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

By Sarah Perez

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

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

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

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

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

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) May 25, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) August 21, 2021

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

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

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

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

The app is a free download on the App Store.

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

By Mike Butcher

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

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

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

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

By Zack Whittaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more:


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

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

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

By Sarah Perez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: App Annie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Mango Labs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Tim L (@telenardo) August 25, 2021

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

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

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

Virtual events startups have high hopes for after the pandemic

By Karan Bhasin

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

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

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

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

We surveyed:

Xiaoyin Qu, founder and CEO, Run The World

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

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

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

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

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


Help TechCrunch find the best growth marketers for startups.

Provide a recommendation in this quick survey and we’ll share the results with everybody.


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

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

Twitter rolls out paid subscription ‘Super Follows’ to let you cash in on your tweets

By Taylor Hatmaker

After opening applications in June, Twitter is rolling out Super Follows, its premium subscription option, starting today.

The feature, first revealed in February, will allow users to subscribe to accounts they like for a monthly subscription fee in exchange for exclusive content. For creators, Super Follows are another useful tool in the emerging patchwork of monetization options across social platforms.

Eligible accounts can set the price for Super Follow subscriptions, with the option of charging $2.99, $4.99 or $9.99 per month, prices fairly comparable to a paid newsletter. They can then choose to mark some tweets for subscribers only, while continuing to reach their unpaid follower base in regular tweets.

Twitter Super Follows

Paid subscribers will be marked with a special Super Follower badge, differentiating them from unpaid followers in the sea of tweets. The badge shows up in replies, elevating a follower’s ability to interact directly with accounts they opt to support. For accounts that have Super Follows turned on, the option will show up with a distinct button on the profile page.

Super Follows aren’t turned on for everyone. For now, the process remains application only, with a waitlist. The option lives in the Monetization options in the app’s sidebar, though users will need to be U.S.-based with 10K followers and at least 25 tweets within the last month to be eligible.

U.S. and Canada-based iOS Twitter users will be able to Super Follow some accounts starting today, with more users globally seeing the rollout in the coming weeks. On the creator side, Super Follows are only enabled in iOS for now, though support for Android and desktop are “coming soon.”

Twitter says that Super Follow income will be subject to the standard, though controversial, 30 percent in-app purchase fees collected by Apple or Google. Twitter will only take a 3 percent cut of earnings for up to the first $50,000 generated through Super Follows — a boon for smaller accounts getting off the ground or anyone who uses the paid Twitter feature as a way to supplement other creator income elsewhere. After an account hits the $50,000 earnings mark, Twitter will begin taking a 20 percent cut.

Super Follows aren’t Twitter’s first monetization experiment to make it out in the wild. In May, Twitter introduced Tip Jar, a way for accounts to receive one-time payments through integration with the Cash App and other payment platforms. The test is limited to a subset of eligible accounts including “creators, journalists, experts, and nonprofits” for the time being.

Last week Twitter rolled out Ticketed Spaces for users who applied for the paid audio room feature back in June. Twitter’s cut from Ticketed Spaces mirrors the same fee structure it uses for Super Follows and users will be able to charge anywhere from one dollar to $999 for advanced ticketing.

The product is the latest in a flurry of activity from the social platform after a lengthy period of product stagnation. But Twitter has been busy in the last twelve months, from releasing and killing its ill-fated Fleets to finally showing signs of life on the kind of anti-abuse features many people have been calling for for years.

Giving users the ability to charge for premium content is a pretty major departure for Twitter, which mostly stayed the course until activist shareholders threatened to oust CEO Jack Dorsey. It’s also a major move for the company into the white-hot creator space, as more platforms add tools to empower their users to make a living through content creation — ideally keeping them loyal and generating revenue in the process.

Clubhouse is adding spatial audio effects to make users feel like they’re really in the room

By Taylor Hatmaker

It’s been a busy summer for Clubhouse. The hit social audio app rolled out new messaging features and an Android app over the last few months and now the company is turning its attention to enhancing its core audio experience. Clubhouse announced Sunday that its rooms will now be infused with spatial audio to give the app’s listeners a richer sense of hanging out live with a group of other people.

TechCrunch spoke with Clubhouse’s Justin Uberti about the decision to add spatial audio, which has the effect of making different speakers sound like they’re coming from different physical locations instead of just one spot.

Uberti joined Clubhouse in May as its head of streaming technology after more than a decade at Google where he created Google Duo, led the Hangouts team and most recently worked on Google’s cloud gaming platform Stadia. Uberti also created the WebRTC standard that Clubhouse was built on top of.

