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Chorus brings a social layer to meditation

By Brian Heater

Chorus launched its online experience on March 16 of last year. It was fairly auspicious timing, as those things go, falling the same day seven public health departments launched a joint shelter-in-place order in its native California.

Like countless other companies, 2020 didn’t go according to plan for the meditation app. But the site scrambled to pivot the company’s “experiential” hybrid of in-person classes to a fully virtual interface, and ultimately it may be all the better for it.

Certainly there’s no shortage of meditation apps from which to choose. Calm and Headspace top the list, but the mindfulness category has proven to be an extremely popular one, as users look to technology to help alleviate some of the stresses for which it has been directly responsible.

But meditation is hard. It’s hard to start and it’s hard to maintain. Some apps do a better job than others of guiding a user through that process, but it can still feel like a solitary experience — one of many reasons people abandon practices before they’re able to start seeing the benefits.

Chorus was already seeing success with its early in-person events. “We thought that had to be the on-ramp for most users because it provided the most immersive first experience,” co-founder and CEO Ali Abramovitz tells TechCrunch. “We ran in-person pop-ups in San Francisco.”

The company also managed to raise a pre-seed round of around $1 million. More recently, the company has received additional funding as part of Y Combinator’s Winter 2021 batch of startups.

An official app is still forthcoming. For now, the experience uses a web portal for signups, while the actual classes are conducted live over Zoom and archived for on-demand viewing. It’s similar to the setup many gyms and personal trainers have utilized during the pandemic. And while it’s not the most sophisticated, Abramovitz says Chorus currently has user numbers in the “hundreds,” largely by word of mouth, while not disclosing the actual figure.

Among those, around two-thirds are classified as “highly engaged,” which means they attend an average of a class every other day. The service draws people in with breathing exercises based on popular songs and keeps users engaged by offering a more communal experience than most meditation apps.

“The problem we’re solving is two parts,” says Abramovitz. “Originally we thought we were designing a new meditation experience specifically for people who found meditation challenging. What we’ve learned, after seeing our customers stay after class and talk to each other, is what keeps people coming back is a new way to connect with themselves and each other.”

The experience is kind of a virtual approximation of the experience you would get in an in-person class — namely the sorts of engagements you would get with fellow attendees after the class. In an era of social isolation, it’s clear why users would be particularly engaged with that aspect.

As for what that experience will look like in a post-pandemic world, the company plans to continue to adapt to meet users’ needs.

“We’re fundamentally an experience company,” says Abramovitz. “We’re a meditation experience company for people who found traditional meditation challenging. That is our core. We will deliver that over whatever platform or channel provides the best experience for our community. Right now that’s an app. In the future, it could be hardware devices like VR or strategic studios like Peloton has for the community. But right now, we’re focused on the digital experience.”

Following backlash, WhatsApp to roll out in-app banner to better explain its privacy update

By Sarah Perez

Last month, Facebook-owned WhatsApp announced it would delay enforcement of its new privacy terms, following a backlash from confused users which later led to a legal challenge in India and various regulatory investigations. WhatsApp users had misinterpreted the privacy updates as an indication that the app would begin sharing more data — including their private messages — with Facebook. Today, the company is sharing the next steps it’s taking to try to rectify the issue and clarify that’s not the case.

The mishandling of the privacy update on WhatsApp’s part led to widespread confusion and misinformation. In reality, WhatsApp had been sharing some information about its users with Facebook since 2016, following its acquisition by Facebook.

But the backlash is a solid indication of much user trust Facebook has since squandered. People immediately suspected the worst, and millions fled to alternative messaging apps, like Signal and Telegram, as a result.

Following the outcry, WhatsApp attempted to explain that the privacy update was actually focused on optional business features on the app, which allow business to see the content of messages between it and the end user, and give the businesses permission to use that information for its own marketing purposes, including advertising on Facebook. WhatsApp also said it labels conversations with businesses that are using hosting services from Facebook to manage their chats with customers, so users were aware.

Image Credits: WhatsApp

In the weeks since the debacle, WhatsApp says it spent time gathering user feedback and listening to concerns from people in various countries. The company found that users wanted assurance that WhatsApp was not reading their private messages or listening to their conversations, and that their communications were end-to-end encrypted. Users also said they wanted to know that WhatsApp wasn’t keeping logs of who they were messaging or sharing contact lists with Facebook.

These latter concerns seem valid, given that Facebook recently made its messaging systems across Facebook, Messenger and Instagram interoperable. One has to wonder when similar integrations will make their way to WhatsApp.

Today, WhatsApp says it will roll out new communications to users about the privacy update, which follows the Status update it offered back in January aimed at clarifying points of confusion. (See below).

Image Credits: WhatsApp

In a few weeks, WhatsApp will begin to roll out a small, in-app banner that will ask users to re-review the privacy policies — a change the company said users have shown to prefer over the pop-up, full-screen alert it displayed before.

When users click on “to review,” they’ll be shown a deeper summary of the changes, including added details about how WhatsApp works with Facebook. The changes stress that WhatsApp’s update don’t impact the privacy of users’ conversations, and reiterate the information about the optional business features.

Eventually, WhatsApp will begin to remind users to review and accept its updates to keep using WhatsApp. According to its prior announcement, it won’t be enforcing the new policy until May 15.

Image Credits: WhatsApp

Users will still need to be aware that their communications with businesses are not as secure as their private messages. This impacts a growing number of WhatsApp users, 175 million of which now communicate with businesses on the app, WhatsApp said in October.

In today’s blog post about the changes, WhatsApp also took a big swipe at rival messaging apps that used the confusion over the privacy update to draw in WhatsApp’s fleeing users by touting their own app’s privacy.

“We’ve seen some of our competitors try to get away with claiming they can’t see people’s messages – if an app doesn’t offer end-to-end encryption by default that means they can read your messages,” WhatsApp’s blog post read.

This seems to be a comment directed specifically towards Telegram, which often touts its “heavily encrypted” messaging app as more private alternative. But Telegram doesn’t offer end-to-end encryption by default, as apps like WhatsApp and Signal do. It uses “transport layer” encryption that protects the connection from the user to the server, a Wired article citing cybersecurity professionals explained in January. When users want an end-to-end encrypted experience for their one-on-one chats, they can enable the “secret chats” feature instead. (And this feature isn’t even available for group chats.)

In addition, WhatsApp fought back against the characterization that it’s somehow less safe because it has some limited data on users.

“Other apps say they’re better because they know even less information than WhatsApp. We believe people are looking for apps to be both reliable and safe, even if that requires WhatsApp having some limited data,” the post read. “We strive to be thoughtful on the decisions we make and we’ll continue to develop new ways of meeting these responsibilities with less information, not more,” it noted.

Math learning app Photomath raises $23 million as it reaches 220 million downloads

By Romain Dillet

Photomath, the popular mobile app that helps you solve equations, has raised a $23 million Series B funding round led by Menlo Ventures. The app is a massive consumer success, and chances are you might already know about it if you have a teenager in your household.

The app lets you point your phone’s camera at a math problem. It recognizes what’s written and gives you a step-by-step explanation to solve the problem. You might think that it’s the perfect app for lazy students.

But there are many different use cases for Photomath. For instance, you can write an equation in your notebook and use Photomath to draw a graph.

Typing an equation on a keyboard is quite difficult. That’s why bridging the gap between the physical world and your smartphone is key to Photomath’s success. You can just grab a pen and write something down on a piece of paper. Essentially, it’s an AR calculator.

GSV Ventures, Learn Capital, Cherubic Ventures and Goodwater Capital are also participating in today’s funding round.

Behind the app’s success, there’s an interesting story. Photomath was originally designed as a demo app for another company called MicroBlink. At the time, the team was working on text recognition technology. It planned to sell its core technology to other companies that might find it useful.

In 2014, they pitched MicroBlink at TechCrunch Disrupt in London. And things changed drastically overnight as Photomath reached the first spot of the iOS App Store.

Photomath has now attracted over 220 million downloads. As of this writing, it is still #59 in the U.S. App Store, one rank above Tinder. Other companies tried to build competitors, but it seems like they didn’t manage to crush the tiny European startup.

The app seems even more relevant as many kids are spending more time studying at home. They can’t simply raise their hand to call the teacher for some help.

Photomath is free and users can optionally pay for Photomath Plus, a premium version with more features, such as dynamic illustrations and animated tutorials.

Report: Social audio app Clubhouse has topped 8 million global downloads

By Sarah Perez

Social audio app Clubhouse has now topped 8 million global downloads, despite still being in a prelaunch, invite-only mode, according to new data released today by mobile data and analytics firm App Annie. Per its estimates, Clubhouse grew from over 3.5 million global downloads as of February 1, 2021, to reach 8.1 million by February 16, 2021. This sharp growth is attributed to several high-profile guest appearances, including those from Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for example.

App Annie also estimates that 2.6 million-plus of the total global installs took place in the U.S. — a figure that highlights the app’s global appeal.

Image Credits: App Annie

Clubhouse, meanwhile, hasn’t officially shared its total number of downloads or registered users, but CEO Paul Davison revealed in January the app had grown to 2 million weekly active users — which means the app’s monthly active user figure and total registered user count would be much higher. Other estimates have put the app’s registered user base in between 6 million and 10 million (the latter citing unnamed sources.)

Reached for comment on App Annie’s report, Clubhouse said it doesn’t publish user numbers.

It’s worth noting that app install figures aren’t typically a valid proxy for registered users as many people often download an app but then never open it or sign up. But in Clubhouse’s case, the two figures could be more closely aligned as people who are installing the app are motivated to join. The app is not open to the public, so the users installing the app are likely either in possession of a Clubhouse invite or are aiming to get one from a friend or trusted contact who’s already joined.

Also in the new report, App Annie noted how the Clubhouse phenomenon is having an impact on the larger app ecosystem. Local rivals to Clubhouse offering their own social audio experience have also gained downloads in recent days, including Dizhua, Tiya and Yalla, which have attracted users in China, the U.S., Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. 

