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Yesterday — June 5th 2020Your RSS feeds

YC-backed Tajir raises $1.8M to help mom-and-pop stores source inventory in Pakistan

By Manish Singh

A number of high-profile firms and startups have set up logistics networks in India in the last decade as they attempt to digitize neighborhood stores.

Bangalore-headquartered startup Udaan, for instance, works directly with brands and sellers to source inventory and sells and delivers it to stores through its business-to-business marketplace. It’s a big opportunity. Most neighborhood stores that dot tens of thousands of cities and towns in India are still offline.

The startup has warehouses spread across the country, several in New Delhi and Gurgaon.

If you travel a few hundred miles west, things look very familiar. Pakistan has several similarities to India: its cities are just as dense and populated, for one. But the startup ecosystem in the nation, which is much smaller than India in size and population, is still in its nascent stage.

But slowly, global investors who arrived in India and other Asian markets in the last decade are beginning to look at Pakistan and bet on startups that are solving similar challenges.

Tajir, a Lahore-headquartered startup, today serves more than 15,000 neighborhood stores, locally known in the region as kirana, across Pakistan.

The two-year-old startup, the first startup from the nation to be backed by Y Combinator, said on Friday that it has closed a new financing round.

Pioneer Fund, Golden Gate Ventures, Fatima Gobi Ventures, Karavan, and VentureSouq led the round, with participation from a clutch of angel investors, Tajir co-founders Babar Khan and Ismail Khan told TechCrunch in an interview.

Tajir offers full transparency on the prices of various products, addressing a challenge that store owners confront offline each day, and sells and delivers inventories to the stores, said the Khan brothers, whose father ran an FMCG retail distribution business for three decades.

“We help store owners save money on inventory and help them boost their sales,” said Ismail.

Like in India, offline retail drives the vast majority of sales in Pakistan. “The retail is even more unorganized here compared to neighboring nations,” they said. There’s no Amazon or any major giant running an e-commerce business for consumers in Pakistan today.

For Babar and Ismail, that’s a big opportunity as they scale. According to official government data, there are about 2 million neighborhood stores in Pakistan.

Tajir is gaining ground in the country today mostly through word-of-mouth endorsement from existing partners, though the startup also maintains a sales team to educate more store owners about their platform.

It plans to use the capital to expand its offering and develop more services that stores need to grow their business, the brothers said. These offerings could include a wider catalog of inventory, and access to financial services, they said.

“We want to offer an essential service to every single mom-and-pop store in Pakistan,” said Babar.

Tajir today does not have any major competitor, which is good news as a lot is riding on its founders’ shoulders who are among the early batch of entrepreneurs in the country. In many ways, their success will determine the perception of the Pakistani market to investors worldwide.

PhotoRoom automagically removes background from your photo

By Romain Dillet

Meet PhotoRoom, a French startup that has been working on a utility photography mobile app. The concept is extremely simple, which is probably the reason why it has attracted a ton of downloads over the past few months.

After selecting a photo, PhotoRoom removes the background from that photo and lets you select another background. When you’re done tweaking your photo, you can save the photo and open it in another app.

“My original vision comes from my time when I was working at GoPro,” co-founder and CEO Matthieu Rouif told me. “I often had to remove the background from images and when the designer was out of office, I would spend a ton of time doing it manually.”

And it turns out many people have been looking for a simple app that lets them go in and out as quickly as possible with an edited photo in their camera roll.

For instance, people selling clothes and other items on peer-to-peer e-commerce platforms have been using PhotoRoom to improve their photos. PhotoRoom is often recommended in online discussions or YouTube tutorials about optimizing your Poshmark or Depop listings.

Downloads really started to take off around February. PhotoRoom now has 300,000 monthly active users. The app is only available on iOS for now. And if you’re a professional using it regularly, you can pay for a subscription ($9.49 per month or $46.99 per year) to remove the watermark and unlock more features.

“Subscriptions are what works best on mobile for photo and video apps,” Rouif said.

Behind the scene, PhotoRoom uses machine learning models to identify objects on a photo. And the vision goes beyond removing backgrounds.

Photoshop, the clear leader in photo editing, has been designed decades ago. There’s a steep learning curve if you want to use it professionally. It’s hard to understand layers, layer masks, channels, etc.

PhotoRoom wants to build a mobile-first photo-editing app that doesn’t lazily borrow Photoshop’s metaphors and interface elements. “What would be Photoshop if you could understand what’s on the photo,” Rouif said.

While the app relies heavily on templates, you can tweak your images by adding objects, moving them around, adding some shadow and editing elements individually. Image composition is 100% up to the user.

Like VSCO, Darkroom, PicsArt, Filmic Pro and Halide, PhotoRoom belongs to a group of prosumer apps that are tackling photo and video editing from different ways. A generation of users who grew up using visual social networks are now pushing the limits of those apps — they look simple when you first use them, but they offer a ton of depth when you learn what you can do with them. And they prove that smartphones can be great computers, beyond content consumption.

Rouif was the head of product at Stupeflix, a powerful video editing app that was acquired by GoPro back in 2016. PhotoRoom is just getting started as there are only four people working on the app, including two interns.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

FTC fines kids’ app developer HyperBeard $150K for use of third-party ad trackers

By Sarah Perez

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) today announced a settlement of $150,000 with HyperBeard, the developer of a collection of children’s mobile games over violations of U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act Rule (COPPA Rule). The company’s applications had been downloaded more than 50 million times on a worldwide basis to date, according to data from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower.

A complaint filed by the Dept. of Justice on behalf of the FTC alleged that HyperBeard had violated COPPA by allowing third-party ad networks to collect personal information in the form of persistent identifiers to track users of the company’s child-directed apps. And it did so without notifying parents or obtaining verifiable parental consent, as is required. These ad networks then used the identifiers to target ads to children using HyperBeard’s games.

The company’s lineup included games like Axolochi, BunnyBuns, Chichens, Clawbert, Clawberta, KleptoCats, KleptoCats 2, KleptoDogs, MonkeyNauts and NomNoms (not to be confused with toy craze Num Noms).

The FTC determined HyperBeard’s apps were marketed toward children because they used brightly colored, animated characters like cats, dogs, bunnies, chicks, monkeys and other cartoon characters, and were described in child-friendly terms like “super cute” and “silly.” The company also marketed its apps on a kids’ entertainment website, YayOMG, published children’s books and licensed other products, including stuffed animals and block construction sets, based on its app characters.

Unbelievably, the company would post disclaimers to its marketing materials that these apps were not meant for children under 13.

Above: A disclaimer on the NomNoms game website. 

In HyperBeard’s settlement with the FTC, the company has agreed to pay a $150,000 fine and delete the personal information it illegally collected from children under the age of 13. The settlement had originally included a $4 million penalty, but the FTC suspended it over HyperBeard’s inability to pay the full amount. But that larger amount will become due if the company or its CEO, Alexander Kozachenko, are ever found to have misrepresented their finances.

HyperBeard is not the first tech company to be charged with COPPA violations. Two high-profile examples preceding it were YouTube and Musical.ly (TikTok)’s settlements of $170 million and $5.7 million, respectively, both in 2019. By comparison, HyperBeard’s fine seems minimal. However, its case is different from either video platform as the company itself was not handling the data collection — it was permitting ad networks to do so.

