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Today — January 22nd 2020Your RSS feeds

UN calls for investigation after Saudis linked to Bezos phone hack

By Zack Whittaker

United Nations experts are calling for an investigation after a forensic report said Saudi officials “most likely” used a mobile hacking tool built by mobile spyware maker, the NSO Group, to hack into the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ phone.

Remarks made by U.N. human rights experts on Wednesday said said the Israeli spyware maker’s flagship Pegasus mobile spyware was likely used to exfiltrate gigabytes of data from Bezos’ phone in May 2018, about six months after the Saudi government first obtained the spyware.

It comes a day after news emerged, citing a forensics report commissioned to examine the Amazon founder’s phone, that the malware was delivered from a number belonging to Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. The forensics report, carried out by FTI Consulting, said it was “highly probable” that the phone hack was triggered by a malicious video sent over WhatsApp to Bezos’ phone. Within hours, large amounts of data on Bezos’ phone had been exfiltrated.

U.N. experts Agnes Callamard and Davie Kaye, who were given a copy of the forensics report, said the breach of Bezos’ phone was part of “a pattern of targeted surveillance of perceived opponents and those of broader strategic importance to the Saudi authorities.”

But the report left open the possibility that technology developed by another mobile spyware maker may have been used.

The Saudi government has rejected the claims, calling them “absurd.”

NSO Group said in a statement that its technology “was not used in this instance,” saying its technology “cannot be used on U.S. phone numbers.” The company said any suggestion otherwise was “defamatory” and threatened legal action.

Forensics experts are said to have began looking at Bezos’ phone after he accused the National Enquirer of blackmail last year. In a tell-all Medium post, Bezos described how he was targeted by the tabloid, which obtained and published private text messages and photos from his phone, prompting an investigation into the leak.

The subsequent forensic report, which TechCrunch has not yet seen, claims the initial breach began after Bezos and the Saudi crown prince exchanged phone numbers in April 2018, a month before the hack.

The report said several other prominent figures, including Saudi dissidents and political activists, also had their phones infected with the same mobile malware around the time of the Bezos phone breach. Some whose phones were infected including those close to Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi critic and columnist for the Washington Post — which Bezos owns — who was murdered five months later.

“The information we have received suggests the possible involvement of the Crown Prince in surveillance of Mr. Bezos, in an effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post’s reporting on Saudi Arabia,” the U.N. experts said.

U.S. intelligence concluded that bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s death.

The U.N. experts said the Saudis purchased the Pegasus malware, and used WhatsApp as a way to deliver the malware to Bezos’ phone.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group for creating and using the Pegasus malware, which exploits a since-fixed vulnerability in the the messaging platform. Once exploited, sometimes silently and without the target knowing, the operators can download data from the user’s device. Facebook said at the time more than the malware was delivered on more than 1,400 targeted devices.

The U.N. experts said they will continue to investigate the “growing role of the surveillance industry” used for targeting journalists, human rights defenders, and owners of media outlets.

Amazon did not immediately comment.

Octi launches a social network built around augmented reality

By Anthony Ha

Octi has created a new social network that uses augmented reality to connect the act of seeing your friends in real life with viewing digital content like their favorite YouTube videos and Spotify songs.

When I wrote about the startup in 2018, it was building AR technology that could do a better job of recognizing the human body and movement. Last week, co-founder and CEO Justin Fuisz (pictured above) told me that this was “a really cool feature,” but that Octi’s investors pushed him “to do more, go deeper.”

Speaking of those investors, the startup says it’s now raised $12 million in funding (including a previously announced seed round of $7.5 million) from Live Nation, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Peter Diamandis’ Bold Capital Partners, Human Ventures, I2BF, Tom Conrad, Scott Belsky and Josh Kushner.

Last week, Fuisz demonstrated what he now sees as Octi’s “mic drop” moment — opening the new app and pointing his iPhone camera at a colleague. The app quickly recognized her, allowing Fuisz to send her a friend request. And once the request was accepted, could Fuisz look at her through the camera again, where she was surrounded by a floating “belt” of virtual items that she’d created with videos, songs and photos.

Octi app

Octi also allows you to include fun effects and stickers. Your friends can change your profile too, making you wear a funny hat or giving you a rousing theme song for the day.

To create a facial recognition experience that’s fast and simple, Fuisz said that Octi’s powered by a “neural network on the edge,” allowing the app to process images on the device (rather than uploading them to the cloud) in a privacy-friendly way.

He said the company has taken other steps to optimize the process, like prioritizing friends-of-friends rather than searching through the faces of everyone in the network, resulting in an app that can identify a friend in as little as 20 milliseconds.

While Octi allows you to view friends’ profiles remotely, it’s worth emphasizing that the core experience is meant to be in-person. In fact, the company provided a statement from analyst Rich Greenfield in which he described the app as “an impressive technology that gives teens a compelling reason to be present and communicate with their phones, while gathered with their closest friends.”

Octi app

I wondered whether a new social dynamic also provides new opportunities for harassment and bullying, but Fuisz noted that for now, Octi profiles and belts are only visible to friends that you’ve approved. So if one of your connections is doing something you don’t like, “You just say goodbye. That’s it. That’s a simple way of dealing with it.”

Fuisz added that this initial version provides a foundation for many more experiences: “There’s endless opportunity for games and other fun things you can do.”

Ultimately, he’s hoping to turn this into a WeChat-style platform for outside developers to build social tools and content. And since Octi works on iPhone 7 and above (with plans for an Android version later this year), it can potentially reach an enormous audience out of the gate, rather than facing the scale issues of a more specialized AR or VR hardware platform.

Yesterday — January 21st 2020Your RSS feeds

2020 will be a moment of truth for foldable devices

By Brian Heater

Phones were not the centerpiece at the recently wrapped Consumer Electronics Show; I’ll probably repeat this point a few more times over the course of this piece, just so we’re clear. This is due, in no small part, to the fact that Mobile World Congress has mostly usurped that role.

There are always a smattering of announcements at CES, however. Some companies like to get out ahead of the MWC rush or just generally use the opportunity to better spread out news over the course of the year. As with other categories, CES’s timing positions the show nicely as a kind of sneak preview for the year’s biggest trends.

A cursory glance at the biggest smartphone news from the show points to the continuation of a couple of key trends. The first is affordability. Samsung leads the pack here with the introduction of two “Lite” versions of its flagship devices, the Galaxy S10 and Note 10. The addition of the line lent some confusion to Samsung’s strategy amongst a handful of tech analysts around where precisely such devices would slot in the company’s portfolio.

Huawei’s answer to life after Google Maps? TomTom

By Brian Heater

Losing access to Google software and services understandably threw Huawei for a loop. The Chinese hardware giant has clearly been working on a contingency plan to deal with the loss of access to things like Android and the Play Store, but Google’s offering formed so much of the devices’ software core — as they do so many of its competitors.

Huawei just lined up a pretty big name in its attempts to rebuild a competitive software suite. Dutch mapping giant TomTom has agreed to provide access to its navigation, mapping and traffic information. The two companies finalized a deal this week, per Reuters, letting Huawei use that information to build its own proprietary apps.

TomTom confirmed the deal, but declined to offer additional information. The move comes as the mapping company has taken a step back from hardware offerings, in favor of monetizing its software services. Given Huawei’s pretty massive footprint in the global smartphone market, this presents a pretty big deal for TomTom, which had previously provided info for AppleMaps.

Huawei was left reeling from U.S. sanctions that cut off access to U.S.-produced software and components. The company has been working to build its own Android competitor behind the scenes, though what we’ve seen of HarmonyOS has thus far been fairly muted. Rumors have also swirled around Huawei developing its own Maps competitor, so it’s hard to say how much it views this new deal as a stopgap. 

AppsFlyer raises $210M for ad attribution and more

By Anthony Ha

AppsFlyer has raised a massive Series D of $210 million led by General Atlantic.

