FreshRSS

🔒
❌ About FreshRSS
There are new available articles, click to refresh the page.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Sony announces investment and partnership with Discord to bring the chat app to PlayStation

By Devin Coldewey

Sony and Discord have announced a partnership that will integrate the latter’s popular gaming-focused chat app with PlayStation’s own built-in social tools. It’s a big move and a fairly surprising one given how recently acquisition talks were in the air — Sony appears to have offered a better deal than Microsoft, taking an undisclosed minority stake in the company ahead of a rumored IPO.

The exact nature of the partnership is not expressed in the brief announcement post. The closest we come to hearing what will actually happen is that the two companies plan to “bring the Discord and PlayStation experiences closer together on console and mobile starting early next year,” which at least is easy enough to imagine.

Discord has partnered with console platforms before, though its deal with Microsoft was not a particularly deep integration. This is almost certainly more than a “friends can see what you’re playing on PS5” and more of a “this is an alternative chat infrastructure for anyone on a Sony system.” Chances are it’ll be a deep, system-wide but clearly Discord-branded option — such as “Start a voice chat with Discord” option when you invite a friend to your game or join theirs.

The timeline of early 2022 also suggests that this is a major product change, probably coinciding with a big platform update on Sony’s long-term PS5 roadmap.

While the new PlayStation is better than the old one when it comes to voice chat, the old one wasn’t great to begin with, and Discord is not just easier to use but something millions of gamers already do use daily. And these days, if a game isn’t an exclusive, being robustly cross-platform is the next best option — so PS5 players being able to seamlessly join and chat with PC players will reduce a pain point there.

Of course Microsoft has its own advantages, running both the Xbox and Windows ecosystems, but it has repeatedly fumbled this opportunity and the acquisition of Discord might have been the missing piece that tied it all together. That bird has flown, of course, and while Microsoft’s acquisition talks reportedly valued Discord at some $10 billion, it seems the growing chat app decided it would rather fly free with an IPO and attempt to become the dominant voice platform everywhere rather than become a prized pet.

Sony has done its part, financially speaking, by taking part in Discord’s recent $100 million H round. The amount they contributed is unknown, but perforce it can’t be more than a small minority stake, given how much the company has taken on and its total valuation.

Twitter expands Spaces to anyone with 600+ followers, details plans for tickets, reminders and more

By Sarah Perez

Twitter Spaces, the company’s new live audio rooms feature, is opening up more broadly. The company announced today it’s making Twitter Spaces available to any account with 600 followers or more, including both iOS and Android users. It also officially unveiled some of the features it’s preparing to launch, like Ticketed Spaces, scheduling features, reminders, support for co-hosting, accessibility improvements, and more.

Along with the expansion, Twitter is making Spaces more visible on its platform, too. The company notes it has begun testing the ability to find and join a Space from a purple bubble around someone’s profile picture right from the Home timeline.

Image Credits: Twitter

Twitter says it decided on the 600 follower figure as being the minimum to gain access to Twitter Spaces based on its earlier testing. Accounts with 600 or more followers tend to have “a good experience” hosting live conversations because they have a larger existing audience who can tune in. However, Twitter says it’s still planning to bring Spaces to all users in the future.

In the meantime, it’s speeding ahead with new features and developments. Twitter has been building Spaces in public, taking into consideration user feedback as it prioritizes features and updates. Already, it has built out an expanded set of audience management controls, as users requested, introduced a way for hosts to mute all speakers at once, and added the laughing emoji to its set of reactions, after users requested it.

Now, its focus is turning towards creators. Twitter Spaces will soon support multiple co-hosts, and creators will be able to better market and even charge for access to their live events on Twitter Spaces. One feature, arriving in the next few weeks, will allow users to schedule and set reminders about Spaces they don’t want to miss. This can also help creators who are marketing their event in advance, as part of the RSVP process could involve pushing users to “set a reminder” about the upcoming show.

Twitter Spaces’ rival, Clubhouse, also just announced a reminders feature during its Townhall event on Sunday as well at the start of its external Android testing. The two platforms, it seems, could soon be neck-and-neck in terms of feature set.

Image Credits: Twitter

But while Clubhouse recently launched in-app donations feature as a means of supporting favorite creators, Twitter will soon introduce a more traditional means of generating revenue from live events: selling tickets. The company says it’s working on a feature that will allow hosts to set ticket prices and how many are available to a given event, in order to give them a way of earning revenue from their Twitter Spaces.

A limited group of testers will gain access to Ticketed Spaces in the coming months, Twitter says. Unlike Clubhouse, which has yet to tap into creator revenue streams, Twitter will take a small cut from these ticket sales. However, it notes that the “majority” of the revenue will go to the creators themselves.

Image Credits: Twitter

Twitter also noted that it’s improving its accessibility feature, live captions, so they can be paused and customized, and is working to make them more accurate.

The company will be hosting a Twitter Space of its own today around 1 PM PT to further discuss these announcements in more detail.

Epic Games buys artist community ArtStation, drops commissions to 12%

By Sarah Perez

One the same day as Fortnite maker Epic Games goes to trial with one of the biggest legal challenges to the App Store’s business model to date, it has simultaneously announced the acquisition of the artist portfolio community ArtStation — and immediately lowered the commissions on sales. Now standard creators on ArtStation will see the same 12% commission rate found in Epic’s own Games Store for PCs, instead of the 30% it was before. This reduced rate is meant to serve as an example the wider community as to what a “reasonable” commission should look like. This could become a point of comparison with the Apple App Store’s 30% commission for larger developers like Epic as the court case proceeds.

ArtStation today offers a place for creators across gaming, media, and entertainment to showcase their work and find new jobs. The company has had a long relationship with Epic Games, as many ArtStation creators work with Epic’s Unreal Engine. However, ArtStation has also been a home to 2D and 3D creators across verticals, including those who don’t work with Unreal Engine.

The acquisition won’t change that, the team says in its announcement. Instead, the deal will expand the opportunities for creators to monetize their work. Most notably, that involves the commission drop. For standard creators, the fees will drop from 30% to 12%. For Pro members (who pay $9.95/mo for a subscription), the commission goes even lower — from 20% to 8%. And for self-promoted sales, the fees will be just 5%. ArtEngine’s streaming video service, ArtStation Learning, will also be free for the rest of 2021, the company notes.

The slashed commission, however, is perhaps the most important change Epic is making to ArtStation because it gives Epic a specific example as to how it treats its own creator communities. It will likely reference the acquisition and the commission changes during its trial with Apple, along with its own Epic Games Store and its similarly low rate. Already, Epic’s move had prompted Microsoft to lower its cut on game sales, too, having recently announced a similar 30% to 12% drop.

In the trial, Epic Games will try to argue that Apple has a monopoly on the iOS app ecosystem and it abuses its market power to force developers to use Apple’s payment systems and pay it commissions on the sales and in-app purchases that flow through those systems. Epic Games, like several other larger app makers, would rather use its own payment systems to avoid the commission — or at the very least, be able to point users to a website where they can pay directly. But Apple doesn’t allow this, per its App Store guidelines.

Last year, Epic Games triggered Fortnite’s App Store expulsion by introducing a new direct way to pay on mobile devices which offered a steep discount. It was a calculated move. Both Apple and Google immediately banned the game for violating their respective app store policies, as a result. And then Epic sued.

While Epic’s fight is technically with both Apple and Google, it has focused more of its energy on the former because Android devices allow sideloading of apps (a means of installing apps directly), and Apple does not.

Meanwhile, Apple’s argument is that Epic Games agreed to Apple’s terms and guidelines and then purposefully violated them in an effort to get a special deal. But Apple says the guidelines apply to all developers equally, and Epic doesn’t get an exception here.

However, throughout the course of the U.S. antitrust investigations into big tech, it was discovered that Apple did, in fact, make special deals in the past. Emails shared by the House Judiciary Committee as a part of an investigation revealed that Apple had agreed to a 15% commission for Amazon’s Prime Video app at the start, when typically subscription video apps are 30% in year one, then 15% in year two and beyond. (Apple says Amazon simply qualified for a new program.) Plus, other older emails revealed Apple had several discussions about raising commissions even higher than 30%, indicating that Apple believed its commission rate had some flex.

Ahead of today’s acquisition by Epic Games, ArtStation received a “Megagrant” from Epic during the height of the pandemic to help it through an uncertain period. This could may have pushed the two companies to further discuss deeper ties going forward.

“Over the last seven years, we’ve worked hard to enable creators to showcase their work, connect with opportunities and make a living doing what they love,” said Leonard Teo, CEO and co-founder of ArtStation, in a statement. “As part of Epic, we will be able to advance this mission and give back to the community in ways that we weren’t able to on our own, while retaining the ArtStation name and spirit.”

Clubhouse begins externally testing its Android app

By Sarah Perez

Clubhouse, the voice-based networking app that’s now being knocked off by every major tech platform, is bringing its service to Android. The company announced during its weekly Townhall event that its Android version has entered beta testing with a handful of non-employees who will provide the company with early feedback ahead of a public launch.

In its release notes, Clubhouse referred to this test as involving a “rough beta version” that’s in the process of being rolled out to a group of “friendly testers.” That means there’s not a way for the broader public to sign up for the Android app just yet.

The lack of an Android client combined with its invite system initially gave Clubhouse an aura of exclusivity. You had to know someone to get in, and then you would need an iOS device to participate. But the delay to provide access to Android users also gave larger competitors time to catch up with Clubhouse and court users who were being left behind. One of the largest of the rivals, Facebook, recently challenged Clubhouse across all its platforms and services, in fact.

Facebook announced a full audio strategy that included a range of new products, from short-form audio snippets to a direct Clubhouse clone that works across Facebook and Messenger. It also announced a way for Instagram Live users to turn off their video and mute their mics, similar to Clubhouse. Even Facebook’s R&D division tested a Clubhouse alternative, Hotline, which offers a sort of mashup between the popular audio app and Instagram Live, with more of a Q&A focus.

Meanwhile, Twitter is continuing to expand its audio rooms feature, Twitter Spaces, and there are Clubhouse alternatives from Reddit, LinkedIn, Spotify, Discord, Telegram, and others, in the works, too.

For Clubhouse, that means the time has come to push for growth — especially as there are already some signs its initial hype is wearing off. According to app store intelligence firm Apptopia, Clubhouse has seen an estimated 13.5 million downloads on iOS to date, but the number of daily downloads has been falling, mirroring a decline in the number of daily active users.