The complaint explained that HyperBeard let third-party advertising networks serve ads and collect personal information in the form of persistent identifiers, in order to serve behavioral ads — meaning, targeted ads based on users’ activity over time and across sites.

This requires parental consent, but companies have skirted this rule for years — or outright ignored it, like YouTube did.

The ad networks used in HyperBeard’s apps included AdColony, AdMob, AppLovin, Facebook Audience Network, Fyber, IronSource, Kiip, TapCore, TapJoy, Vungle and UnityAds. Despite being notified of the issue by watchdogs and the FTC, HyperBeard didn’t alert any of the ad networks that its apps were directed towards kids, not to make changes.

The issues around the invasiveness of third-party ad networks and trackers — and their questionable data collection practices — have come in the spotlight thanks to in-depth reporting about app privacy issues, various privacy experiments, petitions against their use and, more recently, as a counter-argument to Apple’s marketing of its iPhone as a privacy-conscious device.

Last year, these complaints finally led Apple to ban the use of third-party networks and trackers in any iOS apps aimed at kids.

HyperBeard’s install base was below 50 million at the time of the settlement, we understand. According to Sensor Tower, around 12 million of HyperBeard’s installs to date have come from its most popular title, Adorable Home, which only launched in January 2020. U.S. consumers so far have accounted for about 18% of the company’s total installs to date, followed by the Chinese App Store at 14%. So far, in 2020, Vietnam has emerged as leading the market with close to 24% of all installs since January, while the U.S. dropped to No. 7 overall, with a 7% share.

The FTC’s action against HyperBeard should serve as a warning to other app developers that simply saying an app is not meant for kids doesn’t exempt them from following COPPA guidelines, when it’s clear the app is targeting kids. In addition, app makers can and will be held liable for the data collection practices of third-party ad networks, even if the app itself isn’t storing kids’ personal data on its own servers.

“If your app or website is directed to kids, you’ve got to make sure parents are in the loop before you collect children’s personal information,” said Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a statement about the settlement. “This includes allowing someone else, such as an ad network, to collect persistent identifiers, like advertising IDs or cookies, in order to serve behavioral advertising,” he said.

Signal now has built-in face blurring for photos

By Devin Coldewey

Apps like Signal are proving invaluable in these days of unrest, and anything we can do to simplify and secure the way we share sensitive information is welcome. To that end Signal has added the ability to blur faces in photos sent via the app, making it easy to protect someone’s identity without leaving any trace on other, less secure apps.

After noting Signal’s support of the protests occurring all over the world right now against police brutality, the company’s founder Moxie Marlinspike writes in a blog post that “We’ve also been working to figure out additional ways we can support everyone in the street right now. One immediate thing seems clear: 2020 is a pretty good year to cover your face.”

Fortunately there are perfectly good tools out there both to find faces in photographs and to blur imagery (presumably irreversibly, given Signal’s past attention to detail in these matters, but the company has not returned request for comment). Put them together and boom, a new feature that lets you blur all the faces in a photo with a single tap.

This is helpful for the many users of Signal who use it to send sensitive information, including photos where someone might rather not be identifiable. Normally one would blur the face in another photo editor app, which is simple enough but not necessarily secure. Some editing apps, for instance, host computation-intensive processes on cloud infrastructure and may retain a copy of a photo being edited there — and who knows what their privacy or law enforcement policy may be?

If it’s sensitive at all, it’s better to keep everything on your phone and in apps you trust. And Signal is among the few apps trusted by the justifiably paranoid.

All face detection and blurring takes place on your phone, Marlinspike wrote. But he warned that the face detection isn’t 100 percent reliable, so be ready to manually draw or expand blur regions in case someone isn’t detected.

The new feature should appear in the latest versions of the app as soon as those are approved by Google and Apple.

Lastly Marlinspike wrote that the company is planning “distributing versatile face coverings to the community free of charge”; the picture shows a neck gaiter like those sold for warmth and face protection. Something to look forward to, then.

Kids now spend nearly as much time watching TikTok as YouTube in US, UK and Spain

By Sarah Perez

A new study on kids’ app usage and habits indicates a major threat to YouTube’s dominance, as kids now split their time between Google’s online video platform and other apps, like TikTok, Netflix, and mobile games like Roblox. Kids ages 4 to 15 now spend an average of 85 minutes per day watching YouTube videos, compared with 80 minutes per day spent on TikTok. The latter app also drove growth in kids’ social app use by 100% in 2019 and 200% in 2020, the report found.

The data in the annual report by digital safety app maker Qustodio was provided by 60,000 families with children ages 4 to 14 in the U.S., U.K., and Spain, so it’s data isn’t representative of global trends. The research encompasses children’s online habits from February 2019 to April 2020, takes into account the COVID-19 crisis, and specifically focused on four main categories of mobile applications: online video, social media, video games, and education.

YouTube, not surprisingly, remains one of the most-used apps among children, the study found.

Kids are now watching twice as many videos per day as they did just four years ago. This is despite the fact that YouTube’s flagship app is meant for ages 13 and up — an age-gate that was never truly enforced, leading to the FTC’s historic $170 million fine for the online video platform in 2019 for its noncompliance with U.S. children’s privacy regulations.

The app today is used by 69% of U.S. kids, 74% of kids in the U.K., and 88% of kids in Spain. Its app for younger children, YouTube Kids, meanwhile, is only used by 7% of kids in the U.S., 10% of kids in the U.K., and wasn’t even on the radar in Spain.

The next largest app for online video is Netflix, watched by 33% of U.S. kids, 29% of U.K. kids, and 28% of kids in Spain.

In early 2020, kids in the U.S. were spending 86 minutes on YouTube per day, down from 88 minutes in 2019. In the U.K., kids are watching 75 minutes per day, down from 77 minutes in 2019. And in Spain, kids watch 63 minutes per day, down from 66 minutes in 2019.

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, the time spent increased quite a bit, as you could imagine. In the U.S., for example, kids in mid-April spent 99 minutes per day on YouTube.

In part, the decline in total YouTube minutes could be due to the growing number of daily minutes kids spend on TikTok. The Beijing-owned short-form video app could gain further traction if more YouTube creators leave Google’s video platform as a result of the increasing regulations and the related losses in monetization. More creators would broaden TikTok’s appeal, as it expands its content lineup.

Last year, TikTok became one of the top five most-downloaded apps globally that wasn’t owned by Facebook, and it has continued to grow among all age demographics.

From May 2019 through February 2020, the average minutes per day kids spent on TikTok increased by 116% in the U.S. to reach 82 minutes, went up by 97% in the U.K. to reach 69 minutes, and increased 150% in Spain to reach 60 minutes.

In February 2020, 16.5% of U.S. kids used TikTok, just behind the 20.4% on Instagram, and ahead of the 16% on Snapchat. In the U.K. and Spain, 17.7% and 37.7% of kids used TikTok, respectively.