Founded in 2011, the company is best known for mobile ad attribution — allowing advertisers to see which campaigns are driving results. At the same time, AppsFlyer has expanded into other areas like fraud prevention.

And in the funding announcement, General Atlantic Manager Director Alex Crisses suggested that there’s a broader opportunity here.

“Attribution is becoming the core of the marketing tech stack, and AppsFlyer has established itself as a leader in this fast-growing category,” Crisses said. “AppsFlyer’s commitment to being independent, unbiased, and representing the marketer’s interests has garnered the trust of many of the world’s leading brands, and we see significant potential to capture additional opportunity in the market.”

Crisses and General Atlantic’s co-president and global head of technology Anton Levy are both joining AppsFlyer’s board of directors. Previous investors Qumra Capital, Goldman Sachs Growth, DTCP (Deutsche Telekom Capital Partners), Pitango Venture Capital and Magma Venture Partners also participated in the round, which brings the company’s total funding to $294 million.

AppsFlyer said it works with more than 12,000 customers including eBay, HBO, Tencent, NBC Universal, Minecraft, US Bank, Macy’s and Nike. It also says it saw more than $150 million in annual recurring revenue in 2019, up 5x from its Series C in 2017.

Co-founder and CEO Oren Kaniel said that as attribution becomes more important, marketers need a partner they can trust. And with AppsFlyer driving $28 billion in ad spend last year, he argued, “There’s a lot of trust there.”

Kaniel added, “It doesn’t really matter how sophisticated your marketing stack is, or whether you have AI or machine learning — if the data feed is wrong … everything else will be wrong. I think companies realize how sensitive and critical this data platform is for them. I think that in the past couple of years, they’re investing more in selecting the right platform.”

In order to ensure that trust, he said that AppsFlyer has avoided any conflicts of interest in its business model — a position that extends to fundraising, where Kaniel made sure not to raise money from any of the big players in digital advertising.

And moving forward, he said, “We will never go into media business, never go into media services. We want to maintain our independence, we want to maintain our previous unbiased positions.”

Kaniel also argued that while he doesn’t see regulations like Europe GDPR and California’s CCPA hindering ad attribution directly, the regulatory environment has justified AppsFlyer’s investment in privacy and security.

“Even more than just being in compliance, [with AppsFlyer], marketers all of a sudden have full control of their data,” he said. “Let’s say on the web, probably your website is sending data and information to partners who don’t need to have access to this ifnormation. The reason is, there’s no logic, there’s a lot of pixels going everywhere, the publishers don’t have control. If you use our platform, you have full control, you can configure the exact data points that you’d like to share.”

Gartner: 2020 device shipments to grow 0.9% to 2.16B thanks to 5G, before 2 further years of decline

By Ingrid Lunden

The analysts at Gartner have published their annual global device forecast, and while 2020 looks like it may be partly sunny, get ready for more showers and poor weather ahead. The analysts predict that a bump from new 5G technology will lead to total shipments of 2.16 billion units — devices that include PCs, mobile handsets, watches, and all sizes of computing devices in between — working out to a rise of 0.9% compared to 2019.

That’s a modest reversal after what was a rough year for hardware makers who battled with multiple headwinds that included — for mobile handsets — a general slowdown in renewal cycles and high saturation of device ownership in key markets; and — in PCs — the wider trend of people simply buying fewer of these bigger machines as their smartphones get smarter (and bigger).

As a point of comparison, last year Gartner revised its 2019 numbers at least three times, starting from “flat shipments” and ending at nearly four percent decline. In the end, 2019 saw shipments of 2.15 billion units — the lowest number since 2010. All of it is a bigger story of decline. In 2005, there were between 2.4 billion and 2.5 billion devices shipped globally.

“2020 will witness a slight market recovery,” writes Ranjit Atwal, research senior director at Gartner . “Increased availability of 5G handsets will boost mobile phone replacements, which will lead global device shipments to return to growth in 2020.”

(Shipments, we should note, do not directly equal sales, but they are used as a marker of how many devices are ordered in the channel for future sales. Shipments precede sales figures: overestimating results in oversupply and overall slowdown.)

The idea that 5G will drive more device sales, however, is still up for debate. Some have argued that while carriers are going hell for leather in their promotion of 5G, the idea of special 5G apps and services — versus using it to connect machines in an IoT play — that will spur adoption of those devices is not as apparent, and that’s leading to it being more of an abstract concept, and not one that is leading the charge when it comes to apps and services, especially for the mass consumer market and for (human) business users.

In 6 years of hearing pitches in Silicon Valley, I heard '5G' maybe once. That's not from ignorance – the utility network layer is not very important to innovation at the top of the stack.

— Benedict Evans (@benedictevans) January 20, 2020

Still, it may be that hardware might march on ahead regardless. Gartner predicts that 5G devices will account for 12% of all mobile phone shipments in 2020 as handset makers make their devices “5G ready,” with the proportion increasing to 43% by 2022. “From 2020, Gartner expects an increase in 5G phone adoption as prices decrease, 5G service coverage increases and users have better experiences with 5G phones,” writes Atwal. “The market will experience a further increase in 2023, when 5G handsets will account for over 50% of the mobile phones shipped.” That may in part be simply because handset makers are making their devices “5G ready”

Drilling down into the numbers, Gartner believes that worldwide, phones will see a bump of 1.7% this year, up to 1.78 billion before declining again in 2021 to 1.77 billion and then further in 2022 to 1.76 billion. Asia and in particular China and emerging markets will lead the charge.

Another analyst firm, Counterpoint, has been tracking marketshare for individual handset makers and notes that Samsung remains the world’s biggest handset maker going into Q4 2019 (final numbers on that quarter should be out in the coming weeks), with 21% of all shipments and slight increases over the year, but with the BBK group (which owns OPPO, Vivo, Realme, and OnePlus) likely to pass it, Huawei and Apple to become the world’s largest, as it’s growing much faster. Numbers overall were dragged down by declines for Apple, the world’s number-three handset maker, which saw a slump last year in its handset sales.

Although the market was generally lower across all devices, PC shipments actually saw some growth in 2019. That is set to turn down again this year, to 251 million units, and declining further to 247 million in 2021 and 242 million in 2022.

Part of that is due to slower migration trends — Windows 10 adoption was the primary driver for people switching up and buying new devices last year, but now that’s more or less finished. That will see slower purchasing among enterprise end users, although later adopters in the SME segment will finally make the change when support for Windows it 7 finally ends this month (it’s been on the cards for years at this point). In any case, the upgrade cycle is changing because of how Windows is evolving.

“The PC market’s future is unpredictable because there will not be a Windows 11. Instead, Windows 10 will be upgraded systematically through regular updates,” writes Atwal “As a result, peaks in PC hardware upgrade cycles driven by an entire Windows OS upgrade will end.”

Two trends that might impact shipments — or at least highlight other currents in the hardware market — should also be noted. The first is the role that Chromebooks might play in the PC market. These were one of the faster-growing categories last year, and this year we will see even more models rolled out, with what hardware makers hope will be even more of a boost in functionality to drive adoption. (Google and Intel’s collaboration is one example of how that will work: the two are working on a set of standards that will fit with chips made by Intel to produce what the companies believe are more efficient and compelling notebooks, with tablet-like touchscreens, better battery life, smaller and lighter form factors, and more.)

The second is whether or not smartwatches will make a significant dent into the overall device market. Q3 of last year saw growth of 42% to 14 million shipments globally. And while there have been a number of smartwatch hopefuls, but one of the biggest successes has been the Apple Watch, whose growth outstripped that of the wider watch market, at 51%. Indeed, looking at the results of the last several quarters, Apple’s product category that includes Watch sales (wearables, home and accessories) even appears to be on track to outstrip another hardware category, Macs. Whether that will continue, and potentially see others joining in, will be an interesting area to “watch.”