Dizhua, for example, has 174,000 downloads; Tiya has 6 million; and Yalla has 34.5 million, the report says. Yalla, notably, has been live since 2016, but Clubhouse’s popularity is giving it a boost. 

Beyond this small handful, there’s been an explosion of social audio experiences, including those from startups like Sonar, Locker Room, Quilt, Yoni Circle, Roadtrip, Space, Capiche.fm, Yac, Cappuccino and others. Twitter, meanwhile, is building its own Clubhouse rival with Spaces, which it said yesterday will expand to Android by March. Facebook, too, is reportedly planning a Clubhouse competitor.

The question on everyone’s minds now is how much of this growth is sustainable. Skeptics say Clubhouse lends itself to those who tend to dominate conversations by talking at length; that many of its conversations are just kind of boring; that the app favors the “hustle culture”-obsessed; and so on. Some also wonder how well social audio apps will fare when the world reopens post-COVID and there’s more to do — including the return to traditional networking events.

But these concerns don’t take into account that social audio has the potential to carve out space for itself by supplanting users’ other mobile spoken-word audio activities, like podcast listening or audiobooks. Of course, questions about Clubhouse’s future can’t really be answered now, as the pandemic continues, and with an app that’s not fully open to the public.

Google suspends Trump 2020 app from Play Store for non-functionality

By Sarah Perez

Google has suspended the Trump 2020 campaign app from the Google Play Store for policy violations, the company confirmed, following a report from Android Police which noted the app was unable to load any content and appeared to have been taken down. Both the Android version of the app and its iOS counterpart have been left online since the November 2020 elections, but hadn’t received recent updates — which likely contributed to the app’s stability issues.

The Play Store version hadn’t been updated since October. 30, 2020, for example, according to data from Sensor Tower.

According to Android Police’s report, the app was hanging and couldn’t load content, and it reported connectivity issues. We understand the issue was as they described — when users downloaded the app, it would either hang on the initial loading screen with a spinning “T” logo or it would immediately report a server error at startup. In either case, it would never load the app experience at all.

Recent user reviews on the Play Store noted these issues, saying things like “will not open,” “the app doesn’t even work,” “absolutely terrible doesn’t even work,” “wouldn’t open keep saying check connections,” and more. One user even asked the developer to respond to the numerous complaints, saying “please reply to people commenting. It’s not loading.” Another implied the issues were Google’s fault, noting “worked great, until Google canceled it.”

Google, though, did not cancel it. The Trump 2020 Android app has actually been experiencing problems for some time before Google took this action.

For example, a tweet from around a month ago described a similar set of issues:

Is the Trump2020 app down?@TrumpWarRoom @DanScavino @JennaEllisEsq @DonaldJTrumpJr @EricTrump pic.twitter.com/YGTJrZB66h

— TexanForTrump. God Bless Trump (@BlueWaterPalms) January 18, 2021

Google told with TechCrunch the app has not been banned from the Play Store, only suspended for its non-functionality. It can be reinstated if the problems are addressed. The company also said it attempted to reach out to the app’s developer before taking the app down, but never received a response.

“The Trump 2020 campaign app recently stopped working and we reached out to the developer multiple times in an attempt to get them to address the issue,” a Google spokesperson said. “People expect that apps downloaded from Google Play provide a minimum level of functionality and our policy is to remove non-working apps from the store if they are not fixed.”

Despite the issues on Android, we found the iOS version was still able to load upon first launch, and could send confirmation codes to a phone number at sign-up. But when you visited the app’s main screens, it also now presents an error message. This error doesn’t affect your ability to browse through the past content on iOS, however.

Image Credits: Trump 2020 screenshot on iOS

According to date from Sensor Tower, the Android version hadn’t seen any new installs since Feb. 7, 2021. The firm also noted the Trump 2020 Android app had around 840,000 installs compared with close to 1.5 million on iOS.

This is not the first time the Trump 2020 app’s issues have made headlines.

In the months leading up to last year’s presidential election in the U.S., a number of TikTok users decided to troll the app in its user reviews. (For some reason, Gen Z users believe a lowly-rated app will be automatically removed from the app stores. That’s not true.) Their efforts at the time were able to bring the app’s overall star rating down to just 1.2 stars, and eventually forced the Trump 2020 campaign to reset the app’s ratings.

Though the election is long over, users have still been leaving bad reviews on the app along with their 1-star ratings. Sometimes, the trolls even attempt a bit of humor in the process.

“App attempted a coup to overthrow my phone’s operating system,” said one Play Store reviewer. “I’ve suffered enough since 2016,” said another on iOS.

As expected, stock trading service Public raises $220M at unicorn valuation

By Alex Wilhelm

The day before Robinhood goes under the the Congressional hammer, domestic rival Public.com announced this morning that it has closed a $220 million funding round at a $1.2 billion valuation. News of the round was first broken by TechCrunch. Further reporting colored in the lines concerning the investment’s size and valuation range.

Confirming the funding news today, Public added a fresh metric to the mix, namely that it has reached one million members – over the course of just 18 months post-launch, the company was quick to point out.

That means that Public’s backers – its latest round was put together by prior investors, including Greycroft, Accel, Tiger Global, Inspired Capital and others – values the company at around $1,200 per current “member.” Whether or not that feels rich, we leave to you to decide.

But with rising interest in the savings and investing space – some data here — and Robinhood’s revenues growing to a run rate of more than $800 million in Q4 2020 and looking even better at the start of 2021, it’s not hard to see why investors are backing Public. It’s even easier if you believe that Robinhood’s brand has undergone material harm from its woes during the GameStop saga.

The pair, along with a host of other fintech services that offer savings and investing products, have been buoyed by a secular shift in banking away from the physical world (in-person shopping, bank branches, plastic cards) to the digital (neo-banks, ecommerce, virtual cards). Robinhood shook up the trading world with zero-cost investing, fitting neatly into the mobile and virtual banking future that is being built. And Public has taken that model a step further by dropping payment for order flow (PFOF), a method revenue generation in which companies like Robinhood get a small fee for sending their users’ trades to one particular market maker or another.

TechCrunch recently joked that it seems like “there is infinite money for stock-trading startups,” in light of the anticipated Public round, which has now has arrived. Let’s see who is next to take home a big check.

Epic Games takes its Apple App Store fight to Europe

By Natasha Lomas

Epic Games has taken its fight against Apple’s App Store rules to the European Union where it’s lodged a complaint with the bloc’s antitrust regulators.

In a blog post today the maker of the popular online game Fortnite said it’s extending its battle for what it dubbed “fairer digital platform practices for developers and consumers” to Europe, noting the bloc is already looking into competition concerns attached to the Apple App Store and its payment service, Apple Pay.

The EU opened a formal probe into certain Apple practices last year.

Regional lawmakers have also recently set out a plan to expand platform regulation to put specific strictures on ‘gatekeeper’ platforms with the aim of ensuring fairness and accountability vis-a-vis third parties. And the issue of platform power is certainly one that’s now under close scrutiny by regulators and lawmakers around the world.

We’re bringing our fight to end Apple’s App Store monopoly to Europe. Apple’s practices are harming consumers and app developers in Europe and around the world, and we’re joining the #EU’s ongoing investigation into Apple’s abuse of its dominant position https://t.co/LIb346QmEi

— Epic Games Newsroom (@EpicNewsroom) February 17, 2021

“The complaint, filed with the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Competition, alleges that through a series of carefully designed anti-competitive restrictions, Apple has not just harmed but completely eliminated competition in app distribution and payment processes,” Epic writes, adding: “Apple uses its control of the iOS ecosystem to benefit itself while blocking competitors and its conduct is an abuse of a dominant position and in breach of EU competition law.”

It’s not seeking damages against Apple but wants EU competition authorities to impose remedies against what it describes as the iPhone maker’s “monopoly channels”.

“What’s at stake here is the very future of mobile platforms,” said Epic Games founder and CEO, Tim Sweeney, in a statement. “Consumers have the right to install apps from sources of their choosing and developers have the right to compete in a fair marketplace. We will not stand idly by and allow Apple to use its platform dominance to control what should be a level digital playing field. It’s bad for consumers, who are paying inflated prices due to the complete lack of competition among stores and in-app payment processing. And it’s bad for developers, whose very livelihoods often hinge on Apple’s complete discretion as to who to allow on the iOS platform, and on which terms.”

Epic launched a US lawsuit against Apple last August after Apple banned Fortnite from the App Store.

The tech giant made the move after Epic tried to bypass its in-app purchase framework (and the cut Apple takes) by adding its own payment mechanism to Fortnite to let users purchase in-game currency directly — in direct contravention of Apple’s rules.

As well as banning Fortnight, Apple said it would go further and revoke Epic’s developer account and access to developer tools for its Unreal Engine — a move that would have affected third party app makers that rely on Epic’s engine. However it was barred from going that far.

A US judge quickly denied Epic’s motion to force Apple to unblock the game but Cupertino was ordered not to block Epic’s ability to provide and distribute its Unreal Engine on iOS — limiting Apple’s ability to take a scorched earth approach to try to shut Epic’s battle down.

Since then Epic has filed legal complaints against Apple in Australia and the UK. It’s now also petitioning EU regulators.

The EU’s antitrust division opened a formal investigation of Apple last summer — more than a year after the Europe-based music streaming service Spotify had made a similar complaint over ‘restrictive’ App Store rules and the 30% cut Cupertino takes on iOS in-app payments.

The Commission said at the time that an unnamed e-book/audiobook distributor had also complained about the impact of App Store rules on competition.

It confirmed today that it has received a complaint by Epic Games against Apple. We will assess it based on our standard procedures,” a Commission spokesperson told us. 

Epic’s argument is that Apple is denying Fortnight users on iOS a choice between Apple payment and Epic direct payment — claiming savings would be passed to direct purchasers (although Epic of course stands to gain money if it can open up a channel that bypasses Apple’s cut on in-app payments).

Epic has also tried to push Apple to let it operate an Epic Games Store on iOS — a move Apple refused, citing the “exacting standards for security, privacy, and content” which it argues are predicated on the App Store rules (although Apple’s claims of curation equaling ‘quality’ don’t always live up to the reality of what it allows to operate on its App Store).