Image Credits: Apptopia

Apptopia’s data shows that Clubhouse’s daily active users are down 68% from a high in February 2021, though that doesn’t necessarily mean that Clubhouse is over — it’s just becoming less of a daily habit. However, if the company is able to build out its creator community and establish a number of popular shows, which it’s aiming to do via its accelerator, it could still see users tuning in on a weekly and monthly basis. And those sessions would be longer in comparison with some other social apps, as Clubhouse users often tune into shows that run over an hour — even leaving the app open as they do other tasks.

Plus, Clubhouse is taking aim at the challenges around re-engaging people whose usage may have dwindled in recent days. Also during its Townhall, the company announced it would introduce a bell icon for events that will allow users to be notified about the events they’ve RSVP’d to. This will be important for creators who are advertising their events, as well.

Clubhouse didn’t give a specific timeframe as to when its Android app would reach more testers or the wider public, only noting that it’s looking forward to welcoming more Android users in the “coming weeks.” In March, Clubhouse had said the Android launch would take a couple of months.

 

Facebook rolls out vaccine finder tool in India, donates $10 million

By Manish Singh

Facebook has announced a $10 million grant to support emergency response efforts in India and has rolled out its Vaccine Finder tool in the country as the South Asian nation grapples with the latest wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

The American social network said that it has partnered with a number of organizations including United Way, Swasth, Hemkunt Foundation, I Am Gurgaon, Project Mumbai and US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF) to help augment critical medical supplies with over 5,000 oxygen concentrators and other life-saving equipments such as ventilators, BiPAP machines and to increase hospital bed capacity.

Facebook also said it has partnered with the Government of India to roll out a Vaccine Finder tool on the company’s marquee app. The tool, available in 17 languages, is designed to help people identify and spot vaccine centres in their vicinity.

Last week, India opened vaccination to people aged between 18 to 45, though its website quickly crashed and wasn’t immediately accepting appointment requests from most people in that age group.

Also worth checking out: Folks over at WiFi Dabba, a Bangalore-based startup that is working to build a low-cost ISP, have also developed a tool to help people easily find vaccination slots.

A bigger challenge confronting India currently, however, is the shortage of vaccine.

Facebook said it is also supporting non-government organizations and United Nation agencies in India with ad credits to reach the majority of people on Facebook with Covid-19 vaccine and preventive health information.

Additionally, the company said it is providing health resources to people from UNICEF India about when to seek emergency care and how to manage mild Covid-19 symptoms at home.

I am thinking of our friends in India going through such a difficult time with COVID and grateful for all the work people are doing to help one another.  We're working with health partners to support helplines on WA like this one from @mygovindia https://t.co/pqE0VGHQbK https://t.co/uhmyEN5U7f

— Will Cathcart (@wcathcart) May 1, 2021

Scores of firms, startups, entrepreneurs, and investors have stepped up their efforts in recent weeks to help India, the world’s second most populous country, fight the pandemic after the federal and state governments were caught ill-prepared to handle it.

On Monday, Pfizer said it was sending medicines worth $70 million to India. “We are committed to being a partner in India’s fight against this disease and are quickly working to mobilize the largest humanitarian relief effort in our company’s history,” said company’s chairman and chief executive Albert Bourla.

This Week in Apps: EU rules Apple’s a monopoly, Spotify and Facebook team up, ATT arrives

By Sarah Perez

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

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

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

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

This week we’re looking at the launch of Apple’s ATT, the Facebook and Spotify team-up and the latest from the EU’s antitrust investigation against Apple.

This Week in Apps will soon be a newsletter! Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

Here Comes ATT

Apple’s public debut of App Tracking Transparency, or ATT, is the news of the week and possibly of the year. Through a small pop-up message asking users if the app can track them, Apple has disrupted a multibillion-dollar adtech industry, altered the course of tech giants like Facebook and drawn possible lawsuits and antitrust complaints, all in the name of protecting consumer privacy. Apple does believe in privacy and user control — you can tell that from the way the company has built its technology to do things like on-device processing or permissions toggles that let people decide what their apps can and cannot do.

But Apple will also benefit from this particular privacy reform, too. Its own first-party apps can collect data and share it with other first-party apps. That means what you do in apps like the App Store, Apple News, Stocks and others can be used to personalize Apple’s own ads. And the company is prepared to capitalize on this opportunity too, with the addition of a new ad slot on the App Store (in the Suggested section on the Search tab.) If it wants to roll out more ads over time to other businesses — perhaps, those podcasts it got newly interested in after Spotify did? Or in its streaming TV service or fitness solution? Perhaps the ads it sells in Apple News? — then it would have access to valuable data it could use. Oh and the next time you open the App Store or Apple News, you won’t be bothered with one of those pesky warnings! Nope — that’s only for third-parties, a very important distinction! If you want to turn off Apple’s own ability to track you across its growing number of apps, that’s at the VERY bottom of iOS’s Privacy Settings.

We heard you like Spotify, so we put Spotify in your Facebook app

Image Credits: Spotify

Facebook and Spotify expanded their partnership this week. The companies had earlier announced their plans to make it easier for Facebook users to stream music and podcasts from the Facebook app. On Monday, this integration began rolling out in the form of a miniplayer experience that allows Facebook users to stream from Spotify through the Facebook app on iOS or Android.

The feature is available to both free and paying Spotify users and will allow them each to hear the full song or podcast episode being shared. However, free users will then be moved into “shuffle” mode if they continue to listen after the song plays.

What’s interesting about this integration is that it’s not actually streaming Spotify through Facebook. The miniplayer activates and controls the launch and playback in the Spotify app — which is how the playback is able to continue even as the user scrolls on Facebook or if they minimize the Facebook app altogether. This gives the appearance of Facebook doing the streaming. (Songs on social! Cue Myspace vibes!)

Spotify says users can’t upgrade to Spotify Premium from the miniplayer directly, so there’s no rev share there. It’s also paying the royalties on streams, as usual. But it’s getting massive distribution through Facebook, driving signups and repeat usage, while Facebook gets a way to keep users on its app longer. Win-win. Not coincidentally, both companies now share a common enemy with Apple, whose privacy-focused changes are impacting Facebook’s ad business and whose investments in Apple Music and Podcasts are a threat to Spotify.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Russia’s Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) fined Apple $12.1 million for alleged app market abuse, saying Apple gave its own products a competitive advantage.

✨ The EU is charging Apple for its anticompetitive behavior this week, nearly two years after Spotify filed its first complaint about the App Store and Apple Music. The European Commission last year opened its antitrust investigation into Apple’s business, which is also now under fire in the U.S. for similar matters.

On Friday, the European regulators stated that Apple has “abused its dominant position” in the distribution of music streaming services on the App Store, and called it a “monopoly.” The EU doesn’t think Apple should be able to force developers to use its own in-app purchase mechanism nor should it be able to restrict them from telling users where else they can pay — like the developer’s own website, for example.

Spotify founder Daniel Ek seemed happy with the news:

Today is a big day. Fairness is the key to competition. With the @EU_Commission Statement of Objections, we are one step closer to creating a level playing field, which is so important for the entire ecosystem of European developers. https://t.co/dOw1K0Qo1W

— Daniel Ek (@eldsjal) April 30, 2021

Apple, however, did not:

Image Credits: TC

Apple is correct in pointing out that Spotify has built a massive business — which to be fair, was built both on and off the App Store. But it’s claiming a pretty big hand in that. The EU’s belief, meanwhile, is that Spotify might have been even more successful if Apple hadn’t imposed the restrictions it did, and that other smaller, streaming competitors are being harmed, too, but don’t have the power to speak up.

Now that ATT is live, Apple warns developers that it will ban apps from its App Store that offer rewards to users that enable tracking. (But seeing how the App Store is being policed as of late [or not], it seems there could be a dark market established for this sort of thing.)

The Apple-Epic trial is set to start next week. Witnesses include Epic CEO Tim Sweeney and COO Daniel Vogel, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Microsoft Xbox executive Lori Wright, Adrian Ong from Match Group and other current and former Apple execs, including Matt Fischer (App Store VP), Michael Schmid (head of game biz dev for App Store) and Craig Federighi, Eddy Cue, Scott Forstall, Eric Gray, and Phil Schiller, plus many others.

Platforms: Google

Google says it’s updating its Google Play policies for app developers to improve app quality and discoverability. Now banned is keyword stuffing in the app’s title for ASO purposes. Titles will now be limited to 30 characters and can’t use keywords that imply store performance, or promotion in the icon, title or developer name. Icons that mislead users will also be banned. Emoticons and emoji can also no longer be used. The company is additionally cracking down on preview assets to ensure they accurately represent the game or app and give users enough information to make a decision to download. They can’t use words like “free” or best” either, and must be localized and legible.

Image Credits: Google

Adtech

Advertisers told The WSJ that Apple’s ATT gives Apple’s own advertising system a competitive advantage. The adtech industry, which is reeling from Apple’s changes to tracking — it’s giving users the ability to opt-out of being tracked — is making the point that there’s something in it for Apple, too, when ATT goes live.

German advertisers filed an antitrust complaint over ATT, saying the changes will negatively affect their industry with up to a 60% fall in ad revenue. Nine industry associations were behind the complaint, representing other tech giants, like Facebook, and publisher Axel Springer.

Facebook warned investors of “increased ad targeting headwinds in 2021” during its earnings call this week, mainly because of the new version of iOS and its launch of ATT. It also sent a memo to advertisers that detailed how ATT would restrict the availability of ad targeting and analytics tools, and impact audience engagement.

Augmented reality

Image Credits: Apple

Apple updated its Clips app (ver 3.1) to allow users to scan spaces using the LiDAR Scanner on iPhone 12 Pro and iPad Pro models in order to apply video effects to their recordings.

Fintech

Google Pay announced a series of updates for its recently revamped payments app, which include new options for grocery savings, paying for public transit and categorizing your spending. With its redesign, the app is being positioned as a key way for brands and businesses to reach customers with offers at a time when Apple is cracking down on third-party tracking.

MetaMask, the Ethereum wallet app and browser extension, said its MAUs grew 5x since October 2020 to reach 5 million monthly active users.