Time spent on TikTok increased during COVID-19 lockdowns, as well, leaving the app now only minutes away from being equal to time spent on YouTube. In the U.S., for example, kids’ average usage of TikTok hit 95 minutes per day during COVID-19 lockdowns compared with just 2 minutes more — 97 minutes — spent on YouTube

In terms of online gaming, Roblox dominates in the U.S. and U.K., where 54% and 51% of kids play, respectively. In Spain, only 17% do. Instead, kids in Spain currently prefer Brawl Stars.

Similarly, Minecraft is used by 31% of kids in the U.S., 23% in the U.K., and only 15% in Spain.

Roblox isn’t just a minor diversion. It’s also eating into kids’ screen time.

In February 2020, this one game accounted for 81 minutes per day, on average, in the U.S., 76 minutes per day in the U.K., and 64 minutes per day in Spain. On average, kids play Roblox about 20 minutes longer than any other video game app. (Take that, Fortnite!)

During COVID-19 lockdowns, the kids who played Roblox increased their time spent in the game, up 31%, 17%, and 45% respectively in the U.S., the U.K., and Spain. But lockdowns didn’t increase the percentage of kids who used gaming apps, as it turned out.

Education apps, as a whole, did not see much growth from 2019 to early 2020 until the COVID-19 lockdowns. But then, Google Classroom won in two of the three markets studied, with 65% of kids now using this app in Spain, 50% in the U.S., but only 31% in the U.K. (Show My Homework is more popular in the U.K., growing to 42% usage during COVID-19.)

All these increases in kids’ app usage may never return to pre-COVID-19 levels, the report suggested, even if usage declines a bit as government lockdowns lift. That mirrors the findings that Nielsen released today on connected TV usage, which has also not yet fallen to earlier, pre-COVID levels even as government restrictions lift.

“We now live in a world with an estimated 25 billion connected devices worldwide. Many of those in the hands of children,” Qustodio’s report noted. “Today, on average, a child in the U.S. watches nearly 100 minutes of YouTube per day, a child in the U.K. spends nearly 70 minutes on TikTok per day, a child in Spain plays Roblox over 90 minutes a day,” it said. “The world is not going to return to the way things were, because screen-time rates were already increasing. COVID-19 just accelerated the process,” the firm concluded.

Twitter has a record-breaking week as users looked for news of protests and COVID-19

By Sarah Perez

Civil unrest due to the nationwide George Floyd protests drove Twitter to see a record number of new installs this week, according to data from two app store intelligence firms, Apptopia and Sensor Tower. While the firms’ exact findings differed in terms of the total number of new downloads or when records were broken, the firms agreed that Twitter’s app had its largest-ever week, globally.

Twitter’s usage is on the rise because of the immediacy around news-sharing its platform provides. This was in particular demand amid the George Floyd protests in the U.S., as protestors used Twitter to share live images and videos of the demonstrations, the fires and looting, instances of police brutality, and more. Meanwhile, non-protestors downloaded the app in order to watch the events unfold directly and get unfiltered, breaking news.

According to data from Sensor Tower, Twitter saw just over a million installs on Monday and around 1 million new installs on Tuesday — making Monday the day seeing the most single-day installs since at least January 1, 2014, when the firm began recording app store data. At its peak, U.S. installs this week were at a four-year high. On Wednesday, Sensor Tower estimates Twitter installs declined a bit causing the app to rank slightly lower on app store global charts.

Apptopia, on the other hand, found that Twitter topped its record for installs on Wednesday with 677,000 worldwide downloads. This included a near-record download figure of 140,000 installs in the U.S., with a larger number of installs coming from international markets, including the U.K., India, Brazil, and Mexico. However, this U.S. download figure was the second-highest daily install number for the U.S. in Twitter’s lifetime, the firm said.

The truth between these two firms’ different numbers is probably somewhere in the middle. Sensor Tower routinely comes in with higher figures from Apptopia, but from a broader viewpoint, the two firms tend to see the same overall in trends. In this week’s case, they both point to a breakout week for Twitter’s mobile app download growth.

While it may seem odd that Twitter saw more installs in non-U.S. markets, it is an indication that the world is watching these events unfold. But it’s also perhaps something of a perfect storm for Twitter demand, because the civil unrest isn’t the only driver for the international installs.

Many countries are also dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, with Brazil being particularly hard hit right now, for example. That could be fueling other increased interest in the app, given its news-driven nature.

In addition to breaking download numbers, Apptopia also noted that yesterday was a record for daily active users on Twitter in the U.S., when some 40 million people in the U.S. logged into the app.

For comparison’s sake, Twitter reported its app had 31 million “monetizable” daily active users (mDAUs) in the U.S. in Q4 2019, which grew to 33 million in Q1 2020. An mDAU isn’t exactly the same metric as a daily active user. Rather, it’s a metric Twitter invented to count the number of logged-in users on its platforms that are capable of displaying ads. However, it’s now the only way Twitter reports its user data so it’s the closest comparison that can be offered.

To what extent these spikes in installs and usage play out longer-term for Twitter remain to be seen, and we won’t know specifics until Twitter reports its updated metrics in its next quarterly earnings.

Google and Walmart establish dominance in India’s mobile payments market as WhatsApp Pay struggles to launch

By Manish Singh

In India, it’s Google and Walmart-owned PhonePe that are racing neck-and-neck to be the top player in the mobile payments market, while Facebook remains mired in a regulatory maze for WhatsApp Pay’s rollout.

In May, more than 75 million users transacted on Google Pay app, ahead of PhonePe’s 60 million users, people familiar with the companies’ figures told TechCrunch. More than 10 million users transact on SoftBank -backed Paytm’s app everyday, according to internal data seen by TechCrunch.

Google still lags Paytm’s reach with merchants, but the Android -maker has maintained its overall lead in recent months despite every player losing momentum due to one of the most stringent lockdowns globally in place in India.

The company is facing an antitrust probe in India over allegations that it is abusing its market position to unfairly promote its mobile payments app in the country, Reuters reported last month.

Paytm, once the dominant player in India, has been struggling to sustain its user base for nearly two years. The company had about 60 million transacting users in January last year, said people familiar with the matter.

Paytm had over 50 million monthly active users on its app in May, a spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Data sets consider transacting users to be those who have made at least one payment through the app in a month. It’s a coveted metric and is different from the much more popular monthly active users (MAU), or daily active users (DAU) that various firms use to share their performance. A portion of those labeled as monthly active users do not make any transaction on the app.

India’s homegrown payment firm, Paytm, has struggled to grow in recent years in part because of a mandate by India’s central bank to mobile wallet firms — the middlemen between users and banks — to perform know-your-client (KYC) verification of users, which created confusion among many, some of the people said. These woes come despite the firm’s fundraising success, which amounts to more than $3 billion.

In a statement, a Paytm spokesperson said, “When it comes to mobile wallets one has to remember the fact that Paytm was the company that set up the infrastructure to do KYC and has been able to complete over 100 million KYCs by physically meeting customers.”

Paytm has long benefited from integration with popular services such as Uber, and food delivery startup Swiggy, but fewer than 10 million of Paytm’s monthly transacting users have relied on this feature in recent months.

Two executives, who like everyone else spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution, also said that Paytm resisted the idea of adopting Unified Payments Interface. That’s the nearly two-year-old payments infrastructure built and backed by a collation of banks in India that enables money to be sent directly between accounts at different banks and eliminates the need for a separate mobile wallet.