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Samsung invests $500M to set up a smartphone display plant in India

By Manish Singh

Samsung, which once led India’s smartphone market, is investing $500 million in its India operations to set up a manufacturing plant to produce displays at the outskirts of New Delhi.

The company disclosed the investment and its plan in a filing to the local regulator earlier this month. The South Korean giant said the plant would produce displays for smartphones as well as a wide-range of other electronics devices.

In the filing, the company disclosed that it would be using some land for the new plant from its existing factory in Noida.

In 2018, Samsung opened a factory in Noida that it claimed was the world’s largest mobile manufacturing plant. For that factory, the company had committed about $700 million.

The new factory should help Samsung further increase its capacity to produce smartphone components locally and access a range of tax benefits New Delhi offers.

Those benefits would come in handy to the company as it faces off Xiaomi, the Chinese smartphone vendor that put an end to Samsung’s lead in India.

Samsung is now the second largest smartphone player in India, which is the world’s second largest market with nearly 500 million smartphone users. The company in recent months has also lost market share to Chinese brand Realme, which is poised to take over Samsung in the quarter that ended in December last year, according to research firms.

TechCrunch has reached out to Samsung for comment.

TechCrunch’s Top 10 investigative reports from 2019

By Josh Constine

Facebook spying on teens, Twitter accounts hijacked by terrorists, and sexual abuse imagery found on Bing and Giphy were amongst the ugly truths revealed by TechCrunch’s investigating reporting in 2019. The tech industry needs more watchdogs than ever as its size enlargens the impact of safety failures and the abuse of power. Whether through malice, naivety, or greed, there was plenty of wrongdoing to sniff out.

Led by our security expert Zack Whittaker, TechCrunch undertook more long-form investigations this year to tackle these growing issues. Our coverage of fundraises, product launches, and glamorous exits only tell half the story. As perhaps the biggest and longest running news outlet dedicated to startups (and the giants they become), we’re responsible for keeping these companies honest and pushing for a more ethical and transparent approach to technology.

If you have a tip potentially worthy of an investigation, contact TechCrunch at tips@techcrunch.com or by using our anonymous tip line’s form.

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Here are our top 10 investigations from 2019, and their impact:

Facebook pays teens to spy on their data

Josh Constine’s landmark investigation discovered that Facebook was paying teens and adults $20 in gift cards per month to install a VPN that sent Facebook all their sensitive mobile data for market research purposes. The laundry list of problems with Facebook Research included not informing 187,000 users the data would go to Facebook until they signed up for “Project Atlas”, not receiving proper parental consent for over 4300 minors, and threatening legal action if a user spoke publicly about the program. The program also abused Apple’s enterprise certificate program designed only for distribution of employee-only apps within companies to avoid the App Store review process.

The fallout was enormous. Lawmakers wrote angry letters to Facebook. TechCrunch soon discovered a similar market research program from Google called Screenwise Meter that the company promptly shut down. Apple punished both Google and Facebook by shutting down all their employee-only apps for a day, causing office disruptions since Facebookers couldn’t access their shuttle schedule or lunch menu. Facebook tried to claim the program was above board, but finally succumbed to the backlash and shut down Facebook Research and all paid data collection programs for users under 18. Most importantly, the investigation led Facebook to shut down its Onavo app, which offered a VPN but in reality sucked in tons of mobile usage data to figure out which competitors to copy. Onavo helped Facebook realize it should acquire messaging rival WhatsApp for $19 billion, and it’s now at the center of anti-trust investigations into the company. TechCrunch’s reporting weakened Facebook’s exploitative market surveillance, pitted tech’s giants against each other, and raised the bar for transparency and ethics in data collection.

Protecting The WannaCry Kill Switch

Zack Whittaker’s profile of the heroes who helped save the internet from the fast-spreading WannaCry ransomware reveals the precarious nature of cybersecurity. The gripping tale documenting Marcus Hutchins’ benevolent work establishing the WannaCry kill switch may have contributed to a judge’s decision to sentence him to just one year of supervised release instead of 10 years in prison for an unrelated charge of creating malware as a teenager.

The dangers of Elon Musk’s tunnel

TechCrunch contributor Mark Harris’ investigation discovered inadequate emergency exits and more problems with Elon Musk’s plan for his Boring Company to build a Washington D.C.-to-Baltimore tunnel. Consulting fire safety and tunnel engineering experts, Harris build a strong case for why state and local governments should be suspicious of technology disrupters cutting corners in public infrastructure.

Bing image search is full of child abuse

Josh Constine’s investigation exposed how Bing’s image search results both showed child sexual abuse imagery, but also suggested search terms to innocent users that would surface this illegal material. A tip led Constine to commission a report by anti-abuse startup AntiToxin (now L1ght), forcing Microsoft to commit to UK regulators that it would make significant changes to stop this from happening. However, a follow-up investigation by the New York Times citing TechCrunch’s report revealed Bing had made little progress.

Expelled despite exculpatory data

Zack Whittaker’s investigation surfaced contradictory evidence in a case of alleged grade tampering by Tufts student Tiffany Filler who was questionably expelled. The article casts significant doubt on the accusations, and that could help the student get a fair shot at future academic or professional endeavors.

Burned by an educational laptop

Natasha Lomas’ chronicle of troubles at educational computer hardware startup pi-top, including a device malfunction that injured a U.S. student. An internal email revealed the student had suffered a “a very nasty finger burn” from a pi-top 3 laptop designed to be disassembled. Reliability issues swelled and layoffs ensued. The report highlights how startups operating in the physical world, especially around sensitive populations like students, must make safety a top priority.

Giphy fails to block child abuse imagery

Sarah Perez and Zack Whittaker teamed up with child protection startup L1ght to expose Giphy’s negligence in blocking sexual abuse imagery. The report revealed how criminals used the site to share illegal imagery, which was then accidentally indexed by search engines. TechCrunch’s investigation demonstrated that it’s not just public tech giants who need to be more vigilant about their content.

Airbnb’s weakness on anti-discrimination

Megan Rose Dickey explored a botched case of discrimination policy enforcement by Airbnb when a blind and deaf traveler’s reservation was cancelled because they have a guide dog. Airbnb tried to just “educate” the host who was accused of discrimination instead of levying any real punishment until Dickey’s reporting pushed it to suspend them for a month. The investigation reveals the lengths Airbnb goes to in order to protect its money-generating hosts, and how policy problems could mar its IPO.

Expired emails let terrorists tweet propaganda

Zack Whittaker discovered that Islamic State propaganda was being spread through hijacked Twitter accounts. His investigation revealed that if the email address associated with a Twitter account expired, attackers could re-register it to gain access and then receive password resets sent from Twitter. The article revealed the savvy but not necessarily sophisticated ways terrorist groups are exploiting big tech’s security shortcomings, and identified a dangerous loophole for all sites to close.

Porn & gambling apps slip past Apple

Josh Constine found dozens of pornography and real-money gambling apps had broken Apple’s rules but avoided App Store review by abusing its enterprise certificate program — many based in China. The report revealed the weak and easily defrauded requirements to receive an enterprise certificate. Seven months later, Apple revealed a spike in porn and gambling app takedown requests from China. The investigation could push Apple to tighten its enterprise certificate policies, and proved the company has plenty of its own problems to handle despite CEO Tim Cook’s frequent jabs at the policies of other tech giants.

Bonus: HQ Trivia employees fired for trying to remove CEO

This Game Of Thrones-worthy tale was too intriguing to leave out, even if the impact was more of a warning to all startup executives. Josh Constine’s look inside gaming startup HQ Trivia revealed a saga of employee revolt in response to its CEO’s ineptitude and inaction as the company nose-dived. Employees who organized a petition to the board to remove the CEO were fired, leading to further talent departures and stagnation. The investigation served to remind startup executives that they are responsible to their employees, who can exert power through collective action or their exodus.