Social

Image Credits: Instagram

Facebook turns Instagram toward the Clubhouse threat. The company this week announced Instagram Live users could now mute their mics and turn off their videos, which gives the live experience a more casual — and yes, Clubhouse-like, appeal.

Social networking app for women, Peanut, adds live audio rooms. The feature is somewhat like Clubhouse, but without a “stage” or clout-chasing and with topics that appeal to women.

Snapchat now has more Android users than iOS, the company noted during earnings. In Q1 2021, Snapchat reached 280M DAUs, up 22% YoY.

TikTok said it’s opening a “transparency center” in Europe that will allow outside experts to see how TikTok approaches content moderation and recommendations, as well as security and privacy. The company opened a center like this in the U.S. last year following censorship allegations.

TikTok formally announced its new CEO and COO, in a strategic reorg. ByteDance’s CFO Shouzi Chew will now also become CEO of TikTok. Vanessa Pappas, who has served as interim CEO after Disney vet Kevin Mayer’s departure, will take the role of TikTok COO, and continue with her current responsibilities.

Messaging

Telegram says it will add group video calls next month. It has also now added the ability for merchants to natively accept credit card payments in any chat through integrations with eight third-party providers, including Stripe, as well as scheduled voice chats, mini profiles for voice chats and new web versions.

Facebook disclosed there are now 1 million businesses using WhatsApp’s “click to WhatsApp” ads, and announced a new feature that will allow businesses to turn items in the WhatsApp Business Catalogs into Facebook or Instagram ads, saving steps.

Streaming & Entertainment

Image Credits: Pandora

Pandora finally has an iOS home screen widget. What took it so long? The widget comes in three sizes and lets users view and play as many as seven of their most-recently played songs, albums, stations, playlists or podcasts.

The Bally Sports app, which is replacing Fox Sports GO, has now arrived. The app offers livestreamed games, tracks scores, states and standings, and offers game previews and highlights from games.

Dating app S’More is pivoting to become more of a “lifestyle brand” by adding a new feature called S’More TV which will stream dating-related interviews with celebs, like WWE and reality TV stars. The video content could then serve as a conversation starter — something Tinder has done in the past with its interactive series “Swipe Night.”

Clubhouse partners with the NFL for draft week programming. This is the first sports partnership for the audio app and saw the NFL creating a series of draft-themed rooms throughout the week.

Spotify says it will rename Locker Room service (the live audio app and Clubhouse rival it just acquired) “Spotify Greenroom.” The company told investors live audio could mean more than spoken word content — it could also include early previews of new albums, too.

Spotify redesigns “Your Library.” The new version ditches the big tabs at the top for “Music” and “Podcasts” each with their own subsections, for a scrollable horizontal row that places all the content sections on one screen. These work as dynamic filters, allowing you to narrow down your searches. There’s also a grid view available and better sorting options.

Image Credits: Spotify

Health & Fitness

Uber is offering its app to allow customers to schedule their COVID-19 vaccine appointments at nearby Walgreens in the U.S. Uber had previously introduced free and discounted rides to vaccine appointments with the goal of getting essential workers inoculated.

Security

A popular Android app for writing JavaScript code, DroidScript, had its Google advertising suspended and was then removed from the Google Play Store for ad fraud. The founder of the nonprofit DroidScript.org behind the app asked Google for an explanation and got no response, he said. The app was used by over 100K developers, students and professionals.

Researchers said that hundreds of preinstalled apps on Android devices would have access to a log on users’ phones where the sensitive contract tracing information was stored. Google didn’t offer a reward payout for the finding, saying that system logs haven’t been readable by unprivileged apps since the early days of Android.

Funding and M&A

Image Credits: Current

💰 Mobile bank Current raised $220 million in Series D funding after growing its user base to nearly 3 million. The funding was led by a16z and tripled Current’s valuation from the end of last year to now $2.2 billion.

💰 Teen banking app Step raised $100 million in Series C funding led by General Catalyst, after growing to 1.5 million users in six months post-launch. The company also announced Steph Curry as an investor.

💰 Kid-focused fintech Greenlight raised $260 million in Series D funding, doubling its valuation to $2.3 billion. Its round was also led by a16z, which backed Greenlight’s rival, Current.

💰 Vivid Money raised $73 million in Series B funding (€60 million) led by Greenoaks to build a European financial super app.

🤝 Snap acquired 3D mapping developer Pixel8earth for $7.6 million. The small team will build out tools that will work with Snapchat’s location-based augmented reality experiences.

💰 Kaia Health raised $75 million in Series C funding led by an unnamed growth equity fund for its digital therapeutics service that offers virtual therapy via an app for musculoskeletal conditions, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and osteoarthritis.

🤝 Family tracking app Life360 will acquire wearable location device Jiobit for $37 million. The figure is primarily in stock and debt, but if Jiobit can maintain its existing triple growth rates over the next two calendar years following the deal’s close, the deal price could increase to $54.5 million. The wearable will be added to Life360’s service to allow tracking of those without phones, including pets.

🤝 Zynga, via its subsidiary Rollic, acquired Uncosoft, the Turkish game developer behind the hit title High Heels, which has been downloaded over 60M times since its January debut, thanks in part, to TikTok. Deal terms were not available.

💰 Montreal-based Botpress raised $15 million in Series A funding from Decibel and Inovia Capital to help developers build more conversational apps.

Downloads

OnMail

Image Credits: OnMail

The makers of a popular email app Edison Mail have now launched another email app, OnMail. This new iOS app is designed to solve more difficult email problems, like handling overloaded inboxes and mail that spies on you. The app will automatically block tracking pixels (read receipts), suggest emails to unsubscribe from, index your entire history for faster searches, stop ad targeting, and more. Like Basecamp’s Hey, users can also decide who can or cannot enter their inbox, too. And when you want to see your promotions, they’re provided in a visual feed that’s more engaging.

The service, which is also available on the web, works with OnMail email addresses, as well as other accounts like those from Microsoft, Google and others. It will later introduce an Android app, calendar support, Yahoo and Microsoft Exchange support, and two-factor. The company says your name and email is never shared, but it does use anonymized data as part of its Edison Trends (digital commerce) research — users are opted in, but an opt out is available.

Rapchat tunes into $2.3M as its music-making app hits 7M users

By Ingrid Lunden

YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, TikTok and Facebook’s Instagram have upended the film and TV industries, with a new wave of cinematographers, directors and actors leveraging innovations in technology to create new work and connect directly with billions of consumers to see it. Today, a startup is announcing some funding as it looks to make a similar impact in the world of music.

Rapchat, an app that lets people create music tracks — raps, as its names suggest, or something else — using a platform that crowdsources beats and lets people put vocals on top of them, has raised $2.3 million.

Co-led by Sony Music Entertainment and NYC VC firm Adjacent, this is an extension to Rapchat’s seed round of $1.7 million back in 2018, and CEO and co-founder Seth Miller tells me it’s coming as the startup is getting ready for a bigger Series A.

With no connection to Snapchat — not now at least, except that founders Seth Miller and Pat Gibson did think it was a funny pun at the time that they were first conceiving of the company as a side hustle while still in university in 2015 — Rapchat has already gone quite some way in scaling.

The company today has some 7 million registered users, and at the moment some 250,000 songs are being created around a catalog of about 100,000 beats by 500,000 active users on the platform each month. Engagement is hovering right now at 35 minutes per day on average, a mix not just of people making tunes, but through the beginnings of a social graph: people coming onto the app to discover and share those tracks.

Rapchat plans to use the funding to continue expanding the scope of what you can create on its platform, including growing the prize pools for Rapchat’s ‘Challenges’ competition series; expand to have more artists, producers, and industry executives on the platform for mentoring; and to extend that platform’s reach to integrate more deeply with the likes of TikTok, Snapchat, Spotify and Apple Music — platforms where creators are already making a lot of content, and where music is figuring strongly in that effort.

Rapchat’s growth not only speaks to how the startup has pulled off its ambition to make it easier to make music, but it also speaks to an appetite, an itch, in the creator economy: there is a big wide world of music-making out there, and more want to see if they can strike the right note.

Rapchat is definitely not the only, nor the first, company to think of how to address music creators within the bigger creator economy.

Another app called Voisey had conceived of a similar idea but focused primarily on letting people create and record shorter clips rather than full music tracks before sharing them to other platforms. It has not quite come a household name, but it did have some small success in bringing attention to new artists, and interestingly, it was quietly acquired by Snap last year (and for now Snap’s kept Voisey’s app up).

TikTok’s parent ByteDance has also made an acquisition of another music creation app, Jukedeck. As with Snap’s acquisition, so far we’re not fully clear on how and where that acquisition is going, but we’ve heard through the grapevine that TikTok is working on a new music service that sounds like it might let more content get plugged into TikTok’s music layer, so perhaps watch this space.

And in perhaps the most trend-endorsing act of all, Rapchat has been cloned — by Facebook, no less. NPE, the social networking behemoth’s in-house skunkworks team, in February rolled out BARS (all caps! stand out!) — which is, yes — an app on which you can create your own rap music.

Miller, at least for now, is about as laid back as you could be, considering all of the above, confident that at least for now, he is very happy with the engagement Rapchat is seeing, including around tests it has been running around offering new premium features — the app is free to use right now, but it has plans to offer creators more production tools and better ways of sharing their work and helping build a business out of it. Key to that will be never demanding licensing fees on music: creators keep the royalties, with Rapchat’s value lying in helping them make and track how that music gets used with the metadata that it holds on those tracks.

Some of the low-key approach might well come from the fact that Rapchat and its founders are somewhat outside of the startup fray. The idea for the app first came up in 2013, Miller said, when he and Gibson were students at Ohio University in Columbus.

“We were coming of age when everyone in college was using apps like Snapchat and Instagram,” he said. “We loved them for video, but saw there was nothing like them for creating music. So we pitched the idea during a Startup Weekend competition: snapping like Snapchat but for rap. Someone said, ‘Rapchat’ and we liked it.”

They went full-time on the idea in 2015 when they got into 500 Startups with the app, but even so it’s taken them years to build up the business, get attention from investors and raise money. Why? Partly because music is hard, and frankly the main game in town for years has been streaming services, rather than creation services.

Miller and Gibson persisted: “I knew that this market was huge. It just made so much sense to me,” he said. “The advent of the mobile devices the moment that apps like Instagram, VSCO and Snapchat have turned people into photographers and video makers, and Substack is turning people into writers.” And now Rapchat wants to tap the world for rappers.