Paytm’s delays in adopting the standard left room for Google and PhonePe, another early adopter of UPI, to seize the opportunity.

Paytm, which adopted UPI a year after Google and PhonePe, refuted the characterization that it resisted joining UPI ecosystem.

“We are the company that cherishes innovation and technology that can transform the lives of millions. We understand the importance of financial technology and for this very reason, we have always been the champion and supporter of UPI. We, however, launched it on Paytm later than our peers because it took a little longer for us to get the approval to start UPI based services,“ a spokesperson said.

A sign for Paytm online payment method, operated by One97 Communications Ltd., is displayed at a street stall selling accessories in Bengaluru, India, on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Missing from the fray is Facebook, which counts India as its biggest market by user count. The company began talks with banks to enter India’s mobile payments market, estimated to reach $1 trillion by 2023 (according to Credit Suisse), through WhatsApp as early as 2017. WhatsApp is the most popular smartphone app in India with over 400 million users in the country.

Facebook launched WhatsApp Pay to a million users in the following year, but has been locked in a regulatory battle since to expand the payments service to the rest of its users. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said WhatsApp Pay would roll out nationwide by end of last year, but the firm is yet to secure all approvals — and new challenges keep cropping up. The company, which invested $5.7 billion in the nation’s top telecom operator Reliance Jio Platforms in April, declined to comment.

PhonePe, which was conceived only a year before WhatsApp set eyes to India’s mobile payments, has consistently grown as it added several third-party services. These include leading food and grocery delivery services Swiggy and Grofers, ride-hailing giant Ola, ticketing and staying players Ixigo and Oyo Hotels, in a so-called super app strategy. In November, about 63 million users were active on PhonePe, 45 million of whom transacted through the app.

Karthik Raghupathy, the head of business at PhonePe, confirmed the company’s transacting users to TechCrunch.

Three factors contributed to the growth of PhonePe, he said in an interview. “The rise of smartphones and mobile data adoption in recent years; early adoption to UPI at a time when most mobile payments firms in India were betting on virtual mobile-wallet model; and taking an open-ecosystem approach,” he said.

“We opened our consumer base to all our merchant partners very early on. Our philosophy was that we would not enter categories such as online ticketing for movies and travel, and instead work with market leaders on those fronts,” he explained.

“We also went to the market with a completely open, interoperable QR code that enabled merchants and businesses to use just one QR code to accept payments from any app — not just ours. Prior to this, you would see a neighborhood store maintain several QR codes to support a number of payment apps. Over the years, our approach has become the industry norm,” he said, adding that PhonePe has been similarly open to other wallets and payments options as well.

But despite the growth and its open approach, PhonePe has still struggled to win the confidence of investors in recent quarters. Stoking investors’ fears is the lack of a clear business model for mobile payments firms in India.

PhonePe executives held talks to raise capital last year that would have valued it at $8 billion, but the negotiations fell apart. Similar talks early this year, which would have valued PhonePe at $3 billion, which hasn’t been previously reported, also fell apart, three people familiar with the matter said. Raghupathy and a PhonePe spokesperson declined to comment on the company’s fundraising plans.

For now, Walmart has agreed to continue to bankroll the payments app, which became part of the retail group with Flipkart acquisition in 2018.

As UPI gained inroads in the market, banks have done away with any promotional incentives to mobile payments players, one of their only revenue sources.

At an event in Bangalore late last year, Sajith Sivanandan, managing director and business head of Google Pay and Next Billion User Initiatives, said current local rules have forced Google Pay to operate without a clear business model in India.

Coronavirus takes its toll on payments companies

The coronavirus pandemic that prompted New Delhi to order a nationwide lockdown in late March preceded a significant, but predictable, drop in mobile payments usage in the following weeks. But while Paytm continues to struggle in bouncing back, PhonePe and Google Pay have fully recovered as India eased some restrictions.

About 120 million UPI transactions occurred on Paytm in the month of May, down from 127 million in April and 186 million in March, according to data compiled by NPCI, the body that oversees UPI, and obtained by TechCrunch. (Paytm maintains a mobile wallet business, which contributes to its overall transacting users.)

Google Pay, which only supports UPI payments, facilitated 540 million transactions in May, up from 434 million in April and 515 million in March. PhonePe’s 454 million March figure slid to 368 million in April, but it turned the corner, with 460 million transactions last month. An NPCI spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

PhonePe and Google Pay together accounted for about 83% of all UPI transactions in India last month. UPI itself has over 117 million users.

Industry executives working at rival firms said it would be a mistake to dismiss Paytm, the one-time leader of the mobile payments market in India.

Paytm has cut its marketing expenses and aggressively chased merchants in recent quarters. Earlier this year, it unveiled a range of gadgets, including a device that displays QR check-out codes that comes with a calculator and USB charger, a jukebox that provides voice confirmations of transactions and services to streamline inventory management for merchants.

Merchants who use these devices pay a recurring fee to Paytm, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, co-founder and chief executive of the firm told TechCrunch in an interview earlier this year. Paytm has also entered several businesses, such as movie and travel ticketing, lending, games and e-commerce, and set up a digital payments bank over the years.

“Everyone knows Paytm. Paytm is synonymous with digital payments in India. And outside, there’s a perceived notion that it’s truly the Alipay of India,” an executive at a rival firm said.

How to attract more than 10 million TikTok followers in 5 months

By Walter Thompson
Adam Guild Contributor
Adam Guild is a growth marketing expert and the founder of Placepull.

Imagine going from zero followers to 10,000,000+ followers in less than five months. I have watched somebody do exactly that.

My brother Topper Guild is already reaping the benefits of fame: People stop him in the street for photos and he’s been offered thousands of dollars to promote brands and befriend celebrities.

In less than 150 days, he went from being a high school sophomore to earning more than a Harvard MBA and working with his idols like boxer Ryan Garcia. In time, he also leveraged his following to score more than 100,000,000 views for direct-to-consumer brands like FashionNova and NUGGS.

How did he do it? And how would he advise you?

Consumer startups can apply these same strategies, tactics and ideas to grow quickly on TikTok, which is not nearly as saturated as Instagram and offers faster growth rates.

Let’s dive right into the principles he used to grow (that you can use too).

Do what works

Is Zoom the next Android or the next BlackBerry?

By Walter Thompson
Gaurav Jain Contributor
Gaurav Jain is one of the founders of Afore Capital, a $47 million fund focused on pre-seed. He was also an early product manager for Android.

In business, there’s nothing so valuable as having the right product at the right time. Just ask Zoom, the hot cloud-based video conferencing platform experiencing explosive growth thanks to its sudden relevance in the age of sheltering in place.

Having worked at BlackBerry in its heyday in the early 2000s, I see a lot of parallels to what Zoom is going through right now. As Zooming into a video meeting or a classroom is today, so too was pulling out your BlackBerry to fire off an email or check your stocks circa 2002. Like Zoom, the company then known as Research in Motion had the right product for enterprise users that increasingly wanted to do business on the go.

Of course, BlackBerry’s story didn’t have a happy ending.

