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An AI Finds Superbug-Killing Potential in Human Proteins

By Max G. Levy
A team scoured the human proteome for antimicrobial molecules and found thousands, plus a surprise about how animals evolved to fight infections.

My Music App Knows Me Way Too Well. Am I Stuck in a Groove?

By Meghan O'Gieblyn
WIRED’s spiritual advice columnist on predictability, freedom—and the duality of rebellion.

Why Zillow Couldn’t Make Algorithmic House Pricing Work

By Chris Stokel-Walker
The real estate site went into the business of buying and selling homes. But the pandemic messed up its predictions.

This AI Resurrects Ancient Board Games—and Lets You Play Them

By Samantha HuiQi Yow
What tabletop games did our ancestors play in 1000 BC? A new research project wants to find out, and make them playable online too.

Facebook Is Everywhere; Its Moderation Is Nowhere Close

By Tom Simonite
Human reviewers and AI filters struggle to police the flood of content—or understand the nuances in different Arabic dialects.

A True Story About Bogus Photos of People Making Fake News

By Tom Simonite
A photographer set out to capture the misinformation producers in a small town in Macedonia. He wound up revealing uncomfortable truths about his own profession.

Humans Can't Be the Sole Keepers of Scientific Knowledge

By Iulia Georgescu
Communicating scientific results in outdated formats is holding progress back. One alternative: Translate science for machines.

These Deepfake Voices Can Help Trans Gamers

By Tom Simonite
Players of online games can be harassed when their voices don't match their gender identity. New AI-fueled software may help.

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

By Sarah Perez

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

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

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

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

We made an app called Playbyte that lets you make games on your phone, discover games made by other users, and challenge your friends https://t.co/FFnMbKG1ls pic.twitter.com/eqhabN3kM1

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) May 25, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cutest lil sprite blob I’ve ever seen 😭#pixelart #gamedev pic.twitter.com/7uBRzs6ix0

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) August 21, 2021

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

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

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

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

The app is a free download on the App Store.

Australia’s TechnologyOne acquires UK-based higher-ed platform Scientia for $16.6M

By Mike Butcher

TechnologyOne, an Australian SaaS enterprise, has agreed to acquire UK-based higher education software provider Scientia for £12 million /$16.6 million in cash.
 
TechnologyOne claims to have 75% of Higher Education institutions in Australia using its software, while Scientia claims 50% market share in the UK.

The acquisition includes an initial payment of £6m and further payments.
 
Adrian Di Marco, TechnologyOne founder and Executive Chairman said: “This is our company’s first international acquisition and it demonstrates our deep commitment to serving the higher education sector and the UK market. The unique IP and market-leading functionality of Scientia’s product supports our vision of delivering enterprise software that is incredibly easy to use.”

Commenting, Michelle Gillespie, Registrar and Director of Student Administration and Library Services at Swinburne University of Technology said: “The one thing that students care most about is their timetable. Being able to fully integrate a schedule into the full student experience is very important, and an exciting step for those universities – like Swinburne – that use TechnologyOne’s student management system.”

FTC bans spyware maker SpyFone, and orders it to notify hacked victims

By Zack Whittaker

The Federal Trade Commission has unanimously voted to ban the spyware maker SpyFone and its chief executive Scott Zuckerman from the surveillance industry, the first order of its kind, after the agency accused the company of harvesting mobile data on thousands of people and leaving it on the open internet.

The agency said SpyFone “secretly harvested and shared data on people’s physical movements, phone use, and online activities through a hidden device hack,” allowing the spyware purchaser to “see the device’s live location and view the device user’s emails and video chats.”

SpyFone is one of many so-called “stalkerware” apps that are marketed under the guise of parental control but are often used by spouses to spy on their partners. The spyware works by being surreptitiously installed on someone’s phone, often without their permission, to steal their messages, photos, web browsing history, and real-time location data. The FTC also charged that the spyware maker exposed victims to additional security risks because the spyware runs at the “root” level of the phone, which allows the spyware to access off-limits parts of the device’s operating system. A premium version of the app included a keylogger and “live screen viewing,” the FTC says.

But the FTC said that SpyFone’s “lack of basic security” exposed those victims’ data, because of an unsecured Amazon cloud storage server that was spilling the data its spyware was collecting from more than 2,000 victims’ phones. SpyFone said it partnered with a cybersecurity firm and law enforcement to investigate, but the FTC says it never did.