“Rapchat has created a music studio that fits into your pocket,” said Nico Wittenborn, lead Investor at venture capital firm Adjacent, in a statement. “It decreases the friction of creativity by allowing anyone, anywhere in the world to record and publish music straight from their phones. This mobile-enabled democratization of technology is what Adjacent is all about, and I am super excited to support the team in building out this next-level music platform.”

Digital comics startup Madefire is shutting down

By Anthony Ha

R.I.P. Madefire, a startup that recruited high-profile artists to reinvent comics for new formats and platforms.

An announcement on the Madefire website states the company entered into “an assignment of benefit for creditors” (explained as “a state-level insolvency proceeding similar to bankruptcy”) earlier this month, which was then reported this morning in The Beat. As a result, no new books will be published, users will not be able to purchase any additional books and they’re also encouraged to download all their purchased content before the end of the month.

This news affects other apps built with Madefire’s technology. The Archie comics app has shut down as well, with the publisher writing, “We realize this comes as a surprise and we are making every effort to do right by our loyal customer base,” specifically by offering readers a free one-month subscription to Comixology Unlimited. (Amazon acquired digital comics platform Comixology in 2014, launching an Unlimited subscription service two years later.)

Madefire first launched in 2012, back when publishers were experimenting with formats like motion comics. The company described its titles as “motion books,” combining the animation and effects of motion comics with a more traditional reading experience.

“Motion comics are a passive experience, a watching experience that is tantamount to bad animation – it’s like watching a movie,” co-founder and CEO Ben Wolstenholme said at the time. “Motion Books is a reading experience, actively controlled by the reader – it’s like reading a book. Our goal is to be the best reading experience developed for the iPad.”

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the company was the artists it had enlisted before launch, including Dave Gibbons and Bill Sienkiewicz.

More recently, Madefire announced partnerships with other tech platforms, including Snapchat and troubled augmented reality company Magic Leap.

According to Crunchbase, Madefire had raised $16.4 million in funding from investors including True Ventures, Plus Capital, Kevin Spacey (yes, that Kevin Spacey) and Drake, but The Beat reports that the total was “even more than that.”

Instagram Live takes on Clubhouse with options to mute and turn off the video

By Sarah Perez

In addition to Facebook’s Clubhouse competitor built within Messenger Rooms and its experiments with a Clubhouse-like Q&A platform on the web, the company is now leveraging yet another of its largest products to take on the Clubhouse threat: Instagram Live. Today, Instagram announced it’s adding new features that will allow users to mute their microphones and even turn their video off while using Instagram Live.

Instagram explains these new features will give hosts more flexibility during their livestream experiences, as they can decrease the pressure to look or sound a certain way while broadcasting live. While that may be true, the reality is that Facebook is simply taking another page from Clubhouse’s playbook by enabling a “video off” experience that encourages more serendipitous conversations.

When people don’t have to worry about how they look, they’ll often be more amenable to jumping into a voice chat. In addition, being audio-only allows creators to engage with their community while multitasking — perhaps they’re doing chores or moving around, and can’t sit and stare right at the camera. To date, this has been one of the advantages about using Clubhouse versus live video chat. You could participate in Clubhouse’s voice chat rooms without always having to give the conversation your full attention or worrying about background noise.

For the time being, hosts will not be able to turn on or off the video or mute others in the livestream, but Instagram tells us it’s working on offering more of these types of capabilities to the broadcaster, and expects to roll them out soon.

Instagram notes it tested the new features publicly earlier this week during an Instagram Live between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri.

This isn’t the first feature Instagram has added in recent weeks to lure the creator community to its platform instead of Clubhouse or other competitors. In March, Instagram rolled out the option for creators to host Live Rooms that allow up to four people to broadcast at the same time. The Rooms were meant to appeal to creators who wanted to host live talk shows, expanded Q&As and more — all experiences that are often found on Clubhouse. It also added the ability for fans to buy badges to support the hosts, to cater to the needs of professional creators looking to monetize their reach.

Although Instagram parent company Facebook already has a more direct Clubhouse clone in development with Live Audio Rooms on Facebook and Messenger, the company said it doesn’t expect it to launch into testing until this summer. And it will first be available to Groups and public figures, not the broader public.

Instagram Live’s new features, meanwhile, are rolling out to Instagram’s global audience on both iOS and Android starting today.

MoviePass co-founder’s PreShow Interactive raises $3M to expand into gaming

By Anthony Ha

PreShow Interactive is giving gamers a new way to earn in-game currency in exchange for watching ads — a concept that’s become familiar in mobile games but hasn’t really made much headway on PCs or consoles.

The startup is led by MoviePass’ founding CEO Stacy Spikes. When I spoke to Spikes about PreShow two years ago, he was beta testing an app that provided users with free movie tickets in exchange for watching ads. But obviously, theatrical moviegoing has taken a big hit in the past year.

Spikes told me yesterday that he’d always hoped to bring the PreShow concept to four categories — theatrical movies, gaming, subscription streaming and video on demand — but the pandemic forced the startup to shift focus more quickly than expected and explore what a gaming experience might look like.

The current plans is to launch a new PreShow Interactive app this summer, where viewers can connect their in-game accounts and identify how much virtual currency they want to earn. Then they watch a package of ads and PreShow will automatically transfer the currency to their account — in other words, it’s buying the currency for them.

Users will have to download a separate app to watch the ads and get the benefits, but Spikes said this is actually better than trying to integrate advertising or branded content into the game itself, which can be a slow process for the developer and the advertiser, while also being distracting for the players. And this means PreShow Interactive should able to support 20,000 games at launch, across PCs, consoles and virtual reality.

PreShow Interactive

Image Credits: PreShow Interactive

“We just didn’t see the purpose of spending the time on integrations when it’s not really necessary,” he added. “Our deal is only with the consumer for their time. We’re saying, ‘This is your time. It has value.'”

One of the key elements to Preshow’s approach is technology that can detect when the viewer is actually looking at their phone screen — the ads will stop playing if you turn away. Critics have described this as “creepy surveillance tech,” but Spikes claimed that early PreShow users have embraced the approach. He also argued that it’s more transparent than the data collection and targeting currently driving online advertising.

“We used to think data was the new oil, but now our feeling is that permission and engagement and attention is the new oil,” he said.

In addition to revealing its new strategy, PreShow is announcing that it has raised $3 million in seed funding led by Harlem Capital, with participation Canaan Partners, Wavemaker Ventures, Front Row Fund, ROC Fund, BK Fulton and Monroe Harris.

And to be clear, Spikes said PreShow isn’t abandoning theatrical movies. He said that the PreShow app will eventually offer both movie and gaming deals “under one roof,” but brands aren’t currently eager to advertise to moviegoers.

“We’re ready to go when the marketplace is ready to go,” he said.

 

Vivid Money raises $73 million to build a European financial super app

By Romain Dillet

German startup Vivid Money has raised a new $73 million Series B funding round (€60 million) led by Greenoaks with existing investor Ribbit Capital also participating. Following today’s funding round, Vivid Money has reached a valuation of $436 million (€360 million).

Vivid Money could be considered as a Revolut competitor designed specifically for the Eurozone. Built on top of Solarisbank for the banking infrastructure, the company lets you send, receive, spend, invest and save money in different ways.

When you create an account, you get a German IBAN that starts with DE as well as a metal card. There are no card details on the card itself — everything is available in the app instead. Like other fintech startups, Vivid Money lets you control your card from the app — you can lock it and unlock it, add it to Google Pay and Apple Pay, etc.

After that, you can top up your account and hold dozens of different currencies. When you pay with your card abroad, the startup applies a small mark-up on the current exchange rate — you should get a better exchange rate than what you usually get with a regular bank.

In addition to this fairly standard feature set, Vivid Money offers stock trading with fractional shares. You can invest in stocks and ETFs and there’s no commission. Similarly, you can buy, hold and share cryptocurrencies from the app. The startup has partnered with CM Equity AG for those features.

The company also has a cashback program and a premium subscription for €9.90 per month. Paid users get higher limits on free cash withdrawals, the ability to create a virtual card, support for additional currencies and better cashback rewards.

Finally, users can create sub-accounts called pockets. You can move money around from one pocket to another and add other users to your pockets. Each pocket has its own IBAN, which means that you can pay for certain bills with a separate pocket. You can also associate your card with a specific pocket for upcoming purchases.

Vivid Money has managed to add a ton of features in no time. It now has a ton of money on its bank account. Now let’s see if it can attract a significant user base to compete with other, well-established European fintech players.

Daily Crunch: Uber adds vaccine booking

By Anthony Ha

Uber unveils half a dozen new features, Samsung announces a new flagship laptop and Zomato files to go public. This is your Daily Crunch for April 28, 2021.

The big story: Uber adds vaccine booking

Uber announced a half dozen new features today, including the ability to make a vaccine appointment at Walgreens and then reserve a ride to get there.

Other additions include a valet service to drop off rental cars, reserved rides at airports and the ability to pick up food during a ride. In an interview, CPO Sundeep Jain suggested that these features are part of the company’s key focus for the past year, namely “helping users ‘go’ and helping users ‘get.’”

The tech giants

Here’s Samsung’s new flagship laptop series, the Galaxy Book Pro — These Windows machines continue the company’s push to blur some of the productivity lines between its Galaxy PC and mobile offerings.

Facebook hides posts calling for PM Modi’s resignation in India — Facebook temporarily hid all posts with the hashtag “ResignModi” in India, although a spokesperson said those posts have now been restored.

Netflix launches its shuffle feature, now called ‘Play Something,’ to users worldwide — This should make it easier to find something to watch when you can’t make a decision on your own.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Alchemy raises $80M at a $505M valuation to be the ‘AWS for blockchain’ — The company describes itself as the backend technology behind the blockchain industry.

MessageBird acquires SparkPost for $600M using $800M Series C extension — The acquisition enables MessageBird to get a stronger foothold in the U.S. market.

Splitwise raises $20M Series A to help everyone in the world divvy expenses — Splitwise aims to reduce the stress and awkwardness that money puts on relationships of all sorts.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Zomato juice: Indian unicorn’s proposed IPO could drive regional startup liquidity — Zomato’s debut could lead to a liquidity rush in India.