Back in 2019, Apple also launched its own gaming distribution service, Apple Arcade — a pure-play content play that offers access to new and exclusive games playable across Apple’s device ecosystem.

That move was perhaps the straw the broke the camel’s back vis-a-vis Epic Games deciding to go all in on an antitrust brawl with Apple. (Its blog post references Apple Arcade, and notes that Apple has barred competitors, including itself, from doing the same).

It’s worth noting that Epic has also squared up to Google, which similarly takes a cut of in-app payments of Android apps distributed via its Play Store — and which also removed Fortnight from the Play Store last year.

However Google’s Android platform allows sideloading of third party apps and alternative app stores, arguably making it harder to make an antitrust case stick vs the tighter restrictions applied by Apple.

At the same time, Android dominates smartphone marketshare — while Apple’s cut of the global market is less than a fifth.

Zencastr raises $4.6M as its beta video offering goes live for all

By Brian Heater

Founded in late-2014, Salt Lake City-based Zencastr has become a kind of lifeline for many podcasters, as the pandemic pushed formerly in-person podcasts online. The startup is hardly a household name, but the company says it’s used by around 6% of all podcasts, based on an estimated 800,000 to 1.2 million active shows in the world.

I can certainly say, anecdotally, that just about every podcaster I’ve spoken to has tried the service, which offers a more specialized solution than video chat programs like Zoom and Skype. Some have managed to retrofit the latter to their needs, but Zencastr’s solution offers, among other things, high-quality audio recordings saved both locally and in the cloud.

As of last June, the company has also been testing a video feature. That’s long been a missing piece of the puzzle. I know I’ve moved over to Zoom since taking my show online during the pandemic. As pretty much any person can tell you a little over a year into the pandemic, video chat is no replacement for in-person interactions, but it works in a pinch. At the very least, it creates an additional dimension of human interaction you don’t get with voice alone.

Up to now, the video offering was only available as a closed beta. Today the beta opens to all users, bringing with it HD video recording, coupled with the already high-quality sound. I’ve been toying around with the feature for my own podcast and find it to be less straightforward than services like Zoom, but more customizable. It leaves you with HD video files you can edit into a tighter show or simply go with the split screen. There’s also a live chat, footnotes and a soundboard, much of which seemed aimed at essentially editing the shows in real time.

Along with the broader arrival of the video feature, Zencastr is announcing a $4.6 million seed round — the service’s first major funding since launch.

Founder and CEO Josh Nielsen tells TechCrunch that Zencastr has thus far been, “bootstrapped, self-funded and really just kind of a grassroots company in the podcasting space. A lot of people are getting interested in podcasting right now and we feel like it’s important to have a company like ours continue to represent our creators. They’re our North Star.”

As interest in podcasting has grown, Zencastr’s use has expanded with it. The company says it has seen around a 147% growth in podcasting hours since the beginning of COVID-19. The seed round is led by Utah-based Kickstart, with participation from former Flipagram executives Brian Dilley and Farhad Mohit and former Skullcandy CEO Jeremy Andrus, among others.

“This company started off pretty small and didn’t have a lot of resources,” Nielsen adds. “But we’ve always been profitable, we’ve always been growing. We still are, but we’re raising money to accelerate that growth. This is also a rebrand and a step forward in the reliability and stability of the platform.”

Stability has been something of an issue in the past with many of the Zencastr users I’ve spoken to. Spending more time with this service ahead of this news, I certainly found some nits to pick, including an audio delay I haven’t experienced with non-devoted services like Skype and Zoom. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s the kind of thing that can really throw you off your rhythm during an interview. The video presentation is also lacking in sophistication, but that’s to be expected in a closed beta.

The funding will go to smoothing out some of those wrinkles, as well as hiring.

“Headcount is one of the primary reasons for raising this round,” co-founder and CPO Adrian Lopez tells TechCrunch. “We were a fully distributed team before COVID existed. We have people in 11 different countries around the world. That was a very conscious choice. We believe that distribution allows us to work with some of the best people, regardless of where they are.”

Today also sees the launch of “Digital Nomad,” a podcast series produced by Zencastr that explores its own origin story. Though, the company is quick to add that this isn’t the beginning of a major push into producing original content.

“We believe strongly in podcasting as a medium that connects people,” says Lopez. “We formed the company around that. We’re fully distributed so we can put our money where our mouth is and put people all over and connect via this medium. We want to start telling that story.”

Zencastr has seen a fair bit of increased competition in the category, including the likes of SquadCast and Riverside.fm. The company’s solid growth over the past year could also see some regression as more people feel comfortable recording shows in person, as the vaccines have been sufficiently distributed.

“We’re going to see some retraction, I think, as things and people go back to work,” says Lopez. “But I think it will all come out in the wash, because there’s just a much bigger-growing interest in podcasting over all. It happened before COVID and it will continue after COVID.”

Tata Group reaches agreement to buy majority stake in BigBasket

By Manish Singh

Indian conglomerate Tata Group has reached an agreement to acquire a majority stake in grocery delivery startup BigBasket, a source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The salt-to-software giant is buying over 60% stake in BigBasket, valuing the Indian startup between $1.8 billion to $2 billion, the source said, requesting anonymity as the deal is still private. BigBasket has raised more than $750 million prior to the deal with Tata.

Indian news network ET Now reported on Tuesday that the two firms were in advanced talks, signals of which began to emerge in local media two quarters ago. Two BigBasket co-founders and Tata Group did not respond to a request for comment.

Chinese internet giant Alibaba, which owns nearly 30% stake in BigBasket, and a handful of other investors are getting a near complete exit from the startup as part of the deal with Tata Group, the source said. New Delhi introduced restrictions last year that made it difficult for Chinese investors to write checks to Indian firms.

The move comes as Mumbai-headquartered Tata Group, which reported a revenue of $113 billion in 2019 and operates several popular brands such as Jaguar Land Rover and tea maker Tetley, looks to expand to more consumer businesses and works to develop a so-called super app in the world’s second-largest internet market.

Bangalore-headquartered BigBasket, which competes with SoftBank-backed Grofers and Reliance’s JioMart, operates in over two dozen cities in India and turned profitable months into the coronavirus pandemic as sales skyrocketed on the platform.

BigBasket and Grofers’s userbases skyrocketed by as much as 80% last year, analysts at Citi Bank estimated in recent note, adding that JioMart, run by India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, had already started to pose serious competition.

In a recent note to clients, Bank of America analysts estimated that the online grocery delivery market could be worth $12 billion in India by 2023.

“Competition is high in the sector with large verticals like BigBasket/Grofers and horizontal like Amazon/Flipkart trying to convert the unorganized market to organized one. Till recently the No 1 player in the space was BigBasket, with it hitting $1 billion annualized GMV & selling over 300,000 orders every day. Reliance Industries also threw its hat with the company launching its JioMart app in May-20 across 200 cites,” they wrote.

The expansion of Reliance Industries, one of India’s largest industrial houses, in e-commerce last year may have prompted Tata Group to accelerate its digital efforts. Ambani raised more than $26 billion for his telecom and retail empires Jio Platforms and Reliance Retail last year from a roster of marquee investors including Facebook and Google.

Tata Group was working to expand to several consumer-facing digital services as early as 2016, but a boardroom coup put all those plans on the back burner, The Information reported in December.

Jigsaw scores $3.7M to slow down your dating swipes

By Natasha Lomas

Chalk one up for Jigsaw, an ‘anti-superficial’ dating app, which has scored £2.7 million ($3.7M) in seed funding to put towards US expansion. The round is led by a lead generation company for online dating companies, called The Relationship Corp, with backing from angel investors in the US and UK “primarily” in the tech sector.

As the startup’s name suggests, Jigsaw adds a little cryptic fun to the transactional business of swiping photos of other singles in search of dating chemistry in a bid to offer a less superficial experience.

Albeit their (patented) anti-superficial twist looks a tad gimmicky at first blush: They literally superimpose a digital jigsaw over the faces of users, with pieces removed gradually the more you interact — and the full face only revealed after a pre-set amount of in-app engagement.

Digital filters are also banned, per the app’s FAQ; they only want ‘real’ selfies. So no cute cat ears etc. 

They’ve got a few more tricks up their sleeve but don’t want to offer a public reveal of the planned features we guessed were coming just yet (but, well, a quick glance at the app and it’s basically a half finished jigsaw puzzle of their product roadmap).

The UK startup — which was founded back in 2016 by a couple of friends, Alex Durrant (co-founder and CEO) and Max Adamski (co-founder and CPO), when they were at university (and finding the dating app scene frustratingly superficial, as they tell it, going on to quit their jobs and go all in on the project in 2018) — launched its puzzle-faced dating experience in London in 2019; and opened up to the US in November last year.

Jigsaw has some 150,000+ registered users across those two markets at this point, with 50,000 in the US — and an appetite to step things up over the pond now they’re flush with new funds.

Durrant says the team is hoping to hit half a million US users in the next six months. They reckon there’s a trend towards less superficial swiping in the American dating app scene that Jigsaw is well positioned to tap into.

“We’re not insane and think people look better with puzzles over their faces, I promise, the puzzle is our middle finger to the superficial dating industry,” he says. “It exists as you say to encourage more meaningful/sustained interactions and to help users look beyond the looks.”

Currently, Jigsaw’s face-shielding mechanism involves a puzzle made up of 16 pieces. All photos start with one piece removed “so you get a sneak peek”. Another then comes off when a user likes (matches with) the person so at the start of chatting there are two pieces revealed. More pieces are removed as the pair mutually exchange messages until there’s no more puzzle bits left.

“Over six messages each (12 in total) is what we believe is the minimum needed for a meaningful conversation,” says Durrant. “That’s why the jigsaw puzzle currently unveils fully after seven messages are exchanged (14 pieces reveal in total), revealing the face underneath. This number has been tested and this is the current sweet spot for our users.”