From 1999 to 2007, BlackBerry seemed totally unstoppable. But then Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, Google launched Android and all of the chinks in the BlackBerry armor started coming undone, one by one. How can Zoom avoid the same fate?

As someone who was at both BlackBerry and Android during their heydays, my biggest takeaway is that product experience trumps everything else. It’s more important than security (an issue Zoom is getting blasted about right now), what CIOs want, your user install base and the larger brand identity.

When the iPhone was released, many people within BlackBerry rightly pointed out that we had a technical leg up on Apple in many areas important to business and enterprise users (not to mention the physical keyboard for quickly cranking out emails)… but how much did that advantage matter in the end? If there is serious market pull, the rest eventually gets figured out… a lesson I learned from my time at BlackBerry that I was lucky enough to be able to immediately apply when I joined Google to work on Android.

Mobile safety app Parachute’s new feature prevents anyone from turning off your live-streamed video

By Sarah Perez

Mobile safety app Parachute is today rolling out a new feature that will prevent an unauthorized person who grabs your iPhone to stop it from recording live video, even if they attempt to turn off the phone entirely. The timely update arrives amid the nationwide George Floyd protests against police brutality and the systemic racism present in the American justice system.

Bystander video of Floyd’s death triggered the demonstrations and protests, and video has continued to serve as key documentation of those events.

The Parchute app, which first launched at TechCrunch Disrupt 2015 as “Witness,” has long described itself as a panic button for the smartphone age. The app is intended to alert your emergency contacts when you’re in trouble — by simultaneously calling, texting, and emailing and by sending them your live video, audio, and location straight from your current location.

The app also has an option that allows users to record discreetly by blacking out the screen so it doesn’t show that live video is being recorded. Plus, Parachute records simultaneously from both cameras to increase the chance of getting the incident on film. The video is pushed out from the phone to Parachute’s platform and the evidence of the video is erased from the phone. In addition to the link sent to your emergency contacts, users can also later download the video from the link they’re emailed directly.

Despite its unique functionality, the app has gained only a small following in the years since its launch. According to data from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower, Parachute has not topped 100,000 downloads on the U.S. App Store. It also doesn’t currently rank on the App Store’s charts.

Parachute declined to provide user numbers, but noted its app has seen higher activity this past week in the U.S. and in Hong Kong.

Its new feature, known as SuperLock, is an attempt to regain interest in Parachute’s video recording feature set.

SuperLock works in tandem with Apple’s Guided Access to lock down the user’s phone. Parachute explains how to set up Guided Access via an in-app tutorial. The process involves heading to the iPhone’s Settings area, then going to the Guided Access section under Accessibility and toggling the switch so it’s on.

Afterward, you return to the app and triple-click the power button and tap on the “Start” button at the top right of the screen to select a 6-digit passcode. This is the passcode that will have to be entered to stop Parachute from recording video in the future. You then triple-click the iPhone power button again, enter the passcode you just created again, and tap the “End” button on the top left.

When setup is complete, you can put Parachute in Superlock mode at any time by triple-clicking the power button.

The app will keep recording the video and lock down your iPhone until the power button is triple-clicked and the passcode is re-entered.

This process cuts off access to the “X” button that typically displays to end a recording incident in the app. It also prevents anyone else who gains possession of your phone from shutting off the video themselves.

The company explains that even if your phone runs out of battery, crashes, or experiences a hard reboot, the SuperLock feature can be configured to resume recording upon reboot. And SuperLock can work with the feature that disables the video preview, so no one knows your phone is recording.

Parachute can also run in the background as you switch and use other apps, the company adds.

In the case that the unauthorized user tries to guess your passcode, an increasing time-delay mechanism will prevent them from trying too many combinations quickly — similar to how the iPhone stops people from having the chance to quickly try different passcodes.

The company’s business model allows for the storage of incidents that expire 3 months after being created. A full membership is $9.99/month for unlimited devices, contacts, alerts, incidents, and storage. An affordable $2.99 per year “Lite” membership is also available. Parachute has not taken VC funding.

The update is live today on iPhone.

India’s richest man built a telecom operator everyone wants a piece of

By Manish Singh

As investors’ appetites sour in the midst of a pandemic, a three-and-a-half-year-old Indian firm has secured $10.3 billion in a month from Facebook and four U.S.-headquartered private equity firms.

The major deals for Reliance Jo Platforms have sparked a sudden interest among analysts, executives and readers at a time when many are skeptical of similar big check sizes that some investors wrote to several young startups, many of which are today struggling to make sense of their finances.

Prominent investors across the globe, including in India, have in recent weeks cautioned startups that they should be prepared for the “worst time” as new checks become elusive.

Elsewhere in India, the world’s second-largest internet market and where all startups together raised a record $14.5 billion last year, firms are witnessing down rounds (where their valuations are slashed). Miten Sampat, an angel investor, said this week that startups should expect a 40%-50% haircut in their valuations if they do get an investment offer.

Facebook’s $5.7 billion investment valued the company at $57 billion. But U.S. private equity firms Silver Lake, Vista, General Atlantic, and KKR — all the other deals announced in the past five weeks — are paying a 12.5% premium for their stake in Jio Platforms, valuing it at $65 billion.

How did an Indian firm become so valuable? What exactly does it do? Is it just as unprofitable as Uber? What does its future look like? Why is it raising so much money? And why is it making so many announcements instead of one.

It’s a long story.

Run up to the launch of Jio

Billionaire Mukesh Ambani gave a rundown of his gigantic Indian empire at a gathering in December 2015 packed with 35,000 people including hundreds of Bollywood celebrities and industry titans.

“Reliance Industries has the second-largest polyester business in the world. We produce one and a half million tons of polyester for fabrics a year, which is enough to give every Indian 5 meters of fabric every year, year-on-year,” said Ambani, who is Asia’s richest man.

Amid protests, US police scanner apps and others saw record downloads

By Sarah Perez

Downloads of police scanner apps, tools for private communication and mobile safety apps hit record numbers this past weekend in the U.S., amid continued nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd, as well as the systemic problems of racial prejudice that plague the American justice system. According to new data from app store intelligence firm Apptopia, top U.S. police scanner apps were downloaded a combined 213,000 times this weekend, including Friday — a 125% increase from the weekend prior and a record number for this group of apps.

The group of top apps included those with similar, if somewhat generic, titles such as Scanner Radio – Fire and Police Scanner, Police Scanner, 5-0 Radio Police Scanner, Police Scanner Radio & Fire and Police Scanner +.

The Police Scanner app saw the most downloads of the group, with 19,000+ on Friday, nearly 24,000 on Saturday and 35,700+ on Sunday. However, the daily active user count for the Scanner Radio – Fire and Police Scanner app was higher throughout the weekend, with some 43,000+ to nearly 45,000 users launching the app on a daily basis during this time. That was followed by Police Scanner, whose daily user count ranged from 38,000 to more than 40,000, per Apptopia’s report.

Overall, however, the downloads were fairly spread out among the group of apps. That indicates people were likely coming across the apps through app store searches, rather than through increased word-of-mouth recommendations for one specific app or an ad of some kind.

In addition to the record downloads for police scanners, two other apps also saw significant increases due to the protests: encrypted messaging app Signal and Citizen, the latter a community safety app for real-time alerts and live video.