Dear Sophie: What’s the latest on DACA? — The latest edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

Fund managers can leverage ESG-related data to generate insights — Apex Group’s Georges Archibald argues that environmental, social and governance insights can yield treasure in the form of alternative data.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

CES will return to Las Vegas in 2022 — Per a press release, roughly 1,000 companies have committed to returning.

India’s entrepreneurs and investors are mobilizing to help the nation fight COVID-19, and you can too — For a week straight, India has reported more than 300,000 daily new infections, about half of all the cases across the globe.

Porsche makes its case for an all-electric Taycan wagon — The Porsche Taycan 4 Cross Turismo offers a blend of practicality with a whole lot of power and speed for under $100,000.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

iOS 14.5 goes live with Watch unlocking, tracking transparency and kissing emojis

By Brian Heater

At its big event last week, Apple tipped off the forthcoming arrival of the latest point update to iOS. Today 14.5 goes live for all users, and it’s shaping up to be one of the bigger updates to the mobile operating system in a bit.

The most long-awaited update from a purely user standpoint is probably the ability to unlock the phone using an Apple Watch. It’s another useful addition for the company’s wearable, but more importantly, it comes after a year of frustrated mask wearers hoping for a work around for face unlock.

Image Credits: Apple

When wearing a mask, the handset will default to the Watch (once watchOS 7.4 is installed), sending a notification to the wearable, along with a haptic buzz.

A big new arrival on the security side, as well, with the addition of app tracking transparency. Anthony wrote about the feature in a post earlier this month, noting,

Apple will actually start enforcing its new rules, meaning that iPhone users will probably start seeing a lot more requests. Those requests will appear at various points during the usage of an app, but they’ll all carry a standardized message asking whether the app can “track your activity across other companies’ apps and websites,” followed by a customized explanation from the developer.

So, get ready for a lot of pop-up notifications – but for a good cause.

Image Credits: Apple

Also arriving:

 

A software bug let malware bypass macOS’ security defenses

By Zack Whittaker

Apple has spent years reinforcing macOS with new security features to make it tougher for malware to break in. But a newly discovered vulnerability broke through most of macOS’ newer security protections with a double-click of a malicious app, a feat not meant to be allowed under Apple’s watch.

Worse, evidence shows a notorious family of Mac malware has already been exploiting this vulnerability for months before it was subsequently patched by Apple this week.

Over the years, Macs have adapted to catch the most common types of malware by putting technical obstacles in their way. macOS flags potentially malicious apps masquerading as documents that have been downloaded from the internet. And if macOS hasn’t reviewed the app — a process Apple calls notarization — or if it doesn’t recognize its developer, the app won’t be allowed to run without user intervention.

But security researcher Cedric Owens said the bug he found in mid-March bypasses those checks and allows a malicious app to run.

Owens told TechCrunch that the bug allowed him to build a potentially malicious app to look like a harmless document, which when opened bypasses macOS’ built-in defenses when opened.

“All the user would need to do is double click — and no macOS prompts or warnings are generated,” he told TechCrunch. Owens built a proof-of-concept app disguised as a harmless document that exploits the bug to launch the Calculator app, a way of demonstrating that the bug works without dropping malware. But a malicious attacker could exploit this vulnerability to remotely access a user’s sensitive data simply by tricking a victim into opening a spoofed document, he explained.

GIF showing a proof of concept app opening uninhibited on an unpatched macOS computer.

The proof-of-concept app disguised as a harmless document running on an unpatched macOS machine. (Image: supplied)

Fearing the potential for attackers to abuse this vulnerability, Owens reported the bug to Apple.

Apple told TechCrunch it fixed the bug in macOS 11.3. Apple also patched earlier macOS versions to prevent abuse, and pushed out updated rules to XProtect, macOS’ in-built anti-malware engine, to block malware from exploiting the vulnerability.

Owens asked Mac security researcher Patrick Wardle to investigate how — and why — the bug works. In a technical blog post today, Wardle explained that the vulnerability triggers due to a logic bug in macOS’ underlying code. The bug meant that macOS was misclassifying certain app bundles and skipping security checks, allowing Owens’ proof-of-concept app to run unimpeded.

In simple terms, macOS apps aren’t a single file but a bundle of different files that the app needs to work, including a property list file that tells the application where the files it depends on are located. But Owens found that taking out this property file and building the bundle with a particular structure could trick macOS into opening the bundle — and running the code inside — without triggering any warnings.

Wardle described the bug as rendering macOS’ security features as “wholly moot.” He confirmed that Apple’s security updates have fixed the bug. “The update will now result in the correct classification of applications as bundles and ensure that untrusted, unnotarized applications will (yet again) be blocked, and thus the user protected,” he told TechCrunch.

With knowledge of how the bug works, Wardle asked Mac security company Jamf to see if there was any evidence that the bug had been exploited prior to Owens’ discovery. Jamf detections lead Jaron Bradley confirmed that a sample of the Shlayer malware family exploiting the bug was captured in early January, several months prior to Owens’ discovery. Jamf also published a technical blog post about the malware.

“The malware we uncovered using this technique is an updated version of Shlayer, a family of malware that was first discovered in 2018. Shlayer is known to be one of the most abundant pieces of malware on macOS so we’ve developed a variety of detections for its many variants, and we closely track its evolution,” Bradley told TechCrunch. “One of our detections alerted us to this new variant, and upon closer inspection we discovered its use of this bypass to allow it to be installed without an end user prompt. Further analysis leads us to believe that the developers of the malware discovered the zero-day and adjusted their malware to use it, in early 2021.”

Shlayer is an adware that intercepts encrypted web traffic — including HTTPS-enabled sites — and injects its own ads, making fraudulent ad money for the operators.

“It’s often installed by tricking users into downloading fake application installers or updaters,” said Bradley. “The version of Shlayer that uses this technique does so to evade built-in malware scanning, and to launch without additional ‘Are you sure’ prompts to the user,” he said.

“The most interesting thing about this variant is that the author has taken an old version of it and modified it slightly in order to bypass security features on macOS,” said Bradley.

Wardle has also published a Python script that will help users detect any past exploitation.

It’s not the first time Shlayer has evaded macOS’ defenses. Last year, Wardle working with security researcher Peter Dantini found a sample of Shlayer that had been accidentally notarized by Apple, a process where developers submit their apps to Apple for security checks so the apps can run on millions of Macs unhindered.

n8n raises $12M for its ‘fair code’ approach to low-code workflow automation

By Ingrid Lunden

As businesses continue to look for better ways to work more efficiently, a pioneer in the space of low-code tools to help automate how apps work together is announcing a round of funding on the back of impressive early traction.

Berlin-based n8n — which provides a framework for both technical and non-technical people to synchronize and integrate data and workflows — has raised a $12 million in a Series A round of funding.

The startup plans to use the money to continue expanding its team, which now numbers 60 people, and to expand its platform and the services it provides to users.

Currently, n8n can help link up and integrate data and functions between more than 200 established applications, as well as any custom apps or services that you might be using in your specific organization. And since launching in October 2019, the startup has picked up an impressive 16,000 users — including both developers and “citizen developers” (those whose jobs might be described as non-technical but they are not afraid to be more hands-on in trying to build in ways to work better).

Now it wants to make the service easier for more of the latter group to get stuck in with using it.

“We are still seen as a technical product and less of one for citizen developers,” founder and CEO Jan Oberhauser said in an interview. “Our plan is to make n8n simpler to use, so that it’s much easier to adopt. We want to give everyone technical superpowers, whether it’s the marketing team or the IT department.” That means for example building not just chatbots but more intelligent ones, or creating new ways of visualizing data in Slack or something else altogether. And n8n’s platform can also be used to build automation within products for example to monitor performance and flag when something might need maintenance.

The round is being led by Felicis Ventures, with Sequoia Capital, firstminute Capital and Harpoon Ventures also participating. Sequoia and firstminute co-led n8n’s seed round about a year ago, which also included participation from Eventbrite’s Kevin Hartz, Supercell’s Ilkka Paananen, and unnamed early employees of Google and Zendesk, among others. The startup has now raised around $14 million and is not disclosing valuation.

There are a number of low-code and no-code startups on the market today and many of them have been seeing a surge of in interest in the last year. It’s a trend I suspect was brought about in no small part by the arrival of Covid-19.

The pandemic not only led to more people working remotely and relying on apps and other cloud-based services to get what they needed to do done, but in many cases it led organizations to refocus on how they were working, and what could be improved. In some cases, it also has meant a severe tightening of belts, and so companies are needing to do more with less human power, another factor leading to more proactive efforts to use software to get more out of… software.

That’s meant more strain on IT teams, and that too has led to more people within departments themselves getting proactive in improving their own workflows.

Other startups in the space include Bryter (which raised a $66 million Series B earlier this month) and Genesis (which raised $45 million in March), along with Zapier, Airtable, Rows, GyanaUshurCreatio, EasySend and CapivateIQ, some of which are coming to the market with a variety of solutions targeting a set of generic tools, while others are building solutions for more narrow use cases.

In the case of n8n, the company might be considered a “pioneer” in the space not just because of its focus on the growing area of low-code tools, but because of how it views the world of software.

[gallery type="slideshow" ids="1958989,1958987,1958986"]

The basic approach n8n is taking is around the idea of “fair code.” This is somewhat similar to open-source, and is analogous to a freemium-style model for the concept. The code is available in a public repository and the idea is that this will never disappear (one issue many enterprises face on the bleeding edge of tech: companies and their services sometimes shut down). However, n8n itself limits how much it can be used for free, before users start to pay to use it so that n8n can monetize its work, which it does in the form of consulting and integration services. (In the case of n8n, that limit looks to be up to a limit of $30,000 in support services revenues.)

Oberhauser was an early proponent of the concept of n8n and he runs a site dedicated to spreading the word. (You can also read about the different approaches to fair code, and some of what led to the creation of the concept, here.)

While basic and limited access to the code will remain free, and even as a company like n8n aims to make it easier and easier for non-developers to build integrations, there will be areas that need attention to make those services accessible to the people within an organization. For starters, there is the issue of setting up the basic integration connectors, especially in cases where the software a company is using is proprietary or customized.

There is also another issue that is likely to become more prominent as low-code and no-code tools continue to grow in popularity, and that is security. While IT departments may not have oversight of every single integration, but neither will the security teams, which means that new data vulnerabilities might well become more commonplace, too. For all of these reasons, n8n is betting that there will still be some integration and consulting involved in implementation.