Practically, the ban means SpyFone and its CEO Zuckerman are banned from “offering, promoting, selling, or advertising any surveillance app, service, or business,” making it harder for the company to operate. But FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra said in a separate statement that stalkerware makers should also face criminal sanctions under U.S. computer hacking and wiretap laws.

The FTC has also ordered the company to delete all the data it “illegally” collected, and, also for the first time, notify victims that the app had been secretly installed on their devices.

In a statement, the FTC’s consumer protection chief Samuel Levine said: “This case is an important reminder that surveillance-based businesses pose a significant threat to our safety and security.”

The EFF, which launched the Coalition Against Stalkerware two years ago, a coalition of companies that detects, combats and raises awareness of stalkerware, praised the FTC’s order. “With the FTC now turning its focus to this industry, victims of stalkerware can begin to find solace in the fact that regulators are beginning to take their concerns seriously,” said EFF’s Eva Galperin and Bill Budington in a blog post.

This is the FTC’s second order against a stalkerware maker. In 2019, the FTC settled with Retina-X after the company was hacked several times and eventually shut down.

Over the years, several other stalkerware makers were either hacked or inadvertently exposed their own systems, including mSpy, Mobistealth, and Flexispy. Another stalkerware maker, ClevGuard, left thousands of hacked victims’ phone data on an exposed cloud server.

Read more:


If you or someone you know needs help, the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) provides 24/7 free, confidential support to victims of domestic abuse and violence. If you are in an emergency situation, call 911.

Did you receive a notification and want to tell your story? You can contact this reporter on Signal and WhatsApp at +1 646-755-8849 or zack.whittaker@techcrunch.com by email.

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

By Sarah Perez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: App Annie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Mango Labs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congrats to @Rhai_Gb & the @Takeoff_Labs team- it's great to be back at #1 overall 🙌

Also a huge accomplishment for @jetfuel_it as the only user acquisition source. The first time we've single-handedly moved an app to #1 Top Free! https://t.co/Cl8ahj8Owo

— Tim L (@telenardo) August 25, 2021

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

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

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

Virtual events startups have high hopes for after the pandemic

By Karan Bhasin

Few people thought of virtual events before the pandemic struck, but this format has fulfilled a unique and important need for companies and organizations large and small during the pandemic. But what will virtual events’ value be as more of the world attempts to return to life before COVID-19?

To find out, we caught up with top executives and investors in the sector to learn about the big trends they’re seeing — as the sequel to this survey we did in March 2020.

Certain use cases have been proven, they say. Today, you can find numerous small niche events available year-round that might have been buried in the back of a larger in-person conference before 2020. For organizations, internal virtual events can also be instrumental in helping connect and promote engagement for remote-first teams.

However, some respondents acknowledged that low-quality virtual events are growing ever more common, and everyone agreed that there is much more work to be done.

We surveyed:

Xiaoyin Qu, founder and CEO, Run The World

With the pandemic hopefully becoming more manageable soon, do you feel a return to in-person events is inevitable?

Certain types of events will go back to in person. Obviously, something to do with a President’s Club — the company rewards you with a party in Hawaii — that kind of thing will not go virtual. I think events more focused on increasing reach will continue to trend toward virtual.

“Hybrid is just another buzzword to say that both online and offline events formats will coexist. Of course they will.”

We’re also seeing that many events are getting smaller, more niche. Before the pandemic, if we look at a general pediatric conference, for example, an attendee may only be interested in two topics out of the 200 offered. But now we’ve seen that there’s a rise in many niche events that focus on very specific topics, which helps streamline these events for attendees.

I think such events are still going to happen virtually just because they’re easier to organize and people can have more in-depth conversations. Internal virtual events for employees is another category that is getting more traction, because companies have been going remote. So many the internal events like the company happy hour — events that help employees engage better — we think that’s still going to happen virtually. So there are a number of use cases we think will continue to be virtual and are probably better virtual.


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What sort of trends do you think will emerge once in-person events are possible again?

Another important trend we’re seeing is that a lot of organizers have begun hosting events more frequently. They were doing large conferences in the past, but now they’re pivoting or they’re rethinking their strategy. They realize that hosting maybe 10 events a year is better than hosting one big event every year. A traditional conference is usually multiday, with maybe 200 different topics and 100 different speakers. Now a lot of people are thinking about spreading it out throughout the year.

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