace. The funding was led by Korelya Capital, a French VC fund backed by Korea’s Naver. The app was previously going to merge with U.S.-based LetGo, but later shelved those plans. (LetGo instead was bought by OfferUp.)

🤝 Austrian app marketer App Radar acquired Spanish rival TheTool. At the time of the deal, TheTool provided data insights for some 400 app marketing clients. The assets-only deal will allow App Radar to expand its presence across Europe.

💰 Indian edtech startup Doubtnut raised $31 million for its website and app that help students learn math and science. The app lets students take a photo of the problem, then uses ML and image recognition to deliver the answer in the form of short videos.

🤝 Design platform Canva, which works on both web and mobile, acquired Kaleido, the maker of a drag-and-drop background removal service, remove.bg, for photos and videos. It also bought Smartmockups in the Czech Republic, which lets anyone create mockups for t-shirts, mugs and other items.

🤝 Podcast host and ad network Acast bought RadioPublic, a maker of tools for podcasters, including a website maker, marketing tools, and the RadioPublic podcast app. The latter will remain live and the team will stay in the U.S.

💰 Copenhagen-based Podimo, a subscription service for podcasts, raised €11.2 million in funding. The app offers access to over 600 exclusive shows, and shares its revenue from subscriptions with its creators.

❓Beijing-based tutoring app Yuanfudao is said to be raising funding at a $20 billion+ valuation. The funding would follow a prior $2.2 billion round that valued the business at $15.5 billion.

📈Roblox shares to begin trading March 10. The cross-platform gaming service, which is popular on mobile, has opted for a direct listing instead of an IPO.

Downloads

Quill

Image Credits: Quill

A new Slack competitor, Quill, launched out of stealth this week, TechCrunch reported, with its apps for the web, Mac, Windows, Linux and Android and iOS on mobile. Like Slack, Quill lets co-workers communicate through channels, video and voice. But it also addresses some of the issues Slack overlooks. One, “structured channels,” lets admins enforce threads, for example. It also automatically moves up active conversations, limits notifications, has improved pinning, supports moving threads between channels and places video and chat side-by-side, to name a few. You can even interact with Quill via SMS and email.

ANDY’s apps

Image Credits: ANDY

Andy Allen, former head of Product at WeTransfer, teamed up with Mark Dawson, the lead graphics engineer from Allen’s former prior company Fifty Three, to create a new set of “default” apps with ANDY. That is, the company’s new apps aim to update your basic set — like weather, calculator and timer.

“Most of the default apps haven’t changed over the last 10 years. Yet we’re still using them. I see that as a sign that we’ll still need basic apps like weather, calculator and timer in another 10 years,” notes Allen.

Image Credits: ANDY

What makes ANDY apps different is that they’re built inside a game engine to unlock new experiences that makes them feel more like games themselves. They’re also skinnable, with three skins available at launch and more to come every few months. The apps require a subscription to work — either $14.99/yr for all apps and basic skins or $69.99/yr for all apps plus basic and limited-edition skins, as well as limited-edition collector cards. The company plans to expand its app collection over time.

YouWidget

Image Credits: YouWidget

Spotted this week by the folks at iMore, the new YouWidget delivers a YouTube iOS widget that puts a live video feed on your home screen along with other stats. For YouTubers and fans alike, the app could be useful in helping to track a specific channel’s releases and their other subscriptions. But even if you don’t need live videos, the app offers a widget with statistics for any channel — including subscriber counts, views and video counts.

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Storm Ventures promotes Pascale Diaine and Frederik Groce to partners

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Storm Ventures, a venture firm that focuses on early stage B2B enterprise startups, announced this week that it has promoted Pascale Diaine and Frederik Groce to partners at the firm.

The two new partners have worked their way up over the last several years. Groce joined Storm in 2016 and has invested in enterprise SaaS startups like Workato, Splashtop, NextRequest and Camino. Diaine joined a year later and has invested in firms like Sendoso, German Bionic, InEvent and Talkdesk.

Groce, who is also a founder at BLCK VC and helped organize the Black Venture Institute to create a network of Black investors, says that these promotions show that venture needs to be more diverse, and Storm recognizes this.  “If you think about the way our team works, that’s the way I think venture teams will need to work to be able to be successful in the next 40 years. And so the hope is that over time everyone does this and we’re just early to it,” Groce told me.

Unfortunately, right now that’s not the case, not even close. According to research by Crunchbase, just 12% of venture capitalists are women and two-thirds of firms don’t have any female investors. Meanwhile, only about 4% of ventures investors are Black.

Those numbers have an impact on the number of Black and female founders because as Groce points out the lack of founders in underrepresented groups is in part a networking problem. “In a business that’s predicated on networks if you don’t have diversity in the network, or the teams that are driving those networks, you just can’t make sure you’re seeing great talent across all ecosystems,” he said.

Diaine, who is French and started her career by founding Orange Fab, the corporate accelerator of the European Telco Orange, has brought her international business background to Storm where they helped her tune that experience to an investor focus and supported her as she learned the nuances of the investment side of the business.

“I don’t come from the VC world. I come from the innovative corporate world. So they had to train me and spend time getting me up to date. And they did spend so much time making sure I understood everything to make sure I got to this level,” she said.

Both partners bring their own unique views looking beyond Silicon Valley for investment opportunities. Diaine’s investment include a German, Brazilian and Portuguese company, while Groce’s investments include companies in Chicago, Atlanta and Seattle.