“Almost every company needs help connecting outside and internal systems, to make it easier for people to get started,” Oberhauser said.

Aydin Senkut, founder and managing partner of Felicis Ventures, who led the round, said that what attracted him to n8n was the extensibility of the platform — that it could be applied not just for app integration and workflow automation in those apps but a much wider set of use cases — and the very early traction of 16,000 users that it’s picked up with very little fanfare, a sign that the service has some stickiness and usefulness to it.

And the fact that it lets developers — “citizen” or otherwise — play with so many options is also a key part of it.

“We feel that data is the new oil, and one of the special things here is not just low or no-code per se, but how n8n is making it seamless and easy to connect tens or even hundreds of apps.” Senkut said that it reminded him a little of Felicis’ early investment in Plaid. “Essentially, the more data and APIs you have the more valuable the company can be. I think to measure the potential of a company, look at the APIs. If you can connect disparate things together, that is key.”

This Week in Apps: An Apple event, more Clubhouse clones and an app store antitrust hearing

By Sarah Perez

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy. The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.

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

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

This week we’re diving into the juicy bits from the app store antitrust hearing, rounding up the Apple Spring Loaded event and looking at all the new Clubhouse rivals, including Facebook’s, among other things.

This Week in Apps will soon be a newsletter! Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

Apple Spring Loaded

Image Credits: Apple / Apple

Apple this week held a big spring event where it announced a number of new products, including a new lineup of colorful M1-powered iMacs and M1-powered iPad Pros, a next-gen Apple TV 4K with a way less terrible Siri remote (buttons, hooray!), a very pretty purple iPhone 12 and 12 mini, its long-awaited UWB lost item finder AirTag, Apple Card Family and a new Podcasts app with a paid subscription option for creators.

The new iPad Pro, which brings a 50% performance increase over the previous Pro model, has a ton of upgrade specs, including Thunderbolt and USB 4 support, up to 2TB of storage and 16GB of RAM, and a “Liquid Retina XDR” display on the 12.9-inch model that will make it ideal for creative pursuits involving photography, video and even AR. But now it’s time for iPadOS to catch up — and that may be in store with iPadOS 15, which will reportedly at least have an upgraded Home Screen but hopefully more.

Apple didn’t bother to offer a real launch date for iOS 14.5, although we know it’s next week thanks to Apple’s reminders about getting ready for ATT.

The launch of AirTag, meanwhile, played right into the other big Apple event this week: a Senate antitrust hearing over App Stores.

Apple and Google defend the app store business model in antitrust hearing

This week’s hearing brought three chief Apple critics to testify: Tile, Match and Spotify. The companies argued that the app stores’ hold on the ecosystem was too tight.

They’re not allowed to tell their customers inside their own app how to purchase a subscription to their services outside the App Store, where they could keep 100% of the revenues, they said. And, they argued, these IAP “taxes” have to be passed along to the consumer, leading to higher prices. In Spotify’s case, this puts them at a disadvantage when having to compete against a direct rival, like Apple Music, which doesn’t have the same impediment.

The companies also argued how little power they had to fight against any changes enacted by the platform makers. Tile’s General Counsel Kirsten Daru noted that her company’s relationship with Apple used to be symbiotic, saying Apple “sold our devices in their retail stores, and they even featured us on stage at their Worldwide Developer conference in 2018. But that all changed when Apple decided that it wanted to take over this category,” she said. “If Apple turned on us, it can turn on anyone.”

Spotify spoke of the times Apple threatened to pull it from the App Store over rule violations. And how Apple told Spotify it couldn’t email customers to tell them how they could upgrade via its website instead of through IAP. Apple, meanwhile, defended its position equating it to coming in a Verizon store to advertise that the new iPhone was available for sale down the street at an Apple Store. “No retailer is going to allow us to do that,” Apple’s Chief Compliance Officer Kyle Andeer argued.

Match talked about app rejections and Apple dictating how it can run its business. It said it wanted to verify IDs for a dating app in Taiwan and Apple wouldn’t allow this. Match also mentioned an app rejection that kept it from releasing its LGBTGQ+ safety update for two months. (But we’ve learned that Apple’s rejection was not related to the LGBTQ+ feature itself.)

Match Chief Legal Officer & Secretary Jared Sine also threw out a pretty big bomb when it alerted lawmakers to the fact that they received a call the night before their testimony. Google wanted to know why Match’s testimony appeared to differ from what it said during earnings, he said. (On the earnings call, Match said they believed they could work through the issues of Google’s 30% tax.) Google’s Senior Director Public Policy & Government Relations Wilson White said “it sounds as if some business development folks who are working on commercial conversations” called Match and that Google doesn’t “view that as a threat…we would never threaten our partners.”

Tile argues for a level playing field

Immediately after launching its lost item finder AirTag, Apple had to defend its product against antitrust claims made by Tile. From what we’ve seen, there are mixed feelings out there as to whether Tile has a case. Tile carved out a market for lost item finders and has many years’ worth of a head start on Apple. Some say it wouldn’t have to worry about Apple if it had continued to innovate. After all, just look at the AirTag hardware design and the clever way it guides you to a lost item with directional arrows.

But Tile points out there were areas where it believes Apple didn’t level the playing field.

Tile has asked since 2019 for access to the U1 chip for UWB (ultra wideband) access, like AirTag has, so it can roll out its own UWB device. But Apple only this month, April 2021, announced a draft specification for chipset manufacturers that will arrive later this spring (AFTER AirTag debuts) which will allow third-party device makers to take advantage of ultra wideband technology in U1-equipped Apple devices.

And while Apple opened up Find My to third-parties — a move it’s using to fend of antitrust claims — that means Tile wouldn’t be able to continue its direct relationship with its customers through its own iOS app, if it made the switch. As to what other details that Find My agreement forces upon developers, Tile couldn’t say. When pressed by lawmakers in the antitrust hearing this week, Tile’s Daru said she couldn’t talk about it, because Apple makes companies sign an NDA. Apple CCO Andeer declined to allow Daru to answer questions about the nature of the agreement for the purpose of the hearing either.

Tile had several other grievances as well, like how its app had to ask permission to do things like track location or run in the background or use Bluetooth, when Apple’s Find My did not.

They took away one of our critical permissions, which requires our customers to go deep, deep, deep into their settings to turn Tile on. Find my, by contrast, is on by default…when you set up your operating system. And in order to turn it off you have to go deep into your Settings and actually enter a password. Apple also started serving prompts with that same update to our users — once they figured out how to turn Tile on, they started serving these prompts encouraging them to turn Tile off. But they didn’t serve up those prompts for Find My. Our Bluetooth network — of course, people need to opt in to the Bluetooth network; I think that’s great. We are complete supporters of consumer transparency. But the Find my Bluetooth network in the new Find My app is on by default. And then with these AirTags, as I discussed, we have the UWB issue, which I won’t repeat. But there’s something else. It’s called..they call the ‘magic onboarding flow.’ To connect your AirPods or your AirTags with your phone, you don’t even have to open the Find My app. You just put them near. But that magic flow isn’t available to third-parties like Tile.

Apple questioned about the problem with App Store subscription scams

During the hearing, Apple was also specifically pressed on its failure to police app store scams. The tech giant has argued that one of the reasons it requires developers to pay App Store commissions is to help Apple fight marketplace fraud and protect consumers. But developers claim Apple is doing very little to stop obvious scams that are now raking in millions and impacting consumer trust in the overall subscription economy, as well as in their own legitimate, subscription-based businesses.

One developer in particular, Kosta Eleftheriou, has made it his mission to highlight some of the most egregious scams on the App Store. Functioning as a one-man bunco squad, Eleftheriou regularly tweets out examples of apps that are leveraging fake reviews to promote their harmful businesses. Georgia’s Senator Ossoff asked why we had to rely on independent reports (presumably referring to these efforts by Kosta) to route out scams? Apple defended itself by saying security was a cat-and-mouse game and consumers were refunded when scammed.

Apple and Google questioned on use of app store data

Finally, an interesting line of questioning put to Apple and Google asked the companies if they had an internal firewall between sharing data gleaned from their app stores with their own product development teams working on other initiatives. Apple’s answer left room for doubt. Andeer initially responded that Apple has separate teams, which was clearly not what Senator Blumenthal wanted to know. After the Senator clarified what a “data firewall” was, Apple’s response was “we have controls in place.” 🤔

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

The App Store will be adding a second advertising slot in its Suggested Apps section on the Search page, the FT reports. The slot was previously spotted during testing and may arrive by the end of the month. The advantage of this slot is that it will allow developers to advertise to all users who end up on that tab, not just those who have already performed a search.

Tell me you’re launching iOS 14.5 on April 26 without telling me you’re launching iOS 14.5 on April 26. Apple says all apps must use the AppTrackingTransparency framework to request the user’s permission to track them or to access their device’s advertising identifier as of…you guessed it…April 26, 2021. Apple hasn’t officially announced the iOS 14.5 launch date, but this indicates the launch will likely be on April 26 or perhaps the following day.

Apple alerts developers that, starting April 26, iPhone and iPad apps must be built with Xcode 12 and the iOS 14 SDK or later. Watch apps will need to be built with Xcode 12 and the watchOS 7 SDK or later.

A Bloomberg report claims iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 will bring a number of changes, including an updated Lock Screen, a redesigned iPad Home Screen, additional privacy protections, and tools for setting notifications or automatic replies based on their status (driving, working, sleeping, etc.). The update is expected to be announced at this year’s WWDC on June 7.

Apple extended the waiver on IAPs for apps offering paid online group events instead of in-person events due to the pandemic. The waiver now continues through the end of 2021.

Platforms: Google

Google released Android 12’s third developer preview this week — the last one before Android 12 goes live. The highlights in this release included the ability for developers to provide new haptic feedback experiences in their apps and new app launch animations where they can customize the splash screen with their own branding.

Google this week touted its technologies that keep its Play Store safe. It says Google Play Protect scanned over 100 billion installed apps for malware each day in 2020. Its machine-learning detection capabilities and app review process stopped over 962,000 policy-violating apps from being published and it banned 119,000 spammy or malicious apps. It also increased focus on SDK enforcement, which impacts security and privacy violations.