Signal was downloaded nearly 37,000 times over the weekend and Citizen was installed over 48,000 times, the firm found. On Sunday, both apps broke new records for single-day downloads in the U.S., as well, with nearly 24,000 downloads for Citizen and 15,000 for Signal.

Police scanner and other communication apps were only some of the tools being used to keep track of protests over the weekend. Users have also communicated through social media posts across Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, including by posting and sharing videos, photos and other live-streamed events. Some people believe these platforms give a better window into what’s happening on the ground in real time compared with news reports, which editorialize the content or present it with bias and miss some of the key stories that would otherwise not gain attention. 

Singapore’s micromobility startup Beam raises $26 million

By Manish Singh

Beam, a Singapore-headquartered micromobility firm that offers shared e-scooters, has raised $26 million in a new financing round as it looks to expand its footprint in Korea, Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Taiwan.

Sequoia India and Hana Ventures led the two-and-a-half-year-old startup’s Series A financing round, while several more investors from Asia Pacific region including RTP Global, AppWorks, Right Click, Cherubic and RedBadge Pacific participated, Beam said. The startup has raised $32.4 million to date, a spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Beam, like Bounce and Yulu in India, offers electric scooters in the aforementioned five markets. Electric and gasoline scooters have become popular in several Asian nations and elsewhere as people look for alternative transportation mediums to move around faster and at less cost.

While these vehicles make inroads into various markets, it’s also not uncommon to find these scooters abandoned carelessly in the streets. Beam said unlike other startups, it incentivizes its riders through in-app offers to park the scooters at predetermined spots.

“I’m really excited about our new technology and its ability to reduce the problems associated with randomly scattered scooters around a city. This helps us to further improve our industry-leading vehicle retention rates, reduce operational costs, and most importantly, benefits communities by keeping city streets neater,” said Beam co-founder and chief executive Alan Jiang.

Beam, which did not disclose how many customers it has amassed, will use the fresh capital to grow its operational and engineering focus and grow deeper in its existing markets, it said. It will also “accelerate” the launch of its third-generation e-scooter, the Beam Saturn, which features swappable batteries, improved build, to more markets, it said.

Abheek Anand, managing director at Sequoia Capital India, said Beam’s collaboration with regulators, technology, and insights into the transportation landscape stand to give it an edge in the Asia Pacific region.

The startup’s fundraising comes at a time when many young firms, especially those operating in transportation category, in Asia are struggling to raise capital. Beam said it had implemented stringent cleaning and operations practices to limit the possibility of virus transmission to allay riders’ concern.

This Week in Apps: Facebook launches trio of app experiments, TikTok gets spammed, plus coronavirus impacts on app economy

By Sarah Perez

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week we’re continuing to look at how the coronavirus outbreak is impacting the world of mobile applications, with fresh data from App Annie about trends playing out across app categories benefiting from the pandemic, lockdowns and societal changes. We’re also keeping up with the COVID-19 contact-tracing apps making headlines, and delving into the week’s other news.

We saw a few notable new apps launch this week, including HBO’s new streaming service HBO Max, plus three new app experiments from Facebook’s R&D group. Android Studio 4.0 also launched this week. Instagram is getting better AR tools and IGTV is getting ads. TikTok got spammed in India.

Meanwhile, what is going on with app review? A shady app rises to the top of the iPhone App Store. Google cracks down on conspiracy theory-spreading apps. And a TikTok clone uses a pyramid scheme-powered invite system to rise up the charts.

COVID-19 contact-tracing apps in the news 

  • Latvia: Reuters this week reported that Latvia aims to become one of the first countries to launch a smartphone app, Stop Covid, using the new toolkit created by Apple and Alphabet’s Google to help trace coronavirus infections.
  • Australia: The role of the country’s Covidsafe app in the recovery appears to be marginal, The Guardian reports. In the month since its launch, only one person has been reported to have been identified using data from it. A survey even found that Australians were more supportive of using telecommunications metadata to track close contacts (79%) than they were of downloading an app (69.8%). In a second survey, their support for the app dropped to 64%. The app has been maligned by the public debate over it and technical issues.
  • France: The country’s data protection watchdog, CNIL, reviewed its contact-tracing app StopCovid, finding there were no major issues with the technical implementation and legal framework around StopCovid, with some caveats. France isn’t using Google and Apple’s contact-tracing API, but instead uses a controversial centralized contact-tracing protocol called ROBERT. This relies on a central server to assign a permanent ID and generate ephemeral IDs attached to this permanent ID. CNIL says the app will eventually be open-sourced and it will create a bug bounty. On Wednesday, the app passed its first vote in favor of its release.
  • Qatar: Serious security vulnerabilities in Qatar’s mandatory contact-tracing app were uncovered by Amnesty International. An investigation by Amnesty’s Security Lab discovered a critical weakness in the configuration of Qatar’s EHTERAZ contact-tracing app. Now fixed, the vulnerability would have allowed cyberattackers to access highly sensitive personal information, including the name, national ID, health status and location data of more than one million users.
  • India: India’s contact-tracing app, Aarogya Setu, is going open-source, according to Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology Secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney on Tuesday. The code is being published on GitHub. Nearly 98% of the app’s more than 114 million users are on Android. The government will also offer a cash bounty of $1,325 to security experts who find bugs or vulnerabilities.
  • Switzerland: Several thousand people are now testing a pilot version of Switzerland’s contact-tracing app, SwissCovid. Like Lativia, the app is one of the first to use Apple and Google’s contact-tracing API. Employees at EPFL, ETH Zurich, the Army and select hospitals and government agencies will be the first to test the Swiss app before its public launch planned for mid-June.
  • China: China’s health-tracking QR codes, embedded in popular WeChat and Alipay smartphone apps, are raising privacy concerns, Reuters reports. To walk around freely, people must have a green rating. They also now have to present their health QR codes to gain entry into restaurants, parks and other venues. These efforts have been met with little resistance. But the eastern city of Hangzhou has since proposed that users are given a color-coded health badge based on their medical records and lifestyle habits, including how much they exercised, their eating and drinking habits, whether they smoked and how much they slept the night before. This suggestion set off a storm of criticism on China’s Weibo, a Twitter-like platform.

Google’s latest experiment encourages social distancing through AR

By Brian Heater

Several months into this pandemic, you can no doubt already eyeball six feet/two meters with the best of them. But if you’re still having trouble — and happen to have an Android device handy — Google’s got you covered, I guess.

The latest project out of the company’s Experiments With Google collection, Sodar is a simple browser-based app that uses WebXR to offer a mobile augmented reality social distance. Visiting the site in Chrome on an Android handset will bring up the app. From there you’ll need to point your camera at the ground and move it around as the device recognizes the plane with a matrix of dots.

Sodar – use WebXR to help visualise social distancing guidelines in your environment. Using Sodar on supported mobile devices, create an augmented reality two meter radius ring around you. #hacktohelp https://t.co/Bu78QrEN9f pic.twitter.com/kufatNFDQk

— Experiments with Google (@ExpWithGoogle) May 28, 2020

Move it up, and you’ll get a visual perimeter of two meters (that’s 6.6 feet for us imperial unit loving Americans) — the CDC-recommended length to help curb the spread of COVID-19. The organization also handily lists it as “about two arms’ length. The app is probably more clever than it is useful at this point. Perhaps some day in the future, if smart glasses ever really take off. A big if, of course. 