If you have a tip for Josh Constine, you can reach him via encrypted Signal or text at (585)750-5674, joshc at TechCrunch dot com, or through Twitter DMs

Instagram drops IGTV button, but only 1% downloaded the app

By Josh Constine

At most, 7 million of Instagram’s 1 billion-plus users have downloaded its standalone IGTV app in the 18 months since launch. And now, Instagram’s main app is removing the annoying orange IGTV button from its home page in what feels like an admission of lackluster results. For reference, TikTok received 1.15 billion downloads in the same period since IGTV launched in June 2018. In just the US, TikTok received 80.5 million downloads compared to IGTV’s 1.1 million since then, according to research commissioned by TechCrunch from Sensor Tower.

“As we’ve continued to work on making it easier for people to create and discover IGTV content, we’ve learned that most people are finding IGTV content through previews in Feed, the IGTV channel in Explore, creators’ profiles and the standalone app. Very few are clicking into the IGTV icon in the top right corner of the home screen in the Instagram app” a Facebook company spokesperson tells TechCrunch. “We always aim to keep Instagram as simple as possible, so we’re removing this icon based on these learnings and feedback from our community.”

Instagram users don’t need the separate IGTV app to watch longer videos, as the IGTV experience is embedded in the main app and can be accessed via in-feed teasers, a tab of the Explore page, promo stickers in Stories, and profile tabs. Still, the fact that it wasn’t an appealing enough destination to warrant a home page button shows IGTV hasn’t become a staple like past Instagram launches including video, Stories, augmented reality filters, or Close Friends.

One thing still missing is an open way for Instagram creators to earn money directly from their IGTV videos. Users can’t get an ad revenue share like with YouTube or Facebook Watch. They also can’t receive tips or sell exclusive content subscriptions like on Facebook, Twitch, or Patreon.

The only financial support Facebook and Instagram have offered IGTV creators is reimbursement for production costs for a few celebrities. Those contracts also require creators to avoid making content related to politics, social issues, or elections, according to Bloomberg‘s Lucas Shaw and Sarah Frier.

“In the last few years we’ve offset small production costs for video creators on our platforms and have put certain guidelines in place,” a Facebook spokesperson told Bloomberg. “We believe there’s a fundamental difference between allowing political and issue-based content on our platform and funding it ourselves.” That seems somewhat hypocritical given Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s criticism of Chinese app TikTok over censorship of political content.

Now users need to tap the IGTV tab inside Instagram Explore to view long-form videoAnother thing absent from IGTV? Large view counts. The first 20 IGTV videos I saw today in its Popular feed all had fewer than 200,000 views. BabyAriel, a creator with nearly 10 million Instagram followers that the company touted as a top IGTV creator has only post 20 of the longer videos to date with only one receiving over 500,000 views.

When the lack of monetization is combined with less than stellar view counts compared to YouTube and TikTok, it’s understandable why some creators might be hesistant to dedicate time to IGTV. Without their content keeping the feature reliably interesting, it’s no surprise users aren’t voluntarily diving in from the home page.

In another sign that Instagram is folding IGTV deeper into its app rather than providing it more breathing room of its own, and that it’s eager for more content, you can now opt to post IGTV videos right from the main Instagram feed post video uploader. AdWeek Social Pro reported this new “long video” upload option yesterday. A Facebook company spokesperson tells me “We want to keep our video upload process as simple as possible” and that “Our goal is to create a central place for video uploads”.

 

IGTV launched with a zealotish devotion to long-form vertical video despite the fact that little high quality content of this nature was being produced. Landscape orientation is helpful for longer clips that often require establishing shots and fitting multiple people on screen, while vertical was better for quick selfie monologues.

Yet Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom described IGTV to me in August 2018, declaring that “What I’m most proud of is that Instagram took a stand and tried a brand new thing that is frankly hard to pull off. Full-screen vertical video that’s mobile only. That doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

Now it doesn’t exist on Instagram at all since May 2019 when IGTV retreated from its orthodoxy and began allowing landscape content. I’d recommended it do that from the beginning, or at least offer a cropping tool for helping users turn their landscape videos into coherent vertical ones, but nothing’s been launched there either.

If Instagram still cares about IGTV, it needs to attract more must-see videos by helping creators get paid for their art. Or it needs to pour investment into buying high quality programming like Snapchat Discover’s Shows. If Instagram doesn’t care, it should divert development resources to it’s TikTok clone Reels that actually looks very well made and has a shot at stealing market share in the remixable social entertainment space.

For a company that’s won by betting big and moving fast, IGTV feels half-baked and sluggish. That might have been alright when Snapchat was shrinking and TikTok was still Musically, but Instagram is heading into an era of much stiffer competition.

This Week in Apps: App trends from 2019, Pinterest tops Snapchat, Disney+ hits No. 1 in Q4

By Sarah Perez

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

The app industry is as hot as ever with a record 204 billion downloads in 2019 and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019, according to App Annie’s recently released “State of Mobile” annual report. People are now spending 3 hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

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

This week, we dig into App Annie’s new “State of Mobile 2019” report and other app trends. We’re also seeing big gains for TikTok in 2019 and Disney+ in Q4. Both Apple and Google announced acquisitions this week that have implications for the mobile industry, as well.

Marijuana delivery giant Eaze may go up in smoke

By Ingrid Lunden

The first cannabis startup to raise big money in Silicon Valley is in danger of burning out. TechCrunch has learned that pot delivery middleman Eaze has seen unannounced layoffs, and its depleted cash reserves threaten its ability to make payroll or settle its AWS bill. Eaze was forced to raise a bridge round to keep the lights on as it prepares to attempt major pivot to ‘touching the plant’ by selling its own marijuana brands through its own depots.

If Eaze fails, it could highlight serious growing pains amid the ‘green rush’ of startups into the marijuana business.

Eaze, the startup backed by some $166 million in funding that once positioned itself as the “Uber of pot” — a marketplace selling pot and other cannabis products from dispensaries and delivering it to customers — has recently closed a $15 million bridge round, according to multiple source. The fund was meant to keep the lights on as Eaze struggles to raise its next round of funding amid problems with making decent margins on its current business model, lawsuits, payment processing issues, and internal disorganization.

 

An Eaze spokesperson confirmed that the company is low on cash. Sources tell us that the company, which laid off some 30 people last summer, is preparing another round of cuts in the meantime. The spokesperson refused to discuss personnel issues but noted that there have been layoffs at many late stage startups as investors want to see companies cut costs and become more efficient.

From what we understand, Eaze is currently trying to raise a $35 million Series D round according to its pitch deck. The $15 million bridge round came from unnamed current investors. (Previous backers of the company include 500 Startups, DCM Ventures, Slow Ventures, Great Oaks, FJ Labs, the Winklevoss brothers, and a number of others.) Originally, Eaze had tried to raise a $50 million Series D, but the investor that was looking at the deal, Athos Capital, is said to have walked away at the eleventh hour.

Eaze is going into the fundraising with an enterprise value of $388 million, according to company documents reviewed by TechCrunch. It’s not clear what valuation it’s aiming for in the next round.

An Eaze spokesperson declined to discuss fundraising efforts but told TechCrunch, “The company is going through a very important transition right now, moving to becoming a plant-touching company through acquisitions of former retail partners that will hopefully allow us to more efficiently run the business and continue to provide good service to customers.

Desperate to grow margins

The news comes as Eaze is hoping to pull off a “verticalization” pivot, moving beyond online storefront and delivery of third-party products (rolled joints, flower, vaping products and edibles) and into sourcing, branding and dispensing the product directly. Instead of just moving other company’s marijuana brands between third-party dispensaries and customers, it wants to sell its own in-house brands through its own delivery depots to earn a higher margin. With a number of other cannabis companies struggling, the hope is that it will be able to acquire brands in areas like marijuana flower, pre-rolled joints, vaporizer cartridges, or edibles at low prices.