Fintech

PayPal will launch a local wallet in China focused on cross-border payments. The U.S. company in January became the first foreign firm to have 100% ownership of a payments platform in China. The app will not compete with local players like Alipay or WeChat Pay for domestic payments.

Google Pay added its privacy nutrition label to its iOS app. The app’s references to third-party advertising are due to its “Explore” tab where users find merchant offers they can add to their card, which is optional. The app’s personalization features are off by default and, when turned on, are used to surface relevant merchant offers within Google Pay only.

Social Networking

Instagram launched new tools that will filter out abusive DMs based on keywords and emojis used and to proactively block people, even on new accounts. The blocking account feature is going live globally in the next few weeks, and the feature to filter out abusive DMs will start rolling out in the U.K., France, Germany, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand in a few weeks, with more countries to follow.

Instagram is now testing ads in its TikTok rival, Reels. The ads can be up to 30 seconds long and may resemble Story ads. But you’ll be able to like and comment on Reels ads, just like you can on TikTok. Parent company Facebook also rolled out “sticker ads” for Stories.

Apple confirmed that Parler will be allowed to return to the App Store, after Parler proposed updates to its app, content and moderation practices that would adhere to Apple’s guidelines. The companies have been in talks following Parler’s ban from the App Store after the Capitol attack. Parler Interim CEO Mark Meckler, on Fox News, referred to the changes it had to make as “censorship.” He said Google had also reached out but the company is less concerned with making amends there as the app can be sideloaded on Android devices.

Twitter began testing “Professional Profiles” for businesses. The new profiles let businesses showcase their website, address, hours, map and more, in a new “About” section under the Following/Followers count on their profiles.

Professional Profiles are a new tool that will allow businesses, non-profits, publishers, and creators — anyone who uses Twitter for work — to display specific information about their business directly on their profile.

— Twitter Business (@TwitterBusiness) April 21, 2021

Twitter also rolled out the ability to tweet 4K pictures on iOS and Android to all users. The feature was previously in testing.

Time to Tweet those high res pics –– the option to upload and view 4K images on Android and iOS is now available for everyone.

To start uploading and viewing images in 4K, update your high-quality image preferences in “Data usage” settings. https://t.co/XDnWOji3nx

— Twitter Support (@TwitterSupport) April 21, 2021

A former children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has filed a case against TikTok over its collection of children’s data. The suit alleges TikTok is violating EU and U.K. children’s data protection laws by processing the information gathered from children without parental consent.

Nextdoor launched a new feature that will alert users if it appears they’re about to post something racist. The feature works by examining words and phrases, like “all lives matter,” that are hurtful to people of color. The app doesn’t prevent users from posting, but will slow them down and ask them to reconsider.

Facebook reminds developers that Apple’s ATT (App Tracking Transparency) will be rolling out next week with the new version of iOS, and shared its resources on how to “minimize disruptions to your business and clients.”

Wattpad social reading community announced it has now paid authors over $1 million as part of its now two-year old Paid Stories program. Today, over 550 writers and 750 stories are a part of the program. Users have also spent more than half a billion minutes reading Wattpad Paid Stories.

Design

Alongside the launch of its whiteboarding tool, Figma released a more fully featured version of its mobile app into beta testing.

Messaging

A Bloomberg report claims that Apple will be working to add more social features to iMessage in an upcoming release of iOS to better compete with WhatsApp. The report didn’t offer any indication about what those features may be.

Facebook partnered with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the 93rd Oscars to give fans a way to engage in real-time, interactive experiences across its platforms. One of these will include a live Messenger Room which will stream the broadcast and exclusive live interviews with winners, engage in activities like trivia, and more. The room will be live starting at 8 PM ET on Sunday April 25. Messenger will also include AR backgrounds for the event.

Clubhouse & Clones

Reddit this week unveiled its Clubhouse Rival, Reddit Talk. The design hasn’t deviated much from Clubhouse’s experience — where speakers sit at the top of the screen in a stage area of sorts, and listeners appear below — all with rounded profile icons, as well as tools to react or raise a hand to ask to speak. However, Reddit Talk will initially live within subreddits, where a community’s moderators will be the only ones able to start a talk for the time being.

Image Credits: Reddit

Clubhouse downloads dropped 72% last month, going from 9.6 million in February to 2.7 million in March, an indication the app, now valued at $4 billion thanks to its fundraise this week, could be losing some momentum as competitors arrive and the world begins to re-open.

A Clubhouse bug let people lurk in rooms invisibly, Wired reports. The “ghosts” could hide in rooms and even disrupt them, while moderators were unable to mute them. Clubhouse said it has fixed the problem.

Facebook announced its suite of audio products this week, including its Clubhouse clone featuring Live Audio Rooms across Facebook and Messenger. The Live Audio Rooms will initially be available in Groups and to public figures and experts. The company also unveiled Spotify integrations for music and podcasts and an audio-only TikTok rival Soundbites, which seems a lot like the startup Cappuccino’s app, its CTO noticed.

Welcome, @Facebook. Seriously. ☕pic.twitter.com/4Z3RhA0KQw

— Gawen (@gawenr) April 21, 2021

Gaming

Discord and Microsoft are no longer having takeover talks. Bloomberg and The WSJ reported. Discord rejected a $12 billion bid for its service that allows gamers (and others) to communicate via text, video and voice. Other companies have been talking to Discord, too, including Twitter, with some discussions valuing Discord between $15 billion-$18 billion.

The Xbox Cloud Gaming beta began rolling out to iOS and PC this week to Game Pass Ultimate users, sending out invites to a limited number of users in the 22 supported countries, and scaling it up over time. Although Apple announced a carve-out that would allow cloud gaming platforms to offer their games through its App Store by making each game an individual app, linked to a main app with IAP, Microsoft has instead chosen to operate its experience through the Safari web browser.

Health & Fitness

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

The top 10 telehealth apps in the U.S. saw their first-time installs climb 33% Y/Y to 7 million in Q1 2021, reported Sensor Tower. MyChart led the subcategory, reaching a record 1.1 million downloads in January — likely thanks to it becoming a tool for booking vaccine appointments.

Travel & Transportation

TripAdvisor is preparing to launch a subscription service in advance of a post-pandemic return to travel. The company expects the new product, TripAdvisor Plus, will grow to generate more than $1 billion per year for the service that will offer consumers discounts on hotels, experiences and more. The service is expected to arrive in the U.S. in June.

Ride-hailing app Gett inked a deal with Curb Mobility to integrate the latter’s some 50,000 yellow taxis into Gett’s app, which will now cover some 65 cities across the U.S. The deal does not involve any investment between Gett and Curb.

Utilities

Apple Maps looks to be adding user reviews and photos in the U.S., after first launching the feature in select markets, including the U.K. A brief shot from Apple’s event this week showed the feature in action.

Security

Secure messaging app Signal reverse engineered Cellebrite’s hacking kit after the cell phone hacking company said it had figured out how to access the Signal app. In the process of doing so, Signal found several vulnerabilities in Cellebrite’s kit. It also implied the team would make changes to Signal to make it more difficult to hack.

Our latest blog post explores vulnerabilities and possible Apple copyright violations in Cellebrite's software:

"Exploiting vulnerabilities in Cellebrite UFED and Physical Analyzer from an app's perspective"https://t.co/DKgGejPu62 pic.twitter.com/X3ghXrgdfo

— Signal (@signalapp) April 21, 2021

Facebook said it took action against two separate groups of hackers in Palestine — a network linked to the Preventive Security Service (PSS) and a threat actor known as Arid Viper. The groups were engaged in cyber espionage activities in Palestine and other nations.

Researchers found that popular running apps — including Strava, Runkeeper, MapMyRun, Nike Run Club and Runtastic — don’t use basic security measures to prevent hackers from breaking in or health and fitness data spilling out.

Developer Kosta Eleftheriou has been hunting down App Store scam apps, after his own app became a victim to Apple’s failures to police misleading apps with fake reviews. One of his more recent discoveries was particularly interesting: he found a crypto casino hidden inside what otherwise looked like a silly kids’ game. The app was removed from the App Store shortly after he tweeted about it.

Funding and M&A

Clubhouse closed an undisclosed round of Series C funding, valuing the business at $4 billion, or triple its earlier valuation. The round was led by Andrew Chen of Andreessen Horowitz, with participation from DST Global, Tiger Global and Elad Gil.

Kandji raised $60 million in a Series B for its solution that helps onboard and update Apple devices to support remote workforces. Felicis Ventures led the round. The company now has 100 employees.

Amsterdam-based Bux raised $80 million for its European Robinhood rival that lets people invest in shares and ETFs without paying commissions. The startup now has around 500,000 users across part of Europe using its main app and two others, including a Bux Crypto app. The round was co-led by Prosus Ventures and Tencent.

Leo AR raised $3 million in seed funding led by Great Oaks Ventures for its app that capitalizes on ARKit to create 3D AR objects. The startup claims its users have now created more than 8 million videos with AR objects to date.

Per Diem raised $2.3 million in seed funding led by Two Sigma Ventures for its service that lets anyone build their own subscription business with shipping and delivery — like Amazon Prime.

Social app IRL is reportedly in talks to raise more than $50 million at a $1 billion valuation, or 10x the size of its last round, according to The Information. The app quickly pivoted from “in real life” events to digital ones during the pandemic.

French startup Alan raised $220 million in funding led by Coatue at a $1.67 billion valuation for its health insurance and healthcare superapp available across web, iOS and Android.

Mobile gaming company AppLovin, which holds about a 1% share of the $189 billion global mobile gaming market, closed down 18.5% on its first day of trading on the Nasdaq. Shares were at $65.20, with a market cap of around $23 billion. The firm also owns app distribution and marketing company Adjust.

French startup BlaBlaCar raised $115 million to build an all-in-one travel app. The round was led by existing investor VNV Global. The company also added a bus marketplace with the acquisition of Ouibus and an online bus ticketing platform with the acquisition of Busfor.

Till Financial raised $5 million from a range of investors, including Melinda Gates’ fund, for its kids’ finance app meant to help them learn how to save and invest.

San Francisco-based Oath Care raised $2 million in seed funding for its subscription-based mobile app focused on improving the lives of new mothers by pairing them with healthcare specialists and moderators who can guide them in chats and video calls.