Meantime, holding a phone up to make sure you’re a proper distance away from your fellow human/disease vector is a bit less practical than good old fashioned common sense.

Facebook takes on Twitter with Venue, a ‘second screen’ companion for live events

By Sarah Perez

Facebook’s R&D group, NPE Team, is launching a new app for engaging fellow fans around live events, Venue. This is the third new app to launch just this week from Facebook’s internal team focused on experimenting with new concepts in social networking. With Venue, the company aims to offer a digital companion for live events, starting with this Sunday’s NASCAR race.

The new app appears to be a challenge to Twitter, which today serves as the de facto “second screen” for commenting on live events and engaging with fellow fans. On Twitter, fans often use hashtags to add their commentary to live events that can range from TV show premieres to sports competitions to major political happenings, like live-streamed congressional hearings or the “State of the Union” presidential address, for example.

Twitter’s in-house curation team also rounds up the highlights from major events (e.g.), which are quick summaries featuring notable tweets, video clips, photos, comments and more about an event or related news story.

While there are some similarities with Twitter, Facebook’s Venue takes a different approach to the second screen.

Instead of having everyone viewing the event constantly chiming in with their own thoughts and reactions, the commentators for a given event hosted in Venue will only include well-known personalities — like journalists, current or former athletes, or aspiring “fan-analysts.” The latter could include popular social media personalities, for example.

These commentators will provide their own takes on the event and pose interactive questions and polls for those watching. The event host may also open up short, constrained chats around specific moments during the event — but fan commentary isn’t the main focus of the app.

In addition, fans don’t stay glued to their phone during the entire event when using Venue. Instead, the app sends out a notification to users when there’s a new “moment” available in the app. These “moments” aren’t like Twitter’s summaries. They’re one of the short, digital opportunities where fans can participate.

Facebook will first test Venue with NASCAR’s Food City presents the Supermarket Heroes 500 race on Sunday, May 31, 2020. Social media personality, nascarcasm, will host the in-app “venue.”

Future NASCAR races will also be hosted in Venue, with commentators including nascarcasm, FOX Sports NASCAR reporter Alan Cavanna, and NASCAR driver Landon Cassill.

“As NASCAR makes its return to action over the coming weeks, Venue will provide users with a unique and exciting way to connect with fellow race fans from around the globe – all from the safety and comfort of their own homes,” said Tim Clark, NASCAR SVP and Chief Digital Officer, in a statement. “NASCAR was built on innovation, and we couldn’t be more excited to help a great partner like Facebook’s New Product Experimentation team innovate around new platforms,” he added.

Facebook believes the new app will give viewers the chance to better engage with live events and fellow fans.

“Live broadcasts still offer the rare opportunity for millions of people to consume content simultaneously,” Facebook explained in its announcement. “Despite drawing large concurrent viewership, live broadcasts are still a mostly solo viewing experience,” it noted.

That’s a bit of stretch. Fans certainly engage with one another when chatting about live events on Twitter. And when Twitter streams the video from a live event — something Venue doesn’t do, by the way — Twitter will offer a dedicated space where users can easily see the tweets from fellow viewers. Other live video platforms, including Facebook’s own Facebook Live and Instagram Live, also include chat experiences as do YouTube Live and Twitch.

The real difference between Venue and Twitter is that it shifts the balance of power. On Twitter, everyone’s comments are given equal footing. In Venue, it’s the expert hosts leading and curating the conversation.

Facebook hasn’t announced what future events Venue may host beyond NASCAR but it sounds like it has plans to expand Venue further down the road as it refers to NASCAR as its “first” sports partner.

The Venue app is live today on iOS and Android.

Uber UK launches Work Hub for drivers to find other gig jobs during COVID-19

By Natasha Lomas

Uber UK has launched a Work Hub for drivers to view a selection of temporary work opportunities with other companies as a way to supplement pandemic-hit ride-hailing earnings during the coronavirus crisis.

The Work Hub sits within the Uber driver app and displays offers of work from third party providers — including jobs that involve using a car to make deliveries — offering alternative gigs to drivers whose earnings have been affected by weak demand for ride-hailing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ride-hailing giant rolled out a similar feature in the US back in April, offering drivers there the ability to respond to job postings from around a dozen other companies, as well as the ability to receive orders through other Uber units: Eats, Freight and Works.

The UK flavor of the feature has fewer external suppliers (three at launch) — and seemingly no other internal Uber work gigs on offer.

From today, Uber said UK drivers can access “thousands” of “temporary job postings” and “flexible earning opportunities” with other companies — initially delivery firms Hermes and Yodel.

The recruiter, Adecco Group, is also offering temp work via the UK Work Hub for drivers.

“We’ll continue to add new partnerships and listings to the Work Hub as we find more opportunities for you, so check the Driver app regularly for updates,” Uber adds in a blog post announcing the launch.

The company has previously emailed UK drivers encouraging them to sign up for delivery work with the online supermarket Ocado, as demand for grocery delivery has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But it’s now made this signposting more formal, via the Work Hub — and says the “thousands” of jobs are additional to any Ocado opportunities it had already emailed to UK drivers.

It’s not clear why Uber UK is not offering drivers the ability to pick up Uber Eats orders to tide themselves over.

However the Eats vs Uber ride-hailing labor force in the country likely has relatively little overlap, with cycle and motorbike couriers dominating UK Eats deliveries. Additionally, no UK cities keen to encourage extra cars to hit the streets right now — so Uber may have multiple reasons not to want to cross those streams in Europe.

“Drivers are doing essential work to keep our communities moving as we fight this virus, but with fewer trips happening they need more ways to earn. With the Work Hub, drivers can find these additional earning opportunities with other companies, working flexibly around driving on the Uber app if they choose to do so,” said Jamie Heywood, Uber’s regional GM for Northern and Eastern Europe, in a statement.

The Work Hub initiative generally looks intended to encourage drivers to supplement (pandemic-hit) Uber earnings with other gig jobs. And — cynics might say — discourage an essential platform workforce from looking elsewhere for permanent work.

Uber will need its pool of drivers to be there still, owning a car and available for gig work, when normalcy returns if it’s ride-hailing business is to bounce back.

Aside from the US and the UK, other markets where Uber has already launched the Work Hub for drivers are Australia, Chile, Costa Rica, Canada, Mexico, Portugal and South Africa.

While the feature has been born in a crisis, Uber had already made moves into the broader temp work space — launching a shift finder app, called Uber Works, in Chicago last year. And the company told us it sees longer term opportunity for the Work Hub, as a vehicle to broaden the type of earning opportunities it can put in front of drivers, saying the initiative will continue to evolve.

Google makes sharing Plus Codes easier in a push to simplify addressing system globally

By Manish Singh

Two years ago, Google open-sourced Plus Codes, a digital addressing system to help billions of people navigate to places that don’t have clear addresses. The company said today it is making it easier for anyone with an Android device to share its rendition of an address — a six-digit alphanumeric code.