An Eaze spokesperson confirmed that the company plans to announce the pivot in the coming days, telling TechCrunch that it’s “a pretty significant change from provider of services to operating in that fashion but also operating a depot directly ourselves.”

The startup is already making moves in this direction, and is in the process of acquiring some of the assets of a bankrupt cannabis business out of Canada called Dionymed — which had initially been a partner of Eaze’s, then became a competitor, and then sued it over payment disputes, before finally selling part of its business. These assets are said to include Oakland dispensary Hometown Heart, which it acquired in an all-share transaction (“Eaze effectively bought the lawsuit,” is how one source described the sale). This will become Eaze’s first owned delivery depot.

In a recent presentation deck that Eaze has been using when pitching to investors — which has been obtained by TechCrunch — the company describes itself as the largest direct-to-consumer cannabis retailer in California. It has completed more than 5 million deliveries, served 600,000 customers and tallied up an average transaction value of $85. 

To date, Eaze has only expanded to one other state beyond California, Oregon. Its aim is to add five more states this year, and another three in 2021. But the company appears to have expected more states to legalize recreational marijuana sooner, which would have provided geographic expansion. Eaze seems to have overextended itself too early in hopes of capturing market share as soon as it became available.

An employee at the company tells us that on a good day Eaze can bring in between $800,000 and $1 million in net revenue, which sounds great, except that this is total merchandise value, before any cuts to suppliers and others are made. Eaze makes only a fraction of that amount, one reason why it’s now looking to verticatlize into more of a primary role in the ecosystem. And that’s before considering all of the costs associated with running the business. 

Eaze is suffering from a problem rampant in the marijuana industry: a lack of working capital. Since banks often won’t issue working capital loans to weed-related business, deliverers like Eaze can experience delays in paying back vendors. A source says late payments have pushed some brands to stop selling through Eaze.

Another drain on its finances have been its marketing efforts. A source said out-of-home ads (billboards and the like) allegedly were a significant expense at one point. It has to compete with other pot purchasing options like visiting retail stores in person, using dispensaries’ in-house delivery services, or buying via startups like Meadow that act as aggregated online points of sale for multiple dispensaries.

Indeed, Eaze claims that its pivot into verticalization will bring it $204 million in revenues on gross transactions of $300 million. It notes in the presentation that it makes $9.04 on an average sale of $85, which will go up to $18.31 if it successfully brings in ‘private label’ products and has more depot control.

Selling weed isn’t eazy

The poor margins are only one of the problems with Eaze’s current business model, which the company admits in its presentation have led to an inconsistent customer experience and poor customer affinity with its brand — especially in the face of competition from a number of other delivery businesses.  

Playing on the on-demand, delivery-of-everything theme, it connected with two customer bases. First, existing cannabis consumers already using some form of delivery service for their supply; and a newer, more mainstream audience with disposable income that had become more interested in cannabis-related products but might feel less comfortable walking into a dispensary, or buying from a black market dealer.

It is not the only startup that has been chasing that audience. Other competitors in the wider market for cannabis discovery, distribution and sales include Weedmaps, Puffy, Blackbird, Chill (a brand from Dionymed that it founded after ending its earlier relationship with Eaze), and Meadow, with the wider industry estimated to be worth some $11.9 billion in 2018 and projected to grow to $63 billion by 2025.

Eaze was founded on the premise that the gradual decriminalisation of pot — first making it legal to buy for medicinal use, and gradually for recreational use — would spread across the US and make the consumption of cannabis-related products much more ubiquitous, presenting a big opportunity for Eaze and other startups like it. 

It found a willing audience among consumers, but also tech workers in the Bay Area, a tight market for recruitment. 

“I was excited for the opportunity to join the cannabis industry,” one source said. “It has for the most part has gotten a bad rap, and I saw Eaze’s mission as a noble thing, and the team seemed like good people.”

Eaze CEO Ro Choy

That impression was not to last. The company, this employee was told when joining, had plenty of funding with more on the way. The newer funding never materialised, and as Eaze sought to figure out the best way forward, the company cycled through different ideas and leadership: former Yammer executive Keith McCarty, who cofounded the company with Roie Edery (both are now founders at another Cannabis startup, Wayv), left, and the CEO role was given to another ex-Yammer executive, Jim Patterson, who was then replaced by Ro Choy, who is the current CEO. 

“I personally lost trust in the ability to execute on some of the vision once I got there,” the ex-employee said. “I thought that on one hand a picture was painted that wasn’t the truth. As we got closer and as I’d been there longer and we had issues with funding, the story around why we were having issues kept changing.” Several sources familiar with its business performance and culture referred to Eaze as a “shitshow”.

No ‘Push For Kush’

The quick shifts in strategy were a recurring pattern that started well before the company got tight financial straits. 

One employee recalled an acquisition Eaze made several years ago of a startup called Push for Pizza. Founded by five young friends in Brooklyn, Push for Pizza had gone viral over a simple concept: you set up your favourite pizza order in the app, and when you want it, you pushed a single button to order it. (Does that sound silly? Don’t forget, this was also the era of Yo, which was either a low point for innovation, or a high point for cynicism when it came to average consumer intelligence… maybe both.)

Eaze’s idea, the employee said, was to take the basics of Push for Pizza and turn it into a weed app, Push for Kush. In it, customers could craft their favourite mix and, at the touch of a button, order it, lowering the procurement barrier even more.

The company was very excited about the deal and the prospect of the new app. They planned a big campaign to spread the word, and held an internal event to excite staff about the new app and business line. 

“They had even made a movie of some kind that they showed us, featuring a caricature of Jim” — the CEO at a the time — “hanging out of the sunroof of a limo.” (I’ve been able to find the opening segment of this video online, and the Twitter and Instagram accounts that had been created for Push for Kush, but no more than that.)

Then just one week later, the whole plan was scrapped, and the founders of Push for Pizza fired. “It was just brushed under the carpet,” the former employee said. “No one could get anything out of management about what had happened.”

Something had happened, though: the company had been taking payments by card when it made the acquisition, but the process was never stable and by then it had recently gone back to the cash-only model. Push for Kush by cash was less appealing. “They didn’t think it would work,” the person said, adding that this was the normal course of business at the startup. “Big initiatives would just die in favor of pushing out whatever new thing was on the product team’s radar.” 

Eaze’s spokesperson confirmed that “we did acquire Push For Pizza . . but ultimately didn’t choose to pursue [launching Push For Kush].”

Payments were a recurring issue for the startup. Eaze started out taking payments only in cash — but as the business grew, that became increasingly problematic. The company found itself kicked off the credit card networks and was stuck with a less traceable, more open to error (and theft) cash-only model at a time when one employee estimated it was bringing in between $800,000 and $1 million per day in sales. 

Eventually, it moved to cards, but not smoothly: Visa specifically did not want Eaze on its platform. Eaze found a workaround, employees say, but it was never above board, which became the subject of the lawsuit between Eaze and Dionymed. Currently the company appear to only take payments via debit cards, ACH transfer, and cash, not credit card.

Another incident sheds light on how the company viewed and handled security issues. 

Can Eaze rise from the ashes?

At one point, employees allegedly discovered that Eaze was essentially storing all of its customer data — including users’ signatures and other personal information — in an Azure bucket that was not secured, meaning that if anyone was nosing around, it could be easily discovered and exploited.

The vulnerability was brought to the company’s attention. It was something that was up to product to fix, but the job was pushed down the list. It ultimately took seven months to patch this up. “I just kept seeing things with all these huge holes in them, just not ready for prime time,” one ex-employee said of the state of products. “No one was listening to engineers, and no one seemed to be looking for viable products.” Eaze’s spokesperson confirms a vulnerability was discovered but claims it was promptly resolved.

Today, the issue is a more pressing financial one: the company is running out of money. Employees have been told the company may not make its next payroll, and AWS will shut down its servers in two days if it doesn’t pay up. 

Eaze’s spokesperson tried to remain optimistic while admitting the dire situation the company faces. “Eaze is going to continue doing everything we can to support customers and the overall legal cannabis industry. We’re excited about the future and acknowledge the challenges that the entire community is facing.”

As medicinal and recreational marijuana access became legal in some states in the latter 2010s, entrepreneurs and investors flocked to the market. They saw an opportunity to capitalize on the end of a major prohibition — a once in a lifetime event. But high government taxes, enduring black markets, intense competition, and a lack of financial infrastructure willing to deal with any legal haziness have caused major setbacks.

While the pot business might sound chill, operations like Eaze depend on coordinating high-stress logistics with thin margins and little room for error. Plenty of food delivery startups from Sprig to Munchery went under after running into similar struggles, and at least banks and payment processors would work with them. With the odds stacked against it, Eaze has a tough road ahead.

44% of TikTok’s all-time downloads were in 2019, but app hasn’t figured out monetization

By Sarah Perez

Despite the U.S. government’s concerns over TikTok, which most recently led to the U.S. Navy banning service members’ use of the app, TikTok had a stellar 2019 in terms of both downloads and revenue. According to new data from Sensor Tower, 44% of TikTok’s total 1.65 billion downloads to date, or 738+ million installs, took place in 2019 alone. And though TikTok is still just experimenting with different means of monetization, the app had its best year in terms of revenue, grossing $176.9 million in 2019 — or 71% of its all-time revenue of $247.6 million.

Apptopia had previously reported TikTok was generating $50 million per quarter.

The number of TikTok downloads in 2019 is up 13% from the 655 million installs the app saw in 2018, with the holiday quarter (Q4 2019) being TikTok’s best ever, with 219 million downloads, up 6% from TikTok’s previous best quarter, Q4 2018. TikTok was also the second-most downloaded (non-game) app worldwide across the Apple App Store and Google Play in 2019, according to Sensor Tower data.

However, App Annie’s recent “State of Mobile” report put it in fourth place, behind Messenger, Facebook and WhatsApp — not just behind WhatsApp, as Sensor Tower does.

Regardless, the increase in TikTok downloads in 2019 is largely tied to the app’s traction in India. Though the app was briefly banned in the country earlier in the year, that market still accounted for 44% (or 323 million) of 2019’s total downloads. That’s a 27% increase from 2018.

TikTok’s home country, China, is TikTok’s biggest revenue driver, with iOS consumer spend of $122.9 million, or 69% of the total and more than triple what U.S. users spent in the app ($36 million). The U.K. was the third-largest contributor in terms of revenue, with users spending $4.2 million in 2019.

These numbers, however, are minuscule in comparison with the billions upon billions earned by Facebook on an annual basis, or even the low-digit billions earned by smaller social apps like Twitter. To be fair, TikTok remains in an experimental phase with regards to revenue. In 2019, it ran a variety of ad formats, including brand takeovers, in-feed native video, hashtag challenges and lens filters. It even dabbled in social commerce.

Meanwhile, only a handful of creators have been able to earn money in live streams through tipping — another area that deserves to see expansion in the months ahead if TikTok aims to take on YouTube as a home for creator talent.

When it comes to monetization, TikTok is challenged because it doesn’t have as much personal information about its users, compared with a network like Facebook and its rich user profile data. That means advertisers can’t target ads based on user interests and demographics in the same way. Because of this, brands will sometimes forgo working with TikTok itself to deal directly with its influencer stars, instead.

What TikTok lacks in revenue, it makes up for in user engagement. According to App Annie, time spent in the app was up 210% year-over-year in 2019, to reach a total 68 billion hours. TikTok clearly has users’ attention, but now it will need to figure out how to capitalize on those eyeballs and actually make money.

Reached for comment, TikTok confirmed it doesn’t share its own stats on installs or revenue, so third-party estimates are the only way to track the app’s growth for now.

Apple buys edge-based AI startup Xnor.ai for a reported $200M

By Devin Coldewey

Xnor.ai, spun off in 2017 from the nonprofit Allen Institute for AI (AI2), has been acquired by Apple for about $200 million. A source close to the company corroborated a report this morning from GeekWire to that effect.

Apple confirmed the reports with its standard statement for this sort of quiet acquisition: “Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans.” (I’ve asked for clarification just in case.)

Xnor.ai began as a process for making machine learning algorithms highly efficient — so efficient that they could run on even the lowest tier of hardware out there, things like embedded electronics in security cameras that use only a modicum of power. Yet using Xnor’s algorithms they could accomplish tasks like object recognition, which in other circumstances might require a powerful processor or connection to the cloud.

CEO Ali Farhadi and his founding team put the company together at AI2 and spun it out just before the organization formally launched its incubator program. It raised $2.7M in early 2017 and $12M in 2018, both rounds led by Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group, and has steadily grown its local operations and areas of business.

The $200M acquisition price is only approximate, the source indicated, but even if the final number were less by half that would be a big return for Madrona and other investors.

The company will likely move to Apple’s Seattle offices; GeekWire, visiting the Xnor.ai offices (in inclement weather, no less), reported that a move was clearly underway. AI2 confirmed that Farhadi is no longer working there, but he will retain his faculty position at the University of Washington.

An acquisition by Apple makes perfect sense when one thinks of how that company has been directing its efforts towards edge computing. With a chip dedicated to executing machine learning workflows in a variety of situations, Apple clearly intends for its devices to operate independent of the cloud for such tasks as facial recognition, natural language processing, and augmented reality. It’s as much for performance as privacy purposes.

Its camera software especially makes extensive use of machine learning algorithms for both capturing and processing images, a compute-heavy task that could potentially be made much lighter with the inclusion of Xnor’s economizing techniques. The future of photography is code, after all — so the more of it you can execute, and the less time and power it takes to do so, the better.

 

It could also indicate new forays in the smart home, toward which with HomePod Apple has made some tentative steps. But Xnor’s technology is highly adaptable and as such rather difficult to predict as far as what it enables for such a vast company as Apple.

Mobileye takes aim at Waymo

By Kirsten Korosec

Mobileye has built a multi-billion-dollar business supplying automakers with computer vision technology that powers advanced driver assistance systems. It’s a business that last year generated nearly $1 billion in sales for the company. Today, 54 million vehicles on the road are using Mobileye’s computer vision technology.

In 2018, the company made what many considered a bold and risky move when it expanded its focus beyond being a mere supplier to becoming a robotaxi operator. The upshot: Mobileye wants to compete directly with the likes of Waymo and other big players aiming to deploy commercial robotaxi services.

TechCrunch sat down with Amnon Shashua, Mobileye’s president and CEO and Intel senior vice president, to find out why and how — yep, acquisitions are in the future — the company will hit its mark.

NextNav raises $120M to deploy its indoor positioning tech to find people in skyscrapers

By Kirsten Korosec

NextNav LLC has raised $120 million in equity and debt to commercially deploy an indoor-positioning system that can pinpoint a device’s location — including what floor it’s on — without GPS .

The company has developed what it calls a Metropolitan Beacon System, which can find the location of devices like smartphones, drones, IoT products or even self-driving vehicles in indoor and urban areas where GPS or other satellite location signals cannot be reliably received. Anyone trying to use their phone to hail an Uber or Lyft in the Loop area of Chicago has likely experienced spotty GPS signals.

The MBS infrastructure is essentially bolted onto cellular towers. The positioning system uses a cellular signal, not line-of-sight signal from satellites like GPS does. The system focuses on determining the “altitude” of a device, CEO and co-founder Ganesh Pattabiraman told TechCrunch.

GPS can provide the horizontal position of a smartphone or IoT device. And wifi and Bluetooth can step in to provide that horizontal positioning indoors. NextNav says its MBS has added a vertical or “Z dimension” to the positioning system. This means the MBS can determine within less than 3 meters the floor level of a device in a  multi-story building.

It’s the kind of system that can provide emergency services with critical information such as the number of people located on a particular floor. It’s this specific use-case that NextNav is betting on. Last year, the Federal Communication Commission issued new 911 emergency requirements for wireless carriers that mandates the ability to determine the vertical position of devices to help responders find people in multi-story buildings.

Today, the MBS is in the Bay Area and Washington D.C. The company plans to use this new injection of capital to expand its network to the 50 biggest markets in the U.S., in part to take advantage of the new FCC requirement.

The technology has other applications. For instance, this so-called Z dimension could come in handy for locating drones. Last year, NASA said it will use NextNav’s MBS network as part of its City Environment for Range Testing of Autonomous Integrated Navigation facilities at its Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

The round was led by funds managed by affiliates of Fortress Investment Group . Existing investors Columbia Capital, Future Fund, Telcom Ventures, funds managed by Goldman Sachs Asset Management, NEA and Oak Investment Partners also participated.

XM Satellite Radio founder Gary Parsons is executive chairman of the Sunnyvale, Calif-based company.

Google Cloud gets a premium support plan with 15-minute response times

By Frederic Lardinois

Google Cloud today announced the launch of its premium support plans for enterprise and mission-critical needs. This new plan brings Google’s support offerings for the Google Cloud Platform (GCP) in line with its premium G Suite support options.

“Premium Support has been designed to better meet the needs of our customers running modern cloud technology,” writes Google’s VP of Cloud Support, Atul Nanda. “And we’ve made investments to improve the customer experience, with an updated support model that is proactive, unified, centered around the customer, and flexible to meet the differing needs of their businesses.”

The premium plan, which Google will charge for based on your monthly GCP spent (with a minimum cost of what looks to be about $12,500 per month), promises a 15-minute response time for P1 cases. Those are situations when an application or infrastructure is unusable in production. Other features include training and new product reviews, as well as support for troubleshooting third-party systems.

Google stresses that the team that will answer a company’s calls will consist of “content-aware experts” that know your application stack and architecture. Like with similar premium plans from other vendors, enterprises will have a Technical Account manager who works through these issues with them. Companies with global operations can opt to have (and pay for) technical account managers available during business hours in multiple regions.

The idea here, however, is also to give GCP users more proactive support, which will soon include a site reliability engineering engagement, for example, that is meant to help customers “design a wrapper of supportability around the Google Cloud customer projects that have the highest sensitivity to downtime.” The Support team will also work with customers to get them ready for special events like Black Friday or other peak events in their industry. Over time, the company plans to add more features and additional support plans.

As with virtually all of Google’s recent cloud moves, today’s announcement is part of the company’s efforts to get more enterprises to move to its cloud. Earlier this week, for example, it launched support for IBM’s Power Systems architecture, as well as new infrastructure solutions for retailers. In addition, it also acquired no-code service AppSheet.

Google’s new feature makes it easier to shop from search results

By Sarah Perez

Following the big revamp of Google Shopping last fall, Google today is updating the shopping experience on Google Search, on mobile. Now, when you do a web search for clothing and accessories, you won’t just get a set of links to different products and stores. Instead, Google will present a new section where it features the most popular products from stores around the web, which you can filter and browse.

For example, you could search for things like “running shoes” or “women’s leather belt” or “wide-leg pants,” Google explains, then be presented with a selection of items in a new, visual guide. You can then further narrow down what you’re looking for by style, department or size type, and view images. Underneath each item, Google will also display how many stores carry that product and the lowest price. (e.g. “$199+”)

This change will help in particular when you’re trying to find all the stores that carry one particular item — something that hasn’t been easy to do in the past.

And as you view the item in question, you can scroll down to read aggregated customer reviews. When you’re ready to buy, you’ll just click on the link to the store you want to shop.

The feature is powered by Google’s search index, which has organized products from over a million online stores and is regularly refreshed. The new shopping feature isn’t a paid advertisement for retailers either, Google notes. Participating retailers can include their eligible products within this section for free.

The changes are part of a large focus on how the shopping experience can be improved for online retailers as Google revamps to become the go-to platform for finding everything that’s not on Amazon. On that front, Google this week acquired a startup, Pointy, for $163 million to help physical retailers track their in-store inventory.

The company also recently updated the Google Shopping homepage to become a personalized destination based on your habits and purchases, with additions like a price tracker and new ways to shop from both local and online retailers. But many online searchers’ first stop when looking for clothing and accessories isn’t the Google Shopping destination — it’s a simple Google Search. That’s where the new features come in.

Google says the updated experience will begin rolling out starting today and through this week, on mobile devices only.

Mobile payment app Lydia raises $45 million round led by Tencent

By Romain Dillet

French startup Lydia is raising a $45 million Series B round (€40 million). Tencent is leading the round with existing investors CNP Assurances, XAnge and New Alpha also participating.

If you live in France, chances are you already know Lydia quite well. The company has become a ubiquitous mobile payment app, especially for people under 30 years old. Think about it as a sort of Square Cash or Venmo, but for France.

“At first, we wanted to raise less but we ended up raising more,” Lydia co-founder and CEO Cyril Chiche told me in a phone interview.

The company has managed to attract 3 million users in France. More impressive, 25% of French people between 18 and 30 years old have a Lydia account — and 5,000 people sign up every day. Lydia currently has 90 employees.

More recently, the company has expanded beyond peer-to-peer payment. First, the company wants to help you manage your money in many different ways with an important value — everything should happen in real time.

You can create multiple Lydia accounts to put some money aside or use money in that sub-account for a specific purpose. That feature alone turns the app into a versatile money management app.

For instance, you can associate a Lydia payment card with a Lydia account and a virtual card with another Lydia account — that virtual card works with Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay and more. You can change those settings in real time.

You can share accounts with other Lydia users. And shared accounts are truly shared — everyone can top up and withdraw money from that account. You can spend directly from that account or withdraw money to another account.

You can also turn any Lydia account into a money pot account. In just a few taps, you can generate a link and share it with your friends so that they can add money using their regular payment card or a Lydia account.

More recently, the company has introduced “the market”, a marketplace of other financial products. From the Lydia app, you can borrow up to €1,000 in just a few seconds. You can also insure your phone and other mobile devices. You can get some free credit when you open a bank account, insure your home with Luko, switch to another electricity and gas provider, compare mobile phone and internet providers and more.

And that strategy is going to be key in the future. “We have an ambitious goal, which is turning Lydia into a mobile financial service app,” Chiche said.

He also pointed out that the company that has been the most successful when it comes to creating a mobile marketplace of financial products is Tencent with WeChat.

“Tencent is also the number one player in the video game industry, and there’s no industry with as much user engagement,” Chiche said. Tencent acquired Supercell, bought 40% of Epic Games, acquired Riot Games (League of Legends), invested in Ubisoft, Activision Blizzard, Discord, etc. Lydia hopes that it can learn from Tencent on the user engagement front.

Compared to many fintech startups, Lydia doesn’t want to replace banks altogether — the company says it wants to build a meta-banking app. Peer-to-peer payments represent the top of the funnel and a great user acquisition strategy thanks to networking effects.

You can then connect your Lydia account with your bank account and your debit card. This way, you can send money back and forth between your Lydia accounts and your bank account. As a user, that strategy slowly pays off over time. After a while, you end up spending money directly from your Lydia account and relying more heavily on Lydia’s native payment features, with your bank account acting as a money back end.

At the bottom of the funnel, Lydia hopes that it can turn active Lydia users into paid customers with a handful of in-house and third-party financial products. In other words, Lydia doesn’t want to become a credit institution like a traditional bank, it wants to become a financial hub. Expanding the marketplace will be a big focus for the company going forward.