Jigsaw isn’t unique in the concept of shielding facial visuals to encourage dating app users to do more chatting and less mindless swiping. There are a whole bunch of ‘slower reveal’ style twists aimed at reducing ‘dating app’ fatigue — as another app, INYN, which also limits the velocity of the profile reveal, puts it.

Another app which blurs users’ photos until they do some chatting is Taffy. There’s also Muslim matchmaking app Veil — which offers a “digital veil” feature (aka an opaque filter) that it applies to all profile photos, male and female, until a mutual match is made.

Other ‘anti-superficial’ dating apps, like Willow, try a Q&A style approach — getting users to answer questions to see more photos. The list goes on.

Still, Jigsaw has come up with perhaps the most visually obvious (and gamified) twist on this slow reveal format. And being so immediately, well, obvious, it might make its ‘slow reveal’ twist stick for longer than the average ‘love is blind’ alternative dating app.

Its seed investment is not about buying users, either. We made sure to check. The Relationship Corp does offer user acquisition/traffic generation services to dating apps — including those it invests in — but in Jigsaw’s case the investment is a straight equity investment, per Durrant. So it’s at least sounding confident in its ability to grow.

“They’re super low key but are known in the industry,” says Durrant of the lead seed investor. “Steve Happas their CEO is ex-Match and… sits on our advisory board [as part of the investment]. We had an option to work with them to acquire users but instead, they are supporting our internal team in an advisory capacity.”

This Week in Apps: Bumble’s IPO, Google’s missing privacy labels, a developer crusades against scams

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 taking a look at the Bumble IPO, app store subscription revenue and talk to a developer on a crusade against the fake ratings plaguing the App Store. We’re also checking in on the missing Google privacy labels…with a spreadsheet of all 100 apps.

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

Top Stories

Bumble IPO

Bumble, the dating app positioned as one of Tinder’s biggest rivals, began trading on public markets on Thursday. The company priced its shares at $43, above its earlier target range of $37 to $39. But once live, BMBL began trading up nearly 77% at $76 per share on Nasdaq, closing the day with a market cap of $7.7 billion and the stock at $70.55.

The app itself was founded in 2014 by early Tinder exec Whitney Wolfe Herd, who now, at 31, is the youngest woman founder to take a U.S. company public and, thanks to the IPO, the world’s youngest self-made woman billionaire, as well, said Fortune.

"I want to thank the remarkable women who paved the way for @Bumble in the public markets."

📍 From Austin, TX, Bumble CEO & Founder @WhitWolfeHerd rings the @Nasdaq Opening Bell in celebration of #BumbleIPO. pic.twitter.com/LN4iJuBJqy

— Nasdaq (@Nasdaq) February 11, 2021

Wolfe Herd successfully leveraged her knowledge of the online dating market, then combined that with an understanding of how to position a dating app to make it more appealing to women.

On Bumble, women message first, for example, and the company often touts features and updates designed to protect women from bad actors. A lot of what Bumble does is just marketing and spin overlaid on the Tinder model. Like other dating apps, Bumble uses a similar format to connect potential matches: a swipeable “people catalog,” where users look at photos, primarily, to determine interest. Bumble, like others, also makes money by charging for extra features that give users a better shot or more efficient experience.

But all this works because users believe Bumble to be different. They believe Bumble is also capable of delivering higher-quality matches than Tinder, which has increasingly re-embraced its persona as a hook-up app.

The IPO’s success also sends a signal that investors are expecting in-person dating to rebound post-pandemic, and getting in early on the next big mass market dating app is an easy win.

Developer crusades against scammy subscription apps

Developer Kosta Eleftheriou, a Fleskly co-founder, has been on a crusade against the scammy and spammy apps overrunning the App Store, as well as Apple’s failure to do much about it.

Earlier this month, Kosta complained that copycat apps were undermining his current business, as the developer of an Apple Watch keyboard app, FlickType. Shady clones boosted by fake ratings and reviews promised the same features as his legit app, but then locked their customers into exorbitant subscriptions, earning the scammers hundreds of thousands per month.

In his eyes, the problem wasn’t just that clones existed, but that Apple’s lack of attention to fake reviews made those apps appear to be the better choice.

What Apple doesn’t want you to know about the App Store👇

“The apps you love, from a place you can trust” they tell you. But the reality is far from it.

A 4.5-star app? Might as well be a multi-million dollar scam.

How, you ask?

1/🧵

— Kosta Eleftheriou (@keleftheriou) February 12, 2021

Although Apple finally removed most of his fraudulent competitors after his rants gained press attention, he’s frustrated that the system was so broken in the first place.

This week, Kosta returned with another Twitter thread detailing the multimillion-dollar scams that pretend to be the best Roku remote control app. One app, “Roku Remote Control – Roki,” for example, had a 4.5 stars across 15K+ ratings. The app was a free download, but immediately tries to lock users into a $4.99/week subscription or a lifetime payment of $19.99. However, the app offers a “buggy, ad-infested, poorly designed” experience, Kosta says.

He then used AppFigures to see only those reviews of the Roki app that also had text. When displayed like this, it was revealed that “Roki” was really just a 1.7-star app, based on consumers who took the time to write a review.

What’s worse, Kosta has also argued, that even when Apple reacts by removing a bad actor’s app, it will sometimes allow the developer to continue to run other, even more profitable scams.

Kosta says he decided to spearhead a campaign about App Store scams to “get the word out about how all these scams manage to sustain themselves through a singular common flaw in the App Store — one that has been broken for years.”

He also notes that although Apple responded to him, he believes the company is hoping for the story to blow over.

Dear Director at Apple who emailed me:

I already know that many of the apps I’ve reported have been removed.

Please acknowledge there’s a fake ratings problem plaguing the App Store, so we can begin an honest conversation.

Perhaps someone more senior will *finally* say it?

🤨https://t.co/wZ0ziQhtrW

— Kosta Eleftheriou (@keleftheriou) February 11, 2021

“The way Apple tried to communicate with me also didn’t help ease my concern — they either don’t get it, or are actively trying to let the story fizzle out through some token gestures. But what they need to do first and foremost, is acknowledge the issue and protect their customers,” Kosta told TechCrunch.

One potential argument here is that because Apple financially benefits from successful subscription app scams, it’s not motivated to prioritize work that focuses on cleaning up the App Store or fake ratings and reviews. But Kosta believes Apple isn’t being intentionally malicious in an effort to grow the subscription business, it’s just that fake App Store reviews have become “a can that’s been perpetually kicked down the road.” Plus, since Apple touts the App Store as a place users can trust, it’s hard for them to admit fault on this front, he says.

Since the crusade began, Kosta has heard from others developers who have sent him examples “dozens and dozens of scams.”

“I will just keep exposing them until Apple acknowledges the problem,” he says.

Top subscription apps grew 34% to $13B in 2020

Apps saw record downloads and consumer spending in 2020, globally reaching somewhere around $111 billion to $112 billion, according to various estimates. But a growing part of that spend was subscription payments, a report from Sensor Tower indicates. Last year, global subscription app revenue from the top 100 subscription apps (excluding games), climbed 34% year-over-year to $13 billion, up from $9.7 billion in 2019.

The App Store, not surprisingly, accounted for a sizable chunk of this subscription revenue, given it has historically outpaced the Play Store on consumer spending. In 2020, the top 100 subscription apps worldwide generated $10.3 billion on the App Store, up 32% over 2019, compared with $2.7 billion on Google Play, which grew 42% from $1.9 billion in 2019. (Read more here.)

Google-Apple Privacy Label war drags on

Google said it would update its iOS apps with privacy labels weeks ago. While it did roll out some, it has yet to update top apps with Apple’s new labels, including key apps like the Google search app, Google Pay, Google Assistant, Google One, Google Meet, Google Photos, Google Calendar, Google Maps, Google News, Google Drive, Gmail and others. (Keep track of this with me here. Want to help? Email me.)

Overall, the majority of Google’s apps don’t have labels. While Google probably needed some time (and a lot of lawyers) to look this over, it’s now super late to put its labels out there. At this point, its iOS apps are out of date — which Google accidentally alerted users to earlier this week. This is awful optics for a company users already don’t trust, and a win for Apple as a result. (Which, of course, means we need to know for sure that Apple isn’t delaying Google’s submissions here…)

Still, Google had time to get this done. Its December code freeze is long over, and everyone else, for the most part, has gotten on board with the new labels. Why can’t Google?

Google's iOS apps release cycle before & after Apple asks to disclose privacy labels.

Thie pattern is probably just a coincidence. We all know "transparency forms the bedrock of [their] commitment to users"… pic.twitter.com/UgJjAhWfkm

— Thomasbcn (@Thomasbcn) February 2, 2021

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Apple may soon allow users to set a different default music service. The company already opened up the ability to choose a different default browser and email app, but now a new feature in the iOS 14.5 beta indicates it may allow users to set another service, like Spotify, as the default option when asking Siri to play tunes. This, however, could be an integration with HomePod and Siri voice control support in mind, rather than something as universal as switching from Mail app to Gmail.

Apple Maps to gain Waze-like features for reporting accidents, hazards and speed traps. Another new feature in the iOS 14.5 beta will allow drivers to report road issues and incidents by using Siri on their iPhone or through Apple’s CarPlay. For example, during navigation, they’ll be able to tell Siri things like “there’s a crash up head,” “there’s something on the road,” or “there’s a speed trap here.”

Apple tests a new advertising slot on the App Store. Users of Apple’s new iOS 14.5 beta have reported seeing a new sponsored ad slot that appears on the Search tab of the App Store, under the “Suggested” heading (the screen that shows before you do a search). The ad slot is also labeled “Ad” and is a slightly color to differentiate it from the search results. It’s unclear at this time if Apple is planning to launch the ad slot or is just testing it.

The App Store announces price changes for Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Germany and the Republic of Korea.

Apple alerts developers to Push Notification service server certificate update, taking place on March 29, 2021.