“One of the things you realize in these group audio settings is that you don’t get quite the same experience as being in a physical space,” Uberti said.

While Clubhouse and other voice chat apps bring people together in virtual social settings, the audio generally sounds relatively flat, like it’s emanating from a single central location. But at the in-person gatherings Clubhouse is meant to simulate, you’d be hearing audio from all around the room, from the left and right of a stage to the various locations in the audience where speakers might ask their questions.

To pull off the new audio tricks, Clubhouse is integrating an API from Second Life creator Philip Rosedale’s spatial audio company High Fidelity and blending it with the company’s own custom audio processing, tuned for the chat app.

High Fidelity’s HRTF technology, which stands for “Head Related Transfer Function,” maps speech to different virtual locations by subtly adding a time delay between stereo channels and replicating the way that high and low frequencies would sound entering the ear depending on a sound’s origin.

The result, long used in social VR, gives virtual social experiences a sense of physical presence that good records have been pulling off for ages. Think listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in stereo with good headphones but instead of sound effects and instruments playing around your head, you’re hearing the people you’re hanging out with arrayed in virtual space.

 

According to Uberti, Clubhouse’s implementation will be subtle, but noticeable. While the audio processing will “gently steer conversation” to put most speakers in front of the listener, Clubhouse users should have a new sense that people are speaking from different physical locations.

The new audio features will roll out Sunday to the majority of iOS users, reaching the rest of Clubhouse’s iOS and Android users within the next few weeks. The experience will be available to everyone in time, but users will also have the ability to toggle spatial audio off.

Clubhouse will use the same virtual soundstage techniques to give large rooms a sense of sounding large while making more intimate rooms sound like they’re actually happening in a smaller physical space. And because most people use headphones to participate on Clubhouse, most of the app’s users can benefit from the effects possible through two-channel stereo sound.

“You have this notion of people [being] in a space, in a room… We try to mimic the feel of how it would be in a circle with people standing around talking.”

Uberti also notes that spatial audio could give regular Clubhouse users a less obvious benefit. It’s possible that regular, non-spatialized audio in social apps contributes to the pandemic-era phenomenon of Zoom fatigue. As the human brain processes virtual audio like a phone call or group audio room, it differentiates between speakers in a different way than it would in a natural in-person setting.

“Your mind has to figure out who’s talking. Without spatial cues you have to use timbre… that requires more cognitive effort,” Uberti said. “This could actually make for a more enjoyable experience aside from more immersion.”

It’s too early to know how Clubhouse’s many subcommunities will take to the spatial audio effects, but it could enhance experiences like comedy, music and even ASMR on the app quite a bit.

“Someone tells a joke and it often feels really flat,” Uberti said. “But on Clubhouse, when you feel the laughter come from all around you, it feels a lot like a comedy club experience.”

Linux 5.14 set to boost future enterprise application security

By Sean Michael Kerner

Linux is set for a big release this Sunday August 29, setting the stage for enterprise and cloud applications for months to come. The 5.14 kernel update will include security and performance improvements.

A particular area of interest for both enterprise and cloud users is always security and to that end, Linux 5.14 will help with several new capabilities. Mike McGrath, vice president, Linux Engineering at Red Hat told TechCrunch that the kernel update includes a feature known as core scheduling, which is intended to help mitigate processor-level vulnerabilities like Spectre and Meltdown, which first surfaced in 2018. One of the ways that Linux users have had to mitigate those vulnerabilities is by disabling hyper-threading on CPUs and therefore taking a performance hit. 

“More specifically, the feature helps to split trusted and untrusted tasks so that they don’t share a core, limiting the overall threat surface while keeping cloud-scale performance relatively unchanged,” McGrath explained.

Another area of security innovation in Linux 5.14 is a feature that has been in development for over a year-and-a-half that will help to protect system memory in a better way than before. Attacks against Linux and other operating systems often target memory as a primary attack surface to exploit. With the new kernel, there is a capability known as memfd_secret () that will enable an application running on a Linux system to create a memory range that is inaccessible to anyone else, including the kernel.

“This means cryptographic keys, sensitive data and other secrets can be stored there to limit exposure to other users or system activities,” McGrath said.

At the heart of the open source Linux operating system that powers much of the cloud and enterprise application delivery is what is known as the Linux kernel. The kernel is the component that provides the core functionality for system operations. 

The Linux 5.14 kernel release has gone through seven release candidates over the last two months and benefits from the contributions of 1,650 different developers. Those that contribute to Linux kernel development include individual contributors, as well large vendors like Intel, AMD, IBM, Oracle and Samsung. One of the largest contributors to any given Linux kernel release is IBM’s Red Hat business unit. IBM acquired Red Hat for $34 billion in a deal that closed in 2019.