Downloads

Popl

Image Credits: Popl

This combination NFC tag (available as a phone sticker, wristband or keychain dongle) works alongside a mobile app to help you quickly share your contact info with people you meet in real life. When phone are close, the NFC enables the handoff the data as quickly as an Apple Pay transaction. In the Popl app, meanwhile, you can customize which data you want to share with others — including your contact info, social profiles, website links, etc. — all via an easy-to-use interface. Like some business card apps in the past, you can flip between a personal profile and a business profile in Popl in order to share the appropriate information when out networking.

Yak Tack

Image Credits: YakTack

Wordsmiths will like Yak Tack’s simple app, reviewed here by TechCrunch, that help users remember new words using a system it calls “tacking.” When you find a word you want to remember, you use the app to look it up then “tack” it to start the system of repetition that helps combat forgetting. The words are sent via push notifications at a specific intervals so you can read their definitions again.

Engineered earworms on TikTok aren’t that far off from disinfo campaigns

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Ever since I read this Bloomberg story about how songs are engineered to go viral on TikTok, I’ve had one thought in my head – if you can call it that – it’s more of a noise, or impression: 

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

Yes, it’s the sound of internally screaming. Just when I thought I understood how deeply social media algorithms have hijacked our desires, tastes and preferences – WHAM! Another jab straight to the nose. I have to admit, I was blindsided by this one. It knocked me out.

Now, I understand that I work for a website called TechCrunch, emphasis on the tech, but if this story doesn’t make you feel at least a teensy bit like a Luddite, well, I don’t know what to tell you. You’re probably like that character in the Matrix, Cypher, who wants to be plugged in.

Is that harsh? I mean, companies are going to company, and partnerships with major record labels is a common sense move for a social media app all about honing the art of short, clever combinations of sound and video. And fair dues to the creators, many of them in college or high school, for jumping at the chance to make some money and get a little bit of fame.

But it’s probably not too harsh when you consider what else is possible when catchiness is weaponized. Here’s what we know: whether it’s internet memes or political slogans or Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage, what drives information dissemination is not the truthfulness of the content or the credibility of the speaker but 1) how easy it is to remember and 2) how quickly it sparks conversations. 

And would you look at that! Those are exactly the variables music producers optimize for today. What the Bloomberg story highlights, inadvertently or not, is how a #1 pop hit and a piece of political disinformation are not all that different, aesthetically. Everyone’s an entertainer.

Now read to the end of the Bloomberg story. Get to the part where it’s revealed that ByteDance (the Chinese company that owns TikTok), in response to threats of a U.S. ban on the app, recruited creators to orchestrate a seemingly grassroots lawsuit against the proposed ban. And I think: damn. Attention really is the most precious commodity in the world. And we’re just…giving it away.

(Cue the internal screams.)

Podcast recording platform Riverside.fm raises $9.5M

By Brian Heater

The past year has changed the way we work, on so many levels — a fact from which podcasters certainly weren’t immune. I can say, anecdotally, that as a long-time podcaster, I had thrown in the towel on my long-standing insistence that I do all of my interviews in-person — for what should probably be obvious reasons.

2020 saw many shows shifting to a remote format and experimenting with different remote recording tools, from broad teleconferencing software like Zoom to more bespoke solutions like Zencastr. Tel Aviv-based Riverside.fm (originally from Amsterdam) launched right on time to ride the remote podcasting wave, and today the service is announcing a $9.5 million Series A.

The round is led by Seven Seven Six and features Zeev-ventures.com, Casey Neistat, Marques Brownlee, Guy Raz,  Elad Gil and Alexander Klöpping. The company says it plans to use the money to increase headcount and build out more features for the service.

“As many were forced to adapt to remote work and production teams struggled to deliver the same in person quality, from a distance—Gideon and Nadav saw an opportunity to not only solve a great need for creators, but to build an extraordinary product,” Seven Seven Six founder Alexis Ohanian said in a release. “As a creator myself, I can say from experience that Riverside’s quality is unmatched and the new editing capabilities are peerless.”

Riverside.fm is a remote video and audio platform that records lossless audio and 4K video tracks remotely to each user’s system, saving the end result from the kind of technical hiccups that come with spotty internet connections.

Along with the funding round, the company is also rolling out a number of software updates to its platform. At the top of the list is brand new version of its iPhone app, which instantly records and uploads video, a nice extension as more users are looking to record their end on mobile devices.

On the desktop front, “Magic Editor” streamlines the multi-step process of recording, editing and uploading. There’s also a new “Smart Speakerview” feature that automatically switches between speakers for video editing, while not switching for accidental noises like sneezing and coughing.

It’s a hot space that’s only heating up. Given how quickly the company was able to piece their original offering together, it will be interesting to see what they’re able to do with an additional $9.5 million in their coffers.

 

Tiger Global backs Indian crypto startup at over $500M valuation

By Manish Singh

Coinswitch Kuber, a startup that allows young users in India to invest in cryptocurrencies, said on Thursday it has raised $25 million in a new financing round as it looks to expand its reach in India, the world’s second largest internet market and also the place where the future of private cryptocurrencies remains uncertain for now.

Tiger Global financed the entire Series B funding round of Coinswitch Kuber and valued the three-year-old Indian startup at over $500 million. The announcement of Series B comes just three months after Coinswitch closed its $15 million Series A round from Ribbit Capital, Sequoia Capital India, and Kunal Shah. The Bangalore-based startup has raised $41.5 million to date.

TechCrunch reported earlier this month that the New York-headquartered technology hedge fund had led or was in advanced stages of talks to lead investments in many Indian startups including Coinswitch.

Coinswitch Kuber is one of the handful of startups operating in the cryptocurrency space today. The crypto exchange allows users to buy slivers of several popular cryptocurrencies. A user on Coinswitch, for instance, can buy small sachets of bitcoin and other currencies for as low as 100 Indian rupees ($1.3)-worth.

The startup said it has amassed over 4.5 million users, more than half of whom are aged 25 or younger. In the past 11 months, Coinswitch Kuber said it processed transactions over $5 billion.

But how the startup, which aims to add 5.5 million by the end of this year, performs in the future is not entire in its hand.

While trading of private cryptocurrency such as bitcoin is currently legal in India, New Delhi is widely expected to introduce a law that bans all private cryptocurrency.

Ashish Singhal, co-founder and chief executive of Coinswitch Kuber, said he is optimistic that India will not ban private cryptocurrencies, but said the startup closed the financing round with Tiger Global before New Delhi’s indication to formulate a law.

“This investment round brings us at par with some of the most sought after cryptocurrency companies in the world and sets us up for the long run,” said Singhal.

In recent months, some crypto startups in India have started to explore a contingency plan in the event the nation does end up banning cryptocurrency trading in the country. Many startups are today building in India, but focusing on serving customers overseas.

“As they build India’s leading cryptocurrency platform, CoinSwitch is well positioned to capture the tremendous growing interest in crypto among retail investors. We are excited to partner with CoinSwitch as they innovate in this emerging asset class,” said Scott Shleifer, Partner at Tiger Global, in a statement.

Apple and Google pressed in antitrust hearing on whether app stores share data with product development teams

By Sarah Perez

In today’s antitrust hearing in the U.S. Senate, Apple and Google representatives were questioned on whether they have a “strict firewall” or other internal policies in place that prevent them from leveraging the data from third-party businesses operating on their app stores to inform the development of their own competitive products. Apple, in particular, was called out for the practice of copying other apps by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who said the practice had become so common that it earned a nickname with Apple’s developer community: “sherlocking.”

Sherlock, which has its own Wikipedia entry under software, comes from Apple’s search tool in the early 2000s called Sherlock. A third-party developer, Karelia Software, created an alternative tool called Watson. Following the success of Karelia’s product, Apple added Watson’s same functionality into its own search tool, and Watson was effectively put out of business. The nickname “Sherlock” later became shorthand for any time Apple copies an idea from a third-party developer that threatens to or even destroys their business.

Over the years, developers claimed Apple has “sherlocked” a number of apps, including Konfabulator (desktop widgets), iPodderX (podcast manager), Sandvox (app for building websites) and Growl (a notification system for Mac OS X) and, in more recent years, F.lux (blue light reduction tool for screens) Duet and Luna (apps that makes iPad a secondary display), as well as various screen-time-management tools. Now Tile claims Apple has also unfairly entered its market with AirTag.

During his questioning, Blumenthal asked Apple and Google’s representatives at the hearing — Kyle Andeer, Apple’s chief compliance officer and Wilson White, Google’s senior director of Public Policy & Government Relations, respectively — if they employed any sort of “firewall” in between their app stores and their business strategy.

Andeer somewhat dodged the question, saying, “Senator, if I understand the question correctly, we have separate teams that manage the App Store and that are engaged in product development strategy here at Apple.”

Blumenthal then clarified what he meant by “firewall.” He explained that it doesn’t mean whether or not there are separate teams in place, but whether there’s an internal prohibition on sharing data between the App Store and the people who run Apple’s other businesses.

Andeer then answered, “Senator, we have controls in place.”

He went on to note that over the past 12 years, Apple has only introduced “a handful of applications and services,” and in every instance, there are “dozens of alternatives” on the App Store. And, sometimes, the alternatives are more popular than Apple’s own product, he noted.

“We don’t copy. We don’t kill. What we do is offer up a new choice and a new innovation,” Andeer stated.

His argument may hold true when there are strong rivalries, like Spotify versus Apple Music, or Netflix versus Apple TV+, or Kindle versus Apple Books. But it’s harder to stretch it to areas where Apple makes smaller enhancements — like when Apple introduced Sidecar, a feature that allowed users to make their iPad a secondary display. Sidecar ended the need for a third-party app, after apps like Duet and Luna first proved the market.

Another example was when Apple built screen-time controls into its iOS software, but didn’t provide the makers of third-party screen-time apps with an API so consumers could use their preferred apps to configure Apple’s Screen Time settings via the third-party’s specialized interface or take advantage of other unique features.

Blumenthal said he interpreted Andeer’s response as to whether Apple has a “data firewall” as a “no.”

Posed the same question, Google’s representative, White, said his understanding was that Google had “data access controls in place that govern how data from our third-party services are used.”

Blumenthal pressed him to clarify if this was a “firewall,” meaning, he clarified again, “do you have a prohibition against access?”

“We have a prohibition against using our third-party services to compete directly with our first-party services,” White said, adding that Google has “internal policies that govern that.”

The senator said he would follow up on this matter with written questions, as his time expired.

❌