Platforms: Google

Image Credits: XDA Developers

Alleged Android 12 screenshots snagged from an early draft document by XDA Developers show Google could be borrowing some ideas from Apple’s iOS for its next update. One feature may put colored dots in the status bar to indicate when the camera or microphone are being accessing, for example. Users may also be able to toggle off their camera, microphone or location access entirely. Google may also add a “conversations” widget to show recent messages, calls and activity statuses, among other things.

Google bans data broker Predicio that was selling user data collected from a Muslim prayer app to Venntel, a government contractor that sells location data from smartphones to ICE, CBP and the FBI, following a Motherboard investigation. Google alerted developers they had a week to remove the SDK from their apps or they’d be removed from Google Play.

Google updated its instructor-led curriculum for Android Development with Kotlin, a major update for the course materials that were first released in 2018. The new materials are designed for either in-person or virtual learning, where educators combine lectures and codelabs.

Google briefly notified users that their Google iOS apps were “out of date”an embarrassing mistake that was later corrected server-side. The bug arrived at a time when Google has yet to have updated its privacy labels for many of its largest apps, including Google, Gmail, Assistant, Maps, Photos and others.

Augmented Reality

Apple released a new iOS app, For All Mankind: Time Capsule, to promote its Apple TV+ series, “For All Mankind.” The app was built using Apple’s ARKit framework, offering a new narrative experience told in AR format featuring the show’s star. In the app, users join Danny as he examines keepsakes that connect to stories about impacting events in the lives of his parents, Gordo and Tracy Stevens, in the alternative world of the TV show.

E-commerce

✨ TikTok is expanding its e-commerce efforts. The company told marketers it’s planning a push into livestreamed e-commerce, and will also allow creators to share affiliate links to products, giving them a way to earn commissions from their videos. The company also recently announced a partnership with global ad agency WPP that will give WPP agencies and clients early access to TikTok ad products. It will also connect top creators with WPP for brand deals.

The Single Day Shopping festival drove high mobile usage. Consumers spent 2.3 billion hours in Android shopping apps during week of November 8-15, 2020, reports App Annie.

Social

CULVER CITY, CA - OCTOBER 13: General view of the TikTok headquarters on October 13, 2020 in Culver City, California. (Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

Image Credits: AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

✨ TikTok’s sale of its U.S. operations to Oracle and Walmart is shelved. The Biden administration undertook a review of Trump’s efforts to address security risks from Chinese tech firms, including the forced sale of TikTok’s U.S. operations. The Trump administration claimed TikTok was a national security threat, and ordered TikTok owner ByteDance to divest its U.S. operations if it wanted to continue to operate in the country. Several large tech companies stepped up to the plate to take on the potential windfall. But Biden’s review of the agency action puts Trump’s plan on an indefinite pause. As a result, the U.S. government will delay its appeal of of federal district court judge’s December 2020 injunction against the TikTok ban. Discussions between U.S. national security officials and ByteDance are continuing, however.

✨ Facebook is said to be building its own Clubhouse rival. Mark Zuckerberg made a brief appearance on Clubhouse earlier this month, which now seems more like a reconnaissance mission, if The NYT’s report is true. Facebook will have to tread lightly, given its still under regulatory scrutiny for anticompetitive practices, which included cloning and acquiring its competition.

✨ Microsoft reportedly approached Pinterest about an acquisition of the $51 billion social media platform, but those talks are no longer active.

TikTok partnered with recipe app Whisk to add a way for users to save recipes featured in TikTok videos. The feature is currently in pilot testing with select creators.

Mark Cuban is co-founding a new podcast app, Fireside. The Shark Tank star and investor has teamed up with Falon Fatemi, who sold customer intelligence startup Node to SugarCRM last year. Fireside is basically Clubhouse, but adds the ability to export live conversations as podcasts.

TikTok expands its Universal Music Group deal just days after UMG pulled its song catalog from Triller, saying the app was withholding artist payments.

Indian firm ShareChat will integrate Snapchat’s Camera Kit technology into its Moj app to enable AR features. The move will give Snap a foothold in a key emerging market.

Instagram said it will impose stricter penalties against those who send abusive messages, including account bans, and develop new controls to reduce the abuse people see in their DMs. The announcement followed a recent bout of racist abuse targeted at footballers in the U.K. A joint statement from Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City condemned the abuse, saying “there is no room for racism, hate or any form of discrimination in our beautiful game.”

Instagram tells creators that it won’t promote their recycled TikToks. The company announced via its @creators account a set of best practices for Reels, noting that those featuring a watermark or logo (which TikTok smartly attaches to its content), won’t be recommended frequently on Instagram’s platform. Of course, TikTok creators are already circulating videos with tips about how to cut out the logo from TikTok videos by first exporting the video as a Live Photo, then going to their iOS Photos app, clicking on the Live Photo and choosing “Save as Video.” Problem solved.

Photos

Image Credits: Google

Google Photos for Android adds previously Pixel-only features — but only if users subscribe to Google One. The paywalled features include machine learning-powered editing tools like Portrait Blur, Portrait Light and Color Pop. There’s also a new video editor on iOS with an Android update planned. The editor now lets you crop, change perspective, add filters, apply granular edits (including brightness, contrast, saturation and warmth) and more.

Adobe adds collaboration and asynchronous editing to Photoshop, Illustrator and Fresco. The update will be supported across platforms, including desktop, iPad and iPhone.

Streaming and Entertainment

Waze adds Audible to its list of in-app audio players. The integration allows you to easily play your audiobooks while driving. Waze already supported in-app music integrations, like YouTube Music and Spotify, thanks to developer integrations with the Waze Audio Kit.

HBO Max is going international. The app will be expanded to 39 Latin American and Caribbean territories in June, replacing the existing HBO GO app.

Picture-in-picture mode returned to YouTube on iOS with the launch of the iOS 14.5 beta.

Messaging

Facebook Messenger added a new feature that makes it easier to block and mass-delete Message Requests from people you don’t know. It also said it’s working on new ways to report abuse and providing better feedback on the status of those reports.

The Biden administration pauses the Trump ban on WeChat. The administration asked a federal appeals court to place a hold on proceedings over the WeChat a day after it asked for a similar delay over the TikTok case, saying it needed time to review the previous administration’s efforts, which are now in the appeals stage.

Health & Fitness

NHS Covid-tracing app has prevented 600,000 infections in England and Wales, researchers estimated in one of the first studies of smartphone-based tracing. The app used the tracing system built by Apple and Google.

Fintech

The Robinhood backlash hasn’t stopped the downloads. Many users downrated the app after it halted meme stock trading earlier this month — a move that’s now under Congressional investigation and has prompted multiple lawsuits. But the app continues to receive downloads. The day after it halted trades was its second-largest by downloads ever, and downloads remained high in the days that followed. In January 2021, the app was installed 3.7 million times in the U.S., or 4x the installs of January 2020.

Government & Policy

Image credits: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

The Chinese government blocked Clubhouse, which had been rapidly gaining attention in the country. The app itself had only briefly been made available in Apple’s China App Store last fall, but those had it installed could access its audio chat rooms without a VPN. Prior to the ban, a group discussing the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen protest reached 5,000 participants — the max number of participants Clubhouse supports.

A new North Dakota Senate bill proposes to ban app stores like Apple and Google from requiring developers to exclusively use their store and payment mechanisms to distribute apps, and would prevent them from retaliating, at the risk of fines. Apple’s Chief Privacy Engineer Erik Neuenschwander said the bill “threatens to destroy the iPhone as you know it,” and that Apple succeeds because it “works hard to keep the bad apps out of the App Store.”

The Coalition for App Fairness (CAF) announced that Meghan DiMuzio has now joined as its first executive director. The advocacy group fighting against app store anticompetitive behavior is made up of over 50 members, including Spotify, Tile, Basecamp, Epic Games and others.

Security & Privacy

The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce has asked Apple to improve the credibility of App Store privacy labels, so consumers aren’t harmed. The request was made after an investigation by The Washington Post revealed that many labels were false, leading to questions as to whether the labels could be trusted at all.

Apple will begin to proxy Google’s “Safe Browsing” service used by Safari through its own servers starting with iOS 14.5. Safari on iPhone and iPad includes a “Fraudulent Website Warning” feature that warns users if they’re visiting a possible phishing site. The feature leverages Google’s “Safe Browsing” database and blocklist. Before, Google may have collected user’s IP address during its interaction with Safari, when the browser would check the website URL against Google’s list. Now, Apple will proxy the feature through Apple’s own servers to limit the risk of information leaks. The change was reported by The 8-bit, MacRumors and others, after a Reddit sighting, and confirmed by Apple’s head of Engineering for WebKit.

This article is a bit confused on the details of how Safe Browsing works, but in the new iOS beta, Safari does indeed proxy the service via Apple servers to limit the risk of information leak.https://t.co/TlDZNMO8do

— othermaciej (@othermaciej) February 11, 2021

A generically named app “Barcode Scanner” on the Google Play Store had been operating as a legit app for years before turning into malware. Users of the app, which had over 10 million installs, began to experience ads that would open their browser out of nowhere. The malware was traced to the app and Google removed it from the Play Store. Unfortunately, users review-bombed a different, innocent app as a result, leaving it 1-star reviews and accusing it of being malware.

Google Chrome’s iOS app is testing a feature that would lock your Incognito tabs with either Touch ID or Face ID to add more security to the browser app.

Google Fi VPN for Android exits beta and expands to iPhone. The VPN app, designed for Google Fi users, is meant to encrypt connections when on public Wi-Fi networks or when using sites that don’t encrypt data. Users, however, question the privacy offered by VPN from Google.

Twitter said the iOS 14 privacy update will have a “modest impact” on its revenue. The companies joins others, including Facebook and Snap, in saying that Apple is impacting their business’s monetization.

Funding and M&A

💰 Quilt, a “Clubhouse” focused self-care, raised $3.5 million seed round led by Mayfield Fund. The app has a similar format to audio social network, Clubhouse, but rooms are dedicated less to hustle culture and more to wellness, personal development, spirituality, meditation, astrology and more.

🤝  Match Group, owner of dating apps like Match and Tinder, will buy Korean social media company Hyperconnect for $1.73 billion. The company runs two apps, Azar and Hakuna Live, both which focus on video, including video chats and live broadcasts.