Google Maps users on Android can now tap the blue dot that represents their current location to view and share their unique six-digit coordinate with friends. Anyone with the code can look it up on Google Maps or Google Search to get the precise location of the destination.

The codes look like this: G6G4+CJ Delhi, India. Google says it divides the geographical surface of the world into tiled areas and attributes a unique six-letter code and the name of the city and country to each of them.

More than 2 billion people on the planet either don’t have an address or have an address that isn’t easy to locate. This challenge is more prevalent in developed markets such as India where a street address could often be as long as a paragraph, and where people often rely on nearby landmarks to navigate their way.

Google is not the only firm that is attempting to simplify the addressing system. London-based what3words has broken the world in 57 trillion squares and assigned each of those blocks with three randomly combined words such as toddler.geologist.animated that are easier to decipher and share. The company told TechCrunch earlier that it had partnered with a number of firms including several carmakers to expand its reach.

But what3words and five-year-old project Plus Codes have both struggled to gain wider traction. When Google announced this project in India, its executives told this correspondent that they were exploring ways to work with logistics firms and government agencies such as the postal department to get wider adoption — though none of it has materialized yet. At the time, the company had also tested Plus Codes at some concerts in India, the executives said.

To get wider adoption, Google open sourced Plus Codes in 2018 so that developers and businesses could find their own use cases. “If you’ve ever been in an emergency, you know that being able to share your location for help to easily find you is critical. Yet in many places in the world, organizations struggle with this challenge on a daily basis,” the company said today.

Meditation and mindfulness apps continue their surge amid pandemic

By Sarah Perez

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a surge in downloads of mental wellness, and specifically, those focused on meditation, dealing with anxiety and helping users fall asleep. According to a new report from app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower, the world’s 10 largest English-language mental wellness apps in April saw a combined 2 million more downloads during the month of April 2020 compared with January, reaching close to 10 million total downloads for the month.

The charts were dominated by market leaders, including No. 1 app Calm with 3.9 million downloads in April, followed by Headspace with 1.5 million downloads, then Meditopia, with 1.4 million. Of those, Calm saw the largest number of new installs, with more than 911,000 more downloads in April compared with January, a rise of nearly 31%. Another app, Relax: Master Your Destiny, grew 218% since the start of the year, picking up 391,000 downloads in April.

In addition, eight of the top 10 grew their monthly installs in April compared with January. Most also grew their number of new downloads on a month-over-month basis between March and April as well, the firm noted.

This is not the first report to detail the surge of interest in mobile meditation apps since the COVID-19 outbreak. App Annie had earlier found that downloads of mindfulness apps hit 750,000 during the week of March 29, 2020, up 25% from the weekly average in January and February.

The apps have used a variety of different approaches to grow their businesses amid the pandemic. One app, Headspace, was the first to offer free memberships to front-line medical professionals and first responders. It later expanded its free access to the unemployed and launched a collection of free content for those living in New York, in partnership with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Other apps, including Breethe, Ten Percent Happier and Simple Habit, offered free memberships to medical workers, following Headspace’s lead.

This strategy has the short-term benefit of gaining the apps good press while helping those who are battling COVID-19 on the front lines. But it also comes across as a little opportunistic — as if the companies are using the pandemic and, in particular, medical workers’ struggles to boost their downloads. If the companies truly cared about the impacts of COVID-19 on users’ stress and anxiety, a better strategy may have been one that involved rolling out an entirely free collection to all their users focused on that topic of COVID-19 stress and anxiety, specifically.

Calm, meanwhile, took a different approach. It launched a page of free resources, but instead focused on partnerships to expand free access to more users, while also growing its business. Earlier this month, nonprofit health system Kaiser Permanente announced it was making the Calm app’s Premium subscription free for its members, for example — the first health system to do so.

The company’s decision to not pursue as many free giveaways meant it may have missed the easy boost from press coverage. However, it may be a better long-term strategy as it sets up Calm for distribution partnerships that could continue beyond the immediate COVID-19 crisis.

Sensor Tower’s full report delves into which apps are more popular in the U.S. versus the U.K., and other data. It’s available here.

Image credits: Sensor Tower

Facebook launches CatchUp, an audio-only calling app that shows who’s ready to chat now

By Sarah Perez

Facebook’s internal R&D group, NPE Team, has today launched a new app called CatchUp that makes it easier for friends and family in the U.S. to coordinate phone calls or set up group calls with up to 8 people. While there are a number of group chat apps available to users today, what makes CatchUp unique is that the calls it enables are audio-only, not video, and it flags when users are available. In addition, CatchUp won’t need a Facebook account to use the service — the app works with your phone’s contacts list.

CatchUp does seem to take some inspiration from Houseparty, in that users in CatchUp can designate when they’re available to talk by setting their status in the app. This is similar to how Houseparty’s video chat app also lets you see who’s live, by sending out notifications when friends open the app and flagging them as “here” in the app’s interface.

Similarly, CatchUp shows users as “Ready to Talk” in the top section of its homescreen, with offline users and other contacts listed below.

Facebook explains the app’s intention is to address one of the key reasons people no longer make phone calls — they don’t know when someone has time to talk and they don’t want to interrupt them. Meanwhile, calls that can’t be answered go to voicemails that recipients don’t bother checking, which forces communication to go through text messaging or chat apps instead. And while video chats are on the rise, a phone call is often more convenient as users aren’t always video-ready or they’re trying to multi-task, not sit in front of a screen.

CatchUp approaches the problem of not knowing if a phone call would bother someone by allowing you to see who is ready and able to talk as soon as you launch the app.

Users can also create and join groups of friends, family, and mutual contacts in the app, as you can with other chat apps. Or they can place 1-on-1 calls as an alternative to using the phone.

Placing a call is simple as well. It’s just a one-button tap — not a complicated process of calling contacts, then “merging” calls as you do on your smartphone’s Phone app.

Facebook explains the idea for the app actually came about prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent quarantine, but the NPE Team accelerated the app’s development as a result of the pandemic.

While there are already easy ways to make voice calls using Facebook’s own Messenger and WhatsApp apps, the difference is that CatchUp works with your phone’s contacts. Users will have to download the app, but they won’t need to have an existing Facebook account — or an account with any Facebook-owned companies. Plus, the app’s simplified user interface could make it easier for older users, like grandma and grandpa, to navigate. It’s really just a one-screen experience with a toggle button to become “available” to talk.

The app also includes privacy features that allow you to configure which contacts can join your 1-on-1 and group calls.

The app comes from Facebook’s NPE Team, its internal R&D group focused on new app concepts that launch without the benefit of being Facebook-connected. These apps have to stand on their own and gain traction in order to stay alive.

To date, the NPE Team has launched a small handful of apps, including meme creator Whale, conversational app Bump, music app Aux, video app Hobbi, couples app Tuned, and Apple Watch app Kit. (Bump has since shut down.) However, unlike Facebook’s earlier efforts with NPE Team apps which were launched with little fanfare, Facebook announced CatchUp’s debut with a blog post which may indicate it believes the app has more of a chance than others.

CatchUp is currently being tested in the U.S. for a limited time on iOS and Android devices.

 

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