The two partners have also developed an algorithm to help find investments based on a number of online signals, something that has become more important during the pandemic when they couldn’t network in person.

“Frederik and I have been working on [an algorithm to find] what are the signals that you can identify online that will tell you this company’s doing well, this company growing.You have to have a nice set of startup search tracking [signals], but what do you track if you can’t just get the revenue in real time, which is impossible. So we’ve developed an algorithm that helps us identify some of these signals and create alerts on which startups we should pay attention to,” Diaine explained.

She says this data-driven approach should be helpful and augment their in-person efforts even after the pandemic is over and increase their overall efficiency in finding and tracking companies in their portfolios.

 

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If you haven’t followed NFTs, here’s why you should start

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NFTs (non-fungible tokens) — or scarce digital content represented as tokens — are driving a new wave of crypto adoption.

Thanks to the Ethereum blockchain, artists, gaming companies and content creators alike are utilizing token standards, which ascribe provenance to uniquely distinguishable assets. NFTs first made headlines in 2017 when Dapper Labs’ game CryptoKitties accounted for 95% of Ethereum network usage at its peak. While someone paying $170,000 for a digital cat seemed like an anomaly, what’s happening today blows that headline out of the water.

Platforms like Nifty Gateway, SuperRare, Foundation and Zora are quickly emerging as the leading players for creatives to monetize work in a digital world.

The estimated total value of crypto art has now passed $100 million according to cryptoart.io/data — just one vertical of a growing ecosystem of NFTs.

Image Credits: https://cryptoart.io/data

Collectible mania

Just as we’ve seen an alternative asset class form around physical collectibles like Pokémon cards, NFTs are starting to showcase what this universe of rare hallmark brands looks like online.

NBA Top Shot has seen close to $10 million in 24h volume according to CryptoSlam, with more than $100 million of “moments” being sold in less than one year of being live. The parent company behind NBA Top Shot, Dapper Labs, is said to be raising a $250 million round at a $2 billion valuation, as reported by The Block.

Niche collectibles like CryptoPunks — or 10,000 unique collectible characters with scarce traits and qualities — now have a base floor of roughly $18,000 a piece. Just recently, Punk 4156 sold for 650 ETH, equivalent to roughly $1.3 million at today’s prices.

Crypto art paradigms

Graphic designs and 3D designers are finding new platforms to showcase their work, with marketplaces like Nifty Gateway facilitating Supreme style drops for exclusive digital art.

Mad Dog Jones recently set a record for $3.9 million worth of art sold in one sale, topping the previous record held by beeple for his $3.5 million “Everydays 2020 Collection” drop. No wonder top art galleries like Christies are asking to team up.

With Bitcoin and Etherium reaching all-time high prices and investors looking for new places to allocate capital, the crypto art movement has given power back to the creatives.

Vibrant collector communities like FlamingoDAO are forming around these drops, while protocols like Zora are quickly starting to support NFTs of all different verticals.

Musicians like Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park and Fort Minor has released NFTs as a part of their strategy for his new single “Happy Endings” featuring popstar Iann Dior. EDM DJ and producer 3LAU is tokenizing his debut album “Ultraviolet” and Grammy-award winning musician RAC broke the SuperRare record for the highest NFT primary sale with his piece “Elephant Dreams.”

I even sold a blog post for 2 ETH (or roughly $4,000) using a crypto media publication called Mirror!

Why should I care?

NFTs have exposed a creative side of crypto that is not only fun to play, but digestible and accessible to new users. As bigger names host their first NFT drops, they bring a new wave of attention to their millions of followers noticing crypto for the first time.

This leaves people in a unique position to curate and discover this growing wave of scarce digital content. Showtime is aggregating NFTs to offer an Instagram-like experience, and the forthcoming music-specific NFT marketplace Catalog is creating a digital record store.

As Nifty Gateway drops continue to sell out in seconds thanks to credit card payments and free transactions, new collectors are finding ways to collect their favorite artists and brands — a trend that is likely to take better form over the coming years.

Areas of improvement

While the sales figures showcase a clear demand for NFTs, it’s not without hiccups.

More on NFT

The vast majority of NFT platforms today require users to be familiar with Ethereum wallets like MetaMask. This means collectors need to purchase ETH from an exchange like Coinbase and send it to a non-custodial address that consists of a long string of numbers and letters to get started.

Once they’re there, they need to pay upwards of $100 worth of fees to make a transaction and place a bid. The same goes for artists creating NFTs, causing community funds like MintFund to pop up and cover the operational costs of launching their first NFT.

Luckily, platforms like Audius are addressing these pain points head on. With 2 million monthly active users — the most of any Ethereum application today — Audius replaced MetaMask with an email and password login wallet called Hedgehog. By removing key management and transaction costs, users are able to access the wonderful world of crypto without significant start-up costs.

NFT bubble?

What’s happening in the NFT ecosystem today is nothing short of a paradigm shift for a maturing sector of cryptocurrencies. As avid collectors frame their digital art using companies like Infinite Objects, there’s no denying the vast majority of buyers are here to speculate. This increased demand signals interest, but is highly reminiscent of the 2017 ICO boom that caused the market to crash many years ago.

However, out of that multi-year bear market came a strong wave of foundational companies and products like Uniswap and Compound that are here to stay. It’s this writer’s bet that the same will happen with NFTs.

Until then, remember that digital content does have value, and crypto collectors are flocking to lay their namesake on the biggest collections of tomorrow.

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