“As with pretty much every kernel release, we see some very innovative capabilities in 5.14,” McGrath said.

While Linux 5.14 will be out soon, it often takes time until it is adopted inside of enterprise releases. McGrath said that Linux 5.14 will first appear in Red Hat’s Fedora community Linux distribution and will be a part of the future Red Hat Enterprise Linux 9 release. Gerald Pfeifer, CTO for enterprise Linux vendor SUSE, told TechCrunch that his company’s openSUSE Tumbleweed community release will likely include the Linux 5.14 kernel within ‘days’ of the official release. On the enterprise side, he noted that SUSE Linux Enterprise 15 SP4, due next spring, is scheduled to come with Kernel 5.14. 

The new Linux update follows a major milestone for the open source operating system, as it was 30 years ago this past Wednesday that creator Linus Torvalds (pictured above) first publicly announced the effort. Over that time Linux has gone from being a hobbyist effort to powering the infrastructure of the internet.

McGrath commented that Linux is already the backbone for the modern cloud and Red Hat is also excited about how Linux will be the backbone for edge computing – not just within telecommunications, but broadly across all industries, from manufacturing and healthcare to entertainment and service providers, in the years to come.

The longevity and continued importance of Linux for the next 30 years is assured in Pfeifer’s view.  He noted that over the decades Linux and open source have opened up unprecedented potential for innovation, coupled with openness and independence.

“Will Linux, the kernel, still be the leader in 30 years? I don’t know. Will it be relevant? Absolutely,” he said. “Many of the approaches we have created and developed will still be pillars of technological progress 30 years from now. Of that I am certain.”

 

 

Popcorn’s new app brings short-form video to the workplace

By Sarah Perez

A new startup called Popcorn wants to make work communication more fun and personal by offering a way for users to record short video messages, or “pops,” that can be used for any number of purposes in place of longer emails, texts, Slack messages or Zoom calls. While there are plenty of other places to record short-form video these days, most of these exist in the social media space, which isn’t appropriate for a work environment. Nor does it make sense to send a video you’ve recorded on your phone as an email attachment, when you really just want to check in with a colleague or say hello.

Popcorn, on the other hand, lets you create the short video and then send a URL to that video anywhere you would want to add a personal touch to your message.

For example, you could use Popcorn in a business networking scenario, where you’re trying to connect with someone in your industry for the first time — aka “cold outreach.” Instead of just blasting them a message on LinkedIn, you could also paste in the Popcorn URL to introduce yourself in a more natural, friendly fashion. You also could use Popcorn with your team at work for things like daily check-ins, sharing progress on an ongoing project or to greet new hires, among other things.

Image Credits: Popcorn

Videos themselves can be up to 60 seconds in length — a time limit designed to keep Popcorn users from rambling. Users also can opt to record audio only if they don’t want to appear on video. And you can increase the playback speed if you’re in a hurry. Users who want to receive “pops” could also advertise their “popcode” (e.g. try mine at U8696).

The idea to bring short-form video to the workplace comes from Popcorn co-founder and CEO Justin Spraggins, whose background is in building consumer apps. One of his first apps to gain traction back in 2014 was a Tinder-meets-Instagram experience called Looksee that allowed users to connect around shared photos. A couple years later, he co-founded a social calling app called Unmute, a Clubhouse precursor of sorts. He then went on to co-found 9 Count, a consumer app development shop which launched more social apps like BFF (previously Wink) and Juju.

9 Count’s lead engineer, Ben Hochberg, is now also a co-founder on Popcorn (or rather, Snack Break, Inc. as the legal entity is called). They began their work on Popcorn in 2020, just after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the rapid shift to remote work in the days that followed could now help Popcorn gain traction among distributed teams. Today’s remote workers may never again return to in-person meetings at the office, but they’re also growing tired of long days stuck in Zoom meetings.

With Popcorn, the goal is to make work communication fun, personal and bite-sized, Spraggins says. “[We want to] bring all the stuff we’re really passionate about in consumer social into work, which I think is really important for us now,” he explains.

“You work with these people, but how do you — without scheduling a Zoom — how do you bring the ‘human’ to it?,” Spraggins says. “I’m really excited about making work products feel more social, more like Snapchat than utility tools.”

There is a lot Popcorn would still need to figure out to truly make a business-oriented social app work, including adding enhanced security, limiting spam, offering some sort of reporting flow for bad actors, and more. It will also eventually need to land on a successful revenue model.