While Lydia is available in other European countries, Lydia is still massively used in its home market with other markets lagging behind. With today’s funding round, growth in foreign countries is going to be the second key topic.

App stores saw record 204 billion app downloads in 2019, consumer spend of $120 billion

By Sarah Perez

Consumers downloaded a record 204 billion apps in 2019, up 6% from 2018 and up 45% since 2016, and spent $120 billion on apps, subscriptions and other in-app spending in the past year. The average mobile user, meanwhile, is spending 3.7 hours per day using apps. This data and more comes from App Annie’s annual report, “State of Mobile,” which highlights the biggest app trends for the past year, and sets forecasts for the years ahead.

According to App Annie, the record growth in mobile downloads in 2019 can be attributed to the growth taking place in emerging markets like India, Brazil and Indonesia, which have seen downloads soar 190%, 40% and 70%, respectively, since 2016. Meanwhile, download growth in the U.S. has slowed to just 5% during that same time, while China saw 80% growth.

That doesn’t mean users in mature markets aren’t downloading apps, only that the growth in year-over-year download numbers is starting to level off. Still, these more mature markets continue to see large numbers of installs, with more than 12.3 billion downloads in the U.S. in 2019, 2.5 billion in Japan and 2 billion in South Korea.

The record numbers are notable also, given that App Annie’s analysis excludes re-installs and app updates.

App store consumer spending was on the rise in 2019, as well, with $120 billion spent on apps — a figure that’s up 2.1x from 2016. Games continue to account for the majority (72%) of that spending, but the shift toward subscriptions has played a role, too. Last year, subscriptions in non-gaming apps accounted for 28% of consumer spending, up from 18% in 2016.

Subscriptions are now the primary way many non-gaming apps generate revenue. For example, 97% of consumer spending in the top 250 U.S. iOS apps was driven by subscriptions, and 94% of the apps used subscriptions. On Google Play, 91% of the consumer spending was subscription-based, while 79% of the top 250 apps used subscriptions.

In particular, dating apps like Tinder and video apps like Netflix and Tencent Video topped 2019’s consumer spend charts, thanks to subscription revenue.

Mature markets, including the U.S., Japan, South Korea and the U.K. are helping to fuel consumer spending across both games and subscriptions, App Annie found. But China remains the largest market by far, accounting for 40% of global spend.

App Annie also forecast that the mobile industry will contribute $4.8 trillion to the global GDP by 2023.

The report additionally identified several mobile trends from 2019, including the mobile app connection to the Internet of Things and smart home devices (106 million downloads for the top 20 IoT apps last year); the huge mobile engagement by Gen Z (3.8 hours per app per month, among the top 25 non-game apps, on avgerage); and mobile ad spend’s growth ($190 billion in 2019 to $240 bilion in 2020).

Ad spending combined with consumer spending is expected to reach $380 billion worldwide by 2020, App Annie forecast.

Gaming was given a big breakout section, given its contribution to consumer spending.

Consumer spending in mobile gaming was 2.4x that of Mac/PC gaming, and 2.9x more than game consoles. In 2019, mobile gaming saw 25% more spending than all other gaming, and is on track to surpass $100 billion across all app stores by next year.

Casual gaming (led by Puzzle and Arcade) was the most downloaded type of games in 2019. Meanwhile, core games (e.g. Action, RPG, etc.) — which were only 18% of downloads — accounted for 55% of time spent in top games. PUBG Mobile was the No. 1 core game (action) on Android in 2019, in terms of time spent, while Anipop (puzzle) was the top casual game.

Core games also accounted for the majority (76%) of game spending, followed by casual (18%), then casino (6%).

In 2019, 17% more games surpassed $5 million in consumer spending versus 2017. And the number of games to top $100 million grew 59% compared to two years prior. Despite the sizable growth in revenues, App Annie also pointed to new models in mobile gaming, like Apple Arcade, which is giving other types of games a chance to thrive. Unfortunately, no third-party firm is able to track Arcade revenues, which will become a glaring blind spot for App Annie in the years ahead.

App Annie also examined other sizable segments of the mobile market for trends, including fintech, retail, streaming and social. Some of the more significant findings included: the fintech app user base growth topping that of traditional banking apps; shopping app downloads saw 20% year-over-year growth to reach 5.4 billion downloads; streaming growth that included 50% sessions in 2019 compared to 2017; and 50% of time spent on mobile was spent in social networking and communication apps.

TikTok was given special attention, given its rapid growth last year. Time spent in the short-form video app grew 210% year-over-year in 2019 globally. Even though eight out of every 10 minutes spent in TikTok were by users in China, the app’s usage skyrocketed in other markets as well, App Annie said.

Industries App Annie identified as being transformed by mobile in 2019 included ridesharing, fast food/food delivery, dating, sports streaming, plus health and fitness. The full report offers a few more details and mobile trends for each of these.

One bigger highlight was that digital-first shopping apps still had 3.2x more average monthly sessions per user compared with apps from traditional brick-and-mortar retailers (dubbed “bricks-and-clicks” apps in the report).

App Annie also compiled its own list of the top apps of 2019 by active users, downloads and revenue. Facebook apps still led by engagement, with WhatsApp, Facebook and Messenger in the top three spots and Instagram as No. 5. And they maintained similar positions by downloads, only swapping places with one another.

Consumer spending was a different story, with Tinder generating the most revenue in 2019, followed by entertainment and streaming apps like Netflix, Tencent Video, iQIYI, YouTube and others.

TRACED Act signed into law, putting robocallers on notice

By Devin Coldewey

The Pallone-Thrune TRACED Act, a bipartisan bit of legislation that should make life harder for the villains behind robocalls, was signed into law today by the president. It’s still possible to get things done in D.C. after all!

We’ve covered the TRACED Act several times previously, as robocalls are, in addition to being horribly annoying, a uniquely annoying high-tech threat. Using clever targeting and spoofing technology, scammers are placing millions of calls that at best irritate and at worst take advantage of the vulnerable.

The new law won’t end that practice overnight, but it does add some useful tools to regulators’ toolboxes. Here’s how I summarized the bill’s provisions earlier this month:

  • Extends FCC’s statute of limitations on robocall offenses and increases potential fines
  • Requires an FCC rulemaking helping protect consumers from spam calls and texts (this is already underway)
  • Requires annual FCC report on robocall enforcement and allows for it to formally recommend legislation
  • Requires adoption on a reasonable timeline of the STIR/SHAKEN framework for preventing call spoofing
  • Prevents carriers from charging for the above service, and shields them from liability for reasonable mistakes
  • Requires the attorney general to convene an interagency task force to look at prosecution of offenders
  • Opens the door to Justice Department prosecution of offenders
  • Establishes a handful of specific cutouts and studies to make sure the rules work and interested parties are giving feedback

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was effusive in his praise in a statement:

I applaud Congress for working in a bipartisan manner to combat illegal robocalls and malicious caller ID spoofing.  And I thank the President and Congress for the additional tools and flexibility that this law affords us.  Specifically, I am glad that the agency now has a longer statute of limitations during which we can pursue scammers and I welcome the removal of a previously-required warning we had to give to unlawful robocallers before imposing tough penalties.

And I thank the American people for never letting us forget how fed up they are with scam, spoofed robocalls.  It’s their voices that power our never-ceasing push to fight back against the scourge of robocalls and malicious spoofing.

The FCC is limited in what it can do, and even major fines like this $120 million one have had a negligible effect on the nefarious industry. “Like emptying the ocean with a teaspoon,” said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel at the time.

Here’s hoping the TRACED Act amounts to more than a bigger spoon. We’ll find out as regulators and the mobile industry grow into their new capabilities and begin the long process of actually applying them to the problem. It may take months or more to see any real abatement, but at least we’re taking concrete steps.

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