🤝 Electronic Arts buys Glu Mobile, maker of the “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” mobile game in a $2.4 billion deal. The all-cash deal will also bring other games, like “Diner Dash” and “MLB Tap Sports Baseball” to EA, which said it made the acquisition because mobile is the “fastest-growing platform on the planet.”

💰 French startup Powder raised $12 million for its social app for sharing clips from your favorite games, and follow others with the same interests. The app can capture video content from both desktop and mobile games.

💰 Reddit’s valuation doubled to $6 billion after raising $250 million in a late-stage funding round led by Vy Capital, following the r/WallStreetBets and GameStop frenzy. The company was previously valued at $3 billion, and is also backed by Andreessen Horowitz and Tencent Holdings Ltd.

💰 SplashLearn raised $18 million for its game-based edtech platform. The startup offers math and reading courses for Pre-K through 5th grade, and over 4,000 games and interactive activities.

💰 Goody raised $4 million for its mobile app that lets you send gifts to friends, family and other loved ones over a text message. The other user can then personalize the gift and share their address, if you don’t have that information.

💰 VerSe Innovation, the Bangalore-based parent firm of news and entertainment app Dailyhunt and short video app Josh, a TikTok rival, raised over $100 million in Series H round led by Qatar Investment Authority and Glade Brook Capital Partners. The round turns the company into a unicorn.

💰 Tickr, an app that lets U.K. consumers make financial investments based on their impact to society and the environment, raised $3.4 million in a round led by Ada Ventures, a VC firm focused on impact startups.

📈 Huuuge Inc., a developer of free-to-play mobile casino games, raised $445 million in its IPO in Warsaw, becoming Poland’s largest-ever gaming industry listing.

💰 Uptime, an educational app that offers 5-minute bits of insight from top books and courses, raised a $16 million “seed” round led by Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy; entrepreneur and chairman of N Brown, David Alliance; and members of private equity firm Thomas H Lee.

💰 Modern Health, a mental health services provider for businesses to offer to their employees, raised $74 million, valuing its business at $1.17 billion. The Modern Health mobile app assesses each employee’s need and then provide care options.

💰 Scalarr raised $7.5 million to fight mobile ad fraud. The company offers products to detect ad fraud before an advertiser bids and other tools used by ad exchanges, demand-side platforms, and supply-side platforms.

💰 Dublin-based food ordering app Flipdish, a Deliveroo rival, raised €40 million from global investment firm Tiger Global Management. The app offers a lower commission than other delivery rivals and is even testing drone delivery with startup Manna Aero.

💰 Jackpot, an NYC-based lottery ticket app, raised $50 million Series C. The app allows users to play the lottery games in nine different states, including Arkansas, Colorado, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Washington, D.C.

Downloads

Insight’s iOS web browser supports “extensions”

Image Credits: Insight

A new startup called Insight is bringing web browser extensions to the iPhone, with the goal of delivering a better web browsing experience by blocking ads and trackers, flagging fake reviews on Amazon, offering SEO-free search experiences or even calling out media bias and misinformation, among other things. These features are made available by way of the browser’s “extensions,” which work by way of a “sub-tab” workflow where you navigate using swiping gestures. For example, when online shopping, you could view the product you’re interested in, then swipe over to see the available coupons, the trusted product reviews or to comparison shop across other sites.

The app is a free download on iOS.

App Annie Pulse

Image Credits: App Annie

App Annie’s new app Pulse is aimed not at the more advanced analyst or marketer immersed in data, but rather at the executive who wants a “more elevated, top-down view” of the app ecosystem, TechCrunch reported. The app offers easy access to the app stores’ top charts, plus tools for tracking apps, and a news feed highlighting recent trends. Another feature, the App Annie Performance score, which aims to distill user acquisition, engagement, monetization and sentiment into a single benchmark.

The app is currently iOS-only.

‘Slow dating’ app Once is acquired by Dating Group for $18M as it seeks to expand its portfolio

By Mike Butcher

Five-year-old “slow dating” app Once has been acquired by the Dating Group, one of the largest companies in the dating world, for $18 million in cash and stock. Dating Group has 73 million registered users across a range of portfolio apps, including Dating.com.

Clémentine Lalande, co-founder and CEO of Once, will continue leading the company under a two-year agreement. Fellow co-founder Jean Meyer retained a stake in the company after departing two years ago.

Once has 9 million users on its platform, while the startup also garnered a further 1 million from a spin-out app it later launched called Pickable.

Once is a dating app that uses matching algorithms to deliver just one match per day to each user. It pitched itself as an alternative to the frenetically paced apps such as Tinder and Bumble. Indeed, Bumble revealed last week that two in five people of those it surveyed are taking longer to get to know someone as a result of pandemic lockdowns. And 38% Bumble users admit that it had made them want something more serious. So Once had a ready market.

Each pair on the Once app has 24 hours of each other’s attention and can continue chatting if they “like” each other. The AI looks at the account’s info, dating preferences and previous history in order to find the best possible match. Users can also rate each particular profile to let the AI better understand their taste.

In a statement, Lalande said: “I am thrilled to join the Dating Group today, both because of their proven focus on post-swiping dating alternatives, and to leverage the huge synergies between Once and Dating Group. In such a concentrated and competitive market having a large partner will allow us to augment our reach and accelerate geographical expansion”.

Bill Alena, chief investment officer at Dating Group said: “We strongly believe in the concept of AI and making quality matches. We see a huge potential in integrating Once into our portfolio. We’re excited to have Clémentine join Dating Group, she and her team have built a fascinating product and with this acquisition, Dating Group expands deeper into the Western European market.”

Dating Group has offices in seven countries and a team of more than 500 professionals, with more than 73 million registered users across the entire portfolio. Its brands include Dating.com, DateMyAge, Dil Mil, Cherish, Tubit, AnastasiaDate and ChinaLove.

Pebble founder launches Beeper, a universal chat app that works with iMessage and others

By Sarah Perez

Decades ago, a software program called Trillian introduced a way for internet users to interact with multiple IM networks, like ICQ, AIM and MSN Messenger, in a single window. Now, Pebble founder and Y Combinator Partner Eric Migicovsky is revisiting this concept, but this time with a focus on centralizing access to modern-day chat applications. Through the newly launched app, Beeper, users can connect with 15 different messaging services, including WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, Instagram and Twitter DMs, Messenger, Skype, Hangouts and others — even, through a few tricks, iMessage.

Migicovsky says he first came up with the idea for a universal chat app while working on the smartwatch pioneer Pebble, before its acquisition by Fitbit.

“We really wanted Pebble to be able to send iMessages, but we could never figure out a way to do it because there’s no API for iMessage,” he explains. But the idea for Beeper came to a head two years ago when he learned about a protocol called Matrix. “All of Beeper is built on top of Matrix, which is this open-source federated, encrypted messaging protocol,” he says.

Migicovsky describes Matrix as mostly “a hacker thing,” but believes it’s starting to take off among developers. Basically, Matrix offers an API that allows developers to connect with other chat networks using a “bridge,” which relays the messages back and forth from one side to another.

“When I learned about that, I was like ‘Hey, we could build Trillion using Matrix,'” Migicovsky says.

Image Credits: Beeper

Migicovsky began to work on Beeper as a side project with Tulir Asokan, a Matrix contributor he met in a Matrix chat room.

To make Beeper (previously called Nova) work with all the different chat apps, they had to build these connecting “bridges.” This code is also open-sourced and available at Gitlab.com/Nova.

“We think it’s really important for people to know what code they’re running — so it’s all open source. People can inspect it,” notes Migicovsky.

Because of this, people also don’t have to pay Beeper the $10 per month it’s charging for access to the service. If they know what they’re doing, they can just run the bridges on their own servers, if they choose.

While every messaging platform has its own unique setup in Beeper, making iMessage work was the most complicated. And the workaround here is somewhat involved, to put it mildly.

Beeper actually ships its users an old, jailbroken iPhone (iPhone 4S, because it’s cheap) to serve as the bridge. The code installed on the iPhone reads and writes to the database file where your iMessages are stored. The iPhone encrypts the messages with your own private key and then sends it over the Beeper network. This means Beeper, the company, can’t read your messages, Migicovsky says.

This process allows Android, Windows and Linux users to use iMessage. But it’s not the only way Beeper can make iMessages work. Mac users with an always-on device can instead choose to install a Beeper Mac app to work as the bridge.

Migicovsky says he’s not afraid of any shutdown attempts or litigation by Apple.

“What are they going to do?,” he asks, rhetorically.

Even if Apple somehow stopped Beeper from providing jailbroken iPhones to users, the company could redirect their customers to acquire their own old iPhones from Craigslist instead. Meanwhile, the software itself is open source and running on an iPhone at the user’s house — so Beeper isn’t really “hacking” into iMessage itself.

“I think given the current climate of messaging freedom — I think it would be insane for Apple to start picking a fight with their own users,” Migicovsky adds. Plus, he notes that the European Commission is working on draft legislation similar to the GDPR that mandates all companies to open up messaging for other platforms.

“When that passes, they legally won’t be able to block people from doing something like Beeper,” Migicovsky notes.

Image Credits: Beeper

Beeper, of course, is not the first or only startup focused on trying to break through the iMessage lockdown. Other apps have tried to do this in the past, like AirMessage or weMessage, for example. They have only seen limited adoption, however. And Beeper is not the only startup to try to centralize chat applications, either — Texts.com is developing a similar system.

That said, signups for Beeper were bigger than Migicovsky expected, he says, though declined to share the details. He says Beeper is slowly onboarding users as a result. (For that reason, we have not been able to actually use Beeper. We can’t speak to its claims or usability.)

Despite the competition, where Beeper may have an advantage is in understanding what makes for a great user experience. Pebble, after all, sold over 2 million watches.

Today, Beeper promises features like search, snoozing, archiving, and reminders, and works across MacOS, Windows, Linux‍, iOS and Android.

Longer term, Migicovsky envisions a platform that could do more than just text and share media, stickers and emoji, like other chat apps. Instead, the team is building a platform that would allow people to build more tools and apps on top of Beeper — a system sort of like Gmail’s plugins. For example, there could be tools that would let users schedule calendar events from within their chats. Or perhaps a tool could help you see all the most recent messages you’ve had with a particular user across different platforms, like Clearbit.

Migicovsky declined also to detail how the work on Beeper is being financed but when asked if Beeper could be the next step for him — as in, a new company to work on — he replied, “possibly.”

“I’m enjoying my time at YC. It is fantastic. I was just inspired by all the companies that I work with to do this. Part of being VC is talking to all these founders who are building cool stuff and launching it. And I got a little bit jealous,” he admits.

Bodyguard is a mobile app that hides toxic content on social platforms

By Romain Dillet

If you’re somewhat famous on various social networks, chances are you are exposed to hate speech in your replies or in your comments. French startup Bodyguard recently launched its app and service in English so that it can hide toxic content from your eyes. It has been available in French for a few years and the company has attracted 50,000 users so far.

“We have developed a technology that detects hate speech on the internet with a 90 to 95% accuracy and only 2% of false positive,” founder and CEO Charles Cohen told me.

The company has started with a mobile app that anyone can use. After you download the app and connect the app with your favorite social networks, you choose the level of moderation. There are several categories, such as insults, body shaming, moral harassment, sexual harassment, racism and homophobia. You can select whether it’s a low priority or a top priority for each category.

After that, you don’t have to open the app again. Bodyguard scans replies and comments from its servers and makes a decision whether something is OK or not OK. For instance, it can hide comments, mute users, block users, etc. When you open Instagram or Twitter again, it’s like those hateful comments never existed.

The app currently supports Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Twitch. Unfortunately, it can’t process content on Snapchat and TikTok due to API limitations.

Behind the scenes, most moderation services rely heavily on machine learning or keyword-based moderation. Bodyguard has chosen a different approach. It algorithmically cleans up a comment and tries to analyze the content of a comment contextually. It can determine whether a comment is offensive to you, to a third-party person, to a group of persons, etc.

More recently, the startup has launched a B2B product. Other companies can use a Bodyguard-powered API to moderate comments in real time on their social platforms or in their own apps. The company charges its customers using a traditional software-as-a-service approach.

Eight Roads Ventures Europe appoints Lucile Cornet to Partner

By Mike Butcher

Lucile Cornet has been appointed Partner with Eight Roads Ventures Europe, a firm focusing on startups in Europe and Israel. Cornet is its first female Partner. Eight Roads is backed by Fidelity and has over $6 billion assets under management globally.

Cornet will be focusing on the software and fintech sectors and previously led a number of investments for the firm, having risen from Associate to Partner within five years. It’s an out of the ordinary career trajectory when VC is notorious for having a ‘no succession’ culture, unless partners effectively buy into funds.

Cornet commented: “I am hugely optimistic about what is to come for European technology entrepreneurs. We are seeing more and more amazing founders and innovative businesses across the whole European region with ambitions and abilities to become global champions, and I look forward to helping them scale up.”

Speaking with TechCrunch, Cornet added: “I feel so, so fortunate because I think we’ve been living during a once in a lifetime transformation in general in tech and also in Europe. To build some of those companies, and just be part of the ecosystem has been fantastic. I know how much more exciting things are going to be in the next couple of years.”

Cornet previously led investments into Spendesk, the Paris-based spend management platform; Thinksurance, the Frankfurt-based B2B insurtech; and Compte-Nickel, one of the first European neobanks which was successfully acquired by BNP Paribas in 2017. She also sits on the boards of VIU Eyewear, OTA Insight and Fuse Universal.

France-born Cornet’s previous career includes investment banking, Summit Partners, and she joined Eight Roads Ventures in 2015. She was a ‘rising star’ at the GP Bullhound Investor of the Year Awards 2020.

Commenting, Davor Hebel, managing partner at Eight Roads Ventures Europe, said: “We are delighted with Lucile’s success so far at Eight Roads. She has made a huge impact in Europe and globally since joining the firm. She has a tremendous work ethic and drive… identifying the best European companies and helping them scale into global winners. Her promotion also speaks to our desire to continue to develop our best investment talent and promote from within.”

Speaking to me in an interview Hebel added: “We always believed in a slightly different approach and we say when we hire people, even from the start, we want them to have judgment, and we want them to have that presence when they meet entrepreneurs. So it was always part of the model for us to say, we might not hire many people, but we really want them to have the potential to grow and stay with us and have the path and the potential to do so.”

In 2020, Eight Roads Ventures Europe invested in Cazoo, Otrium, Spendesk, Odaseva and most recently Tibber, completed eight follow-on investments and exited Rimilia. The firm also saw its portfolio company AppsFlyer reach a $2 billion valuation.

Curtsy, a clothing resale app aimed at Gen Z women, raises $11 million Series A

By Sarah Perez

Curtsy, a clothing resale app and competitor to recently IPO’d Poshmark, announced today it has raised $11 million in Series A funding for its startup focused on the Gen Z market. The app, which evolved out of an earlier effort for renting dresses, now allows women to list their clothes, shoes and accessories for resale, while also reducing many of the frictions involved with the typical resale process.

The new round was led by Index Ventures, and included participation from Y Combinator, prior investors FJ Labs and 1984 Ventures, and angel investor Josh Breinlinger (who left Jackson Square Ventures to start his own fund).

To date, Curtsy has raised $14.5 million, including over two prior rounds which also included investors CRV, SV Angel, Kevin Durant, Priscilla Scala, and other angels.

Like other online clothing resale businesses, Curtsy aims to address the needs of a younger generation of consumers who are looking for a more sustainable alternative when shopping for clothing. Instead of constantly buying new, many Gen Z consumers will rotate their wardrobes over time, often by leveraging resale apps.

Image Credits: Curtsy

However, the current process for listing your own clothes on resale apps can be time consuming. A recent report by Wired, for example, detailed how many women were spinning their wheels engaging with Poshmark in the hopes of making money from their closets, to little avail. The Poshmark sellers complained they had to do more than just list, sell, package and ship their items — they also had participate in the community in order to have their items discovered.

Curtsy has an entirely different take. It wants to make it easier and faster for casual sellers to list items by reducing the amount of work involved to sell. It also doesn’t matter how many followers a seller has, which makes its marketplace more welcoming to first-time sellers.

“The big gap in the market is really for casual sellers — people who are not interested in selling professionally,” explains Curtsy CEO David Oates. “In pretty much every other app that you’ve heard about, pro sellers really crowd out everyday women. Part of that is the friction of the whole process,” he says.

On Curtsy, the listing process is far more streamlined.

The app uses a combination of machine learning and human review to help the sellers merchandise their items, which increase their chances of selling. When sellers first list their item in the app, Curtsy will recommend a price then fill in details like the brand, category, subcategory, shipping weight and the suggested selling price, using machine learning systems training on the previous items sold on its marketplace. Human review fixes any errors in that process.

Also before items are posted, Curtsy improves and crops the images, as well as fixes any other issues with the listing, and moderates listings for spam. This process helps to standardize the listings on the app across all sellers, giving everyone a fair shot at having their items discovered and purchased.

Another unique feature is how Curtsy caters to the Gen Z to young Millennial user base (ages 15-30), who are often without shipping supplies or even a printer for producing a shipping label.

Image Credit: Curtsy / Photo credit: Brooke Ray

First-time sellers receive a free starter kit with Curtsy-branded supplies for packaging their items at home, like poly mailers in multiple sizes. As they need more supplies, the cost of those is built into the selling flow, so you don’t have to explicitly pay for it — it’s just deducted from your earnings. Curtsy also helps sellers to schedule a free USPS pickup to save a trip to the post office, and it will even send sellers a shipping label, if need be.

“One of the things we realized quickly is Gen Z does not really have printers. So we actually have a label service and we’ll send you the label in the mail for free from centers across the country,” says Oates.

Later, when a buyer of an item purchased from Curtsy is ready to resell it, they can do so with one tap — they don’t have to photograph it and describe it again. This also speeds up the selling process.

Overall, the use of technology, outsourced teams who improve listings, and extra features like supplies and labels can be expensive. But Curtsy believes the end result is that they can bring more casual sellers to the resale market.

“Whatever costs we have, they should be in service of increased liquidity, so we can grow faster and add more people,” Oates says. “In case of the label service, those are people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate in selling online. There’s no other app that would allow them to sell without a printer.”

Image Credits: Curtsy

This system, so far, appears to be working. Curtsy now has several hundred thousand people who buy and sell on its iOS-only app, with an average transaction rates of 3 items bought or sold per month. When the new round closed late in 2020, the company was reporting a $25 million GMV revenue run rate, and average monthly growth of around 30%. Today, Curtsy generates revenue by taking a 20% commission on sales (or $3 for items under $15.)

The team, until recently, was only five people — including co-founders David Oates, William Ault, Clara Agnes Ault, and Eli Allen, plus a contract workforce. With the Series A, Curtsy will be expanding, specifically by investing in new roles within product and marketing to help it scale. It will also be focused on developing an Android version of its app in the first quarter of 2021 and further building out its web presence.

“Never before have we seen such a strong overlap between buyers and sellers on a consumer-to-consumer marketplace,” said Damir Becirovic of Index Ventures, about the firm’s investment. “We believe the incredible love for Curtsy is indicative of a large marketplace in the making,” he added.

TikTok’s new Q&A feature lets creators respond to fan questions using text or video

By Sarah Perez

TikTok is testing a new video Q&A feature that allows creators to more directly respond to their audience’s questions with either text or video answers, the company confirmed to TechCrunch. The feature works across both video and livestreams (TikTok LIVE), but is currently only available to select creators who have opted into the test, we understand.

Q&A’s have become a top way creators engage fans on social media, and have proven to be particularly popular in places like Instagram Stories and in other social apps like Snapchat-integrated YOLO, or even in smaller startups.

On TikTok, however, Q&A’s are now a big part of the commenting experience, as many creators respond to individual comments by publishing a new video that explains their answer in more detail than a short, text comment could. Sometimes these answers are meant to clarify or add context, while other times creators will take on their bullies and trolls with their video responses. As a result, the TikTok comment section has grown to play a larger role in shaping TikTok trends and culture.

Q&A’s are also a key means for creators to engage with fans when live streaming. But it can be difficult for creators to keep up with a flood of questions and comments through the current live chat interface.

Seeing how creators were already using Q&A’s with their fans is how the idea for the new feature came about. Much like the existing “reply to comments with video” feature, the Q&A option lets creators directly respond to their audience questions. Where available, users will be able to designate their comments as questions by tapping the Q&A button in a video’s comment field, or they can submit questions directly through the Q&A link on the creator’s profile page.

For creators, the feature simplifies the process of responding to questions, as it lets them view all their fans’ questions in one place.

There’s no limit to the number of questions that a creator can receive, though they don’t have to reply to each one.

The feature was first spotted by social media consultant Matt Navarra, who posted screenshots of what the feature looks like in action, including how it appears on users’ profiles.

New! TikTok’s got a Q&A feature!

Creators can add Q&A button to profile allowing followers to leave questions which they can answer via video replies or in a livestream

h/t @Sphinx pic.twitter.com/aMHt4WGhyC

— Matt Navarra (@MattNavarra) January 19, 2021

During the test, the new Q&A feature is only being made available to creators with public Creator Accounts that have over 10,000 followers and who have opted into the feature within their Settings, TikTok confirmed to TechCrunch. Participants in the test today include some safelisted creators from TikTok’s Creative Learning Fund program, announced last year, among others.

TikTok says the Q&A feature is currently in testing globally, and it aims to roll out it to more users with Creator Accounts in the weeks ahead.

Drone-focused construction startup TraceAir raises $3.5M

By Brian Heater

Bay Area-based construction startup TraceAir today announced a $3.5 million Series A. Led by London-based XTX Ventures, this round brings the company’s total funding up to $7 million. The raise includes existing investor Metropolis VC, along with new additions Liquid 2 Ventures, GEM Capital, GPS Ventures and Andrew Filev.

We first noted the company back in 2016, when it pitched a method for using drones to spot construction errors before they become too expense. It’s a pretty massive field that various technology companies are attempting to solve through a variety of different means, ranging from quadrupedal robots to site-scanning hard hats.

Last February, TraceAir announced a new drone management tool. “Haul Router provides the best mathematically objective hauls for each given drone scan,” the company noted at the time. “Any employee can use the tool to design a haul road and export the results to feed into grading equipment.”

The pandemic has thrown the construction industry for a loop (along with countless others). But unlike other sectors, demand still remains high in many places. TraceAir is hoping its solution will prove beneficial as many outfits seek a way to continue the process in spite of uncertainty.

“The Covid-19 pandemic created new challenges for the U.S. and worldwide construction industries, resulting in delayed projects and growing unemployment rates,” CEO Dmitry Korolev said in a release tied to the news. “Our platform allows industry leaders to manage projects more efficiently and collaborate with their teams remotely, minimizing the need for a physical presence on-site.”

TraceAir says the additional funding will go toward its sales and marketing, along with future product developments, including an unnamed product set for release this quarter.

6 investors on 2021’s mobile gaming trends and opportunities

By Lucas Matney

Many VCs historically avoided placing bets on hit-driven mobile gaming content in favor of clearer platform opportunities, but as more success stories pop up, the economics overturned conventional wisdom with new business models. As more accessible infrastructure allowed young studios to become more ambitious, venture money began pouring into the gaming ecosystem.

After tackling topics including how investors are looking at opportunities in social gaming, infrastructure bets and the moonshots of AR/VR, I asked a group of VCs about their approach to mobile content investing and whether new platforms were changing perspectives about opportunities in mobile-first and desktop-first experiences.

While desktop gaming has evolved dramatically in the past few years as new business models and platforms take hold, to some degree, mobile has been hampered. Investors I chatted with openly worried that some of mobile’s opportunities were being hamstrung by Apple’s App Store.

“We are definitely fearful of Apple’s ability to completely disrupt/affect the growth of a game,” Bessemer’s Ethan Kurzweil and Sakib Dadi told TechCrunch. “We do not foresee that changing any time in the near future despite the outcry from companies such as Epic and others.”

All the while, another central focus seems to be the ever-evolving push toward cross-platform gaming, which is getting further bolstered by new technologies. One area of interest for investors: migrating the ambition of desktop titles to mobile and finding ways to build cross-platform experiences that feel fulfilling on devices that are so differently abled performance-wise.

Madrona’s Hope Cochran, who previously served as CFO of Candy Crush maker King, said mobile still has plenty of untapped opportunities. “When you have a AAA game, bringing it to mobile is challenging and yet it opens up an entire universe of scale.”

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. We spoke with:

Hope Cochran and Daniel Li, Madrona Venture Group

Does it ever get any easier to bet on a gaming content play? What do you look for?

Hope Cochran: I feel like there are a couple different sectors in gaming. There’s the actual studios that are developing games and they have several approaches. Are they developing a brand new game, are they reimagining a game from 25 years ago and reskinning it, which is a big trend right now, or are they taking IP that is really trendy right now and trying to create a game around it? There are different ways to predict which ones of those might make it, but then there’s also the infrastructure behind gaming and then there’s also identifying trends and which games or studios are embracing those. Those are some of the ways I try to parse it out and figure out which ones I think are going to rise to the top of the list.

Daniel Li: There’s this single-player narrative versus multiplayer metaverse and I think people are more comfortable on the metaverse stuff because if you’re building a social network and seeing good early traction, those things don’t typically just disappear. Then if you are betting more on individual studios producing games, I think the other thing is we’re seeing more and more VCs pop up that are just totally games-focused or devoting a portion of the portfolio to games. And for them it’s okay to have a hits-driven portfolio.

There seems to be more innovation happening on PC/console in terms of business models and distribution, do you think mobile feels less experimental these days? Why or why not?

Hope Cochran: Mobile is still trying to push the technology forward, the important element of being cross-platform is difficult. When you have a AAA game, bringing it to mobile is challenging and yet it opens up an entire universe of scale. The metrics are also very different for mobile though.

Daniel Li: It seems like the big monetization innovation that has happened over the last couple of years has been the “battle pass” type of subscription where you can unlock more content by playing. Obviously that’s gone over to mobile, but it doesn’t feel like mobile has had some sort of new monetization unlock. The other thing that’s happened on desktop is the success of the “pay $10 or $20 or $20 for this indie game” type of thing, and it feels like that’s not going to happen on mobile because of the price points that people are used to paying.

Alice Lloyd George, Rogue VC

WeChat advances e-commerce goals with $250B in transactions

By Rita Liao

WeChat continues to advance its shopping ambitions as the social networking app turns 10 years old. The Chinese messenger facilitated 1.6 trillion yuan (close to $250 billion) in annual transactions through its “mini programs,” third-party services that run on the super app that allow users to buy clothes, order food, hail taxis and more.

That is double the value of transactions on WeChat’s mini programs in 2019, the networking giant announced at its annual conference for business partners and ecosystem developers, which normally takes place in its home city of Guangzhou in southern China but was moved online this year due to the pandemic.

To compare, e-commerce upstart Pinduoduo, Alibaba’s archrival, saw total transactions of $214.7 billion in the third quarter.

WeChat introduced mini programs in early 2017 in a move some saw as a challenge to Apple’s App Store and has over time shaped the messenger into an online infrastructure that keeps people’s life running. It hasn’t recently disclosed how many third-party lite apps it houses, but by 2018 the number reached one million, half the size of the App Store at the time.

From Tencent’s strategic perspective, the growth in mini program-based transactions helps further the company’s goal to strengthen its fintech business, which counts digital payments as a major revenue driver.

A big proportion of WeChat’s mini programs are games, which the app said exceeded 500 million monthly users thanks to a boost in female and middle-aged users, as well as players residing in China’s Tier 3 cities, WeChat said.

The virtual conference also unveiled a set of other milestones from China’s biggest messaging app, which surpassed 1.2 billion monthly active users last year.

Among its monthly users, 500 million have tried the WeChat Search function. The Chinese internet is carved into several walled gardens controlled by titans like Tencent, Alibaba and ByteDance, which often block competitors from their services. When users search on WeChat, they are in effect retrieving information published on the messenger as well as Tencent’s allies like Sogou, Pinduoduo and Zhihu, rather than the open web.

WeChat said 240 million people have used its “payments score.” When the feature debuted back in 2019, there was speculation that it signaled WeChat’s entry into consumer credit finance and participation in the government’s social credit system. WeChat reiterated at this year’s event that the WeChat score does neither of that.

Like Ant’s Sesame Score, the rating system works more like a royalty program, “designed to build trust between merchants and users.” For instance, people who reach a certain score can waive deposits or delay payments when using merchant services on WeChat. The score, WeChat said, helped users save more than $30 billion in deposits a year.

WeChat’s enterprise version has surpassed 130 million active users. Its biggest rival, Dingtalk, operated by Alibaba, reached 155 million daily active users last March.

The one-day event concluded with the much-anticipated appearance of Allen Zhang, WeChat’s creator. Zhang went to great lengths to talk about WeChat’s nascent short-video feature, which is somewhat similar to Snap’s Stories. He didn’t disclose the number of users on short videos because “the PR team doesn’t allow” him to, but said that “if we set a goal for ourselves, we will have to achieve it.”

Zhang also announced the WeChat team is weighing up an input tool for users. It’d be a tiny project given Tencent’s colossal size, but the project reflects Zhang’s belief in “privacy protection,” despite public skepticism about how WeChat handles user data.

“If we analyze users’ chat history, we can bring great advertising revenue to the company. But we don’t do that, so WeChat cares a lot about user privacy,” asserted Zhang.

“But why do you still get ads [related to] what you have just said on WeChat? There are many other channels that process your information, not just WeChat. From there, our technical team said, ‘Why don’t we create an input tool ourselves?'”

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