Currently, Popcorn is a free download on iPhone, iPad and Mac, and offers a Slack integration so you can send video messages to co-workers directly in the communication software you already use to catch up and stay in touch. The app today is fairly simple, but the company plans to enhance its short videos over time using AR frames that let users showcase their personalities.

The startup raised a $400,000 pre-seed round from General Catalyst (Nico Bonatsos) and Dream Machine (Alexia Bonatsos, previously editor-in-chief at TechCrunch.) Spraggins says the company will be looking to raise a seed round in the fall to help with hires, including in the AR space.

LOVE unveils a modern video messaging app with a business model that puts users in control

By Sarah Perez

A London-headquartered startup called LOVE, valued at $17 million following its pre-seed funding, aims to redefine how people stay in touch with close family and friends. The company is launching a messaging app that offers a combination of video calling as well as asynchronous video and audio messaging, in an ad-free, privacy-focused experience with a number of bells and whistles, including artistic filters and real-time transcription and translation features.

But LOVE’s bigger differentiator may not be its product alone, but rather the company’s mission.

LOVE aims for its product direction to be guided by its user base in a democratic fashion as opposed to having the decisions made about its future determined by an elite few at the top of some corporate hierarchy. In addition, the company’s longer-term goal is ultimately to hand over ownership of the app and its governance to its users, the company says.

These concepts have emerged as part of bigger trends towards a sort of “Web 3.0,” or next phase of internet development, where services are decentralized, user privacy is elevated, data is protected and transactions take place on digital ledgers, like a blockchain, in a more distributed fashion.

LOVE’s founders are proponents of this new model, including serial entrepreneur Samantha Radocchia, who previously founded three companies and was an early advocate for the blockchain as the co-founder of Chronicled, an enterprise blockchain company focused on the pharmaceutical supply chain.

As someone who’s been interested in emerging technology since her days of writing her anthropology thesis on currency exchanges in “Second Life’s” virtual world, she’s now faculty at Singularity University, where she’s given talks about blockchain, AI, Internet of Things, Future of Work, and other topics. She’s also authored an introductory guide to the blockchain with her book “Bitcoin Pizza.”

Co-founder Christopher Schlaeffer, meanwhile, held a number of roles at Deutsche Telekom, including chief product & innovation officer, corporate development officer and chief strategy officer, where he along with Google execs introduced the first mobile phone to run Android. He was also chief digital officer at the telecommunication services company VEON.

The two crossed paths after Schlaeffer had already begun the work of organizing a team to bring LOVE to the public, which includes co-founders Chief Technologist Jim Reeves, also previously of VEON, and Chief Designer Timm Kekeritz, previously an interaction designer at international design firm IDEO in San Francisco, design director at IXDS and founder of design consultancy Raureif in Berlin, among other roles.

Image Credits: LOVE

Explained Radocchia, what attracted her to join as CEO was the potential to create a new company that upholds more positive values than what’s often seen today — in fact, the brand name “LOVE” is a reference to this aim. She was also interested in the potential to think through what she describes as “new business models that are not reliant on advertising or harvesting the data of our users,” she says.

To that end, LOVE plans to monetize without any advertising. While the company isn’t ready to explain its business model in full, it would involve users opting in to services through granular permissions and membership, we’re told.

“We believe our users will much rather be willing to pay for services they consciously use and grant permissions to in a given context than have their data used for an advertising model which is simply not transparent,” says Radocchia.

LOVE expects to share more about the model next year.

As for the LOVE app itself, it’s a fairly polished mobile messenger offering an interesting combination of features. Like any other video chat app, you can video call with friends and family, either in one-on-one calls or in groups. Currently, LOVE supports up to five call participants, but expects to expand that as it scales. The app also supports video and audio messaging for asynchronous conversations. There are already tools that offer this sort of functionality on the market, of course — like WhatsApp, with its support for audio messages, or video messenger Marco Polo. But they don’t offer quite the same expanded feature set.

Image Credits: LOVE

For starters, LOVE limits its video messages to 60 seconds, for brevity’s sake. (As anyone who’s used Marco Polo knows, videos can become a bit rambling, which makes it harder to catch up when you’re behind on group chats.) In addition, LOVE allows you to both watch the video content as well as read the real-time transcription of what’s being said — the latter which comes in handy not only for accessibility’s sake, but also for those times you want to hear someone’s messages but aren’t in a private place to listen or don’t have headphones. Conversations can also be translated into 50 languages.

“A lot of the traditional communication or messenger products are coming from a paradigm that has always been text-based,” explains Radocchia. “We’re approaching it completely differently. So while other platforms have a lot of the features that we do, I think that…the perspective that we’ve approached it has completely flipped it on its head,” she continues. “As opposed to bolting video messages on to a primarily text-based interface, [LOVE is] actually doing it in the opposite way and adding text as a sort of a magically transcribed add-on — and something that you never, hopefully, need to be typing out on your keyboard again,” she adds.

The app’s user interface, meanwhile, has been designed to encourage eye-to-eye contact with the speaker to make conversations feel more natural. It does this by way of design elements where bubbles float around as you’re speaking and the bubble with the current speaker grows to pull your focus away from looking at yourself. The company is also working with the curator of Serpentine Gallery in London, Hans Ulrich-Obrist, to create new filters that aren’t about beautification or gimmicks, but are instead focused on introducing a new form of visual expression that makes people feel more comfortable on camera.

For the time being, this has resulted in a filter that slightly abstracts your appearance, almost in the style of animation or some other form of visual arts.

The app claims to use end-to-end encryption and the automatic deletion of its content after seven days — except for messages you yourself recorded, if you’ve chosen to save them as “memorable moments.”

“One of our commitments is to privacy and the right-to-forget,” says Radocchia. “We don’t want to be or need to be storing any of this information.”

LOVE has been soft-launched on the App Store, where it’s been used with a number of testers and is working to organically grow its user base through an onboarding invite mechanism that asks users to invite at least three people to join. This same onboarding process also carefully explains why LOVE asks for permissions — like using speech recognition to create subtitles.

LOVE says its valuation is around $17 million USD following pre-seed investments from a combination of traditional startup investors and strategic angel investors across a variety of industries, including tech, film, media, TV and financial services. The company will raise a seed round this fall.

The app is currently available on iOS, but an Android version will arrive later in the year. (Note that LOVE does not currently support the iOS 15 beta software, where it has issues with speech transcription and in other areas. That should be resolved next week, following an app update now in the works.)

Messenger celebrates its 10th anniversary with new features and a plan to become the ‘connective tissue’ for real-time experiences

By Amanda Silberling

To celebrate its ten year anniversary, Messenger today announced a handful of new features: poll games, word effects, contact sharing, and birthday gifting via Facebook Pay. But beyond the fun features, Facebook has been testing a way to add voice and video calls back into the Facebook app, rather than on Messenger.

“We are testing audio and video calls within the Facebook app messaging experience so people can make and receive calls regardless of which app they’re using,” a representative from Facebook told TechCrunch. “This will give people on Facebook easy ways to connect with their communities where they already are.”

Although earlier in Facebook history, the Messenger app had operated as a standalone experience, Facebook tells us that it’s now starting to see Messenger less as a separate entity — more of an underlying technology that can help to power many of the new experiences Facebook is now developing.

“We’ve been focused more on real-time experiences — Watch Together, Rooms, Live Audio Rooms — and we’ve started to think of Messenger as a connective tissue regardless of the surface,” a Facebook spokesperson told us.  “This is a test, but the bigger vision is for us to unlock content and communities that may not be accessible in Messenger, and that the Facebook app is going to become more about shared real-time experiences,” they added.

Given the company’s move in recent months to integrate its underlying communication infrastructure, it should come to reason that Facebook would ultimately add more touchpoints for accessing its new Messenger-powered features inside the desktop app, as well. When asked for comment on this point, the spokesperson said the company didn’t have any details to share at this time. However, they noted that the test is a part of Facebook’s broader vision to enable more real-time experiences across Facebook’s services.

Despite the new integrations, the standalone version of Messenger isn’t going away.

Facebook says that people who want a more “full-featured” messaging, audio and video calling experience” should continue to use Messenger.

Image Credits: Messenger

As for today’s crop of new features — including polls, word effects, contact sharing, and others — the goal is to  celebrate Messenger’s ability to keep people in touch with their family a friends.

To play the new poll games, users can tap “Polls” in their group chat and select the “Most Likely To” tab — then, they can choose from questions like “most likely to miss their flight?” or “most likely to give gifts on their own birthday?”, select names of chat participants to be included as potential answers, and send the poll.

Contact sharing will make it easier to share others’ Facebook contacts through Messenger, while birthday gifting lets users send birthday-themed payments on Messenger via Facebook Pay. There will also be other “birthday expression tools,” including a birthday song soundmoji, “Messenger is 10!” sticker pack, a new balloon background, a message effect, and AR effect to celebrate Messenger’s double-digit milestone.

Image Credits: Messenger

Meanwhile, word effects lets users manually input a phrase, and any time they send a message with that phrase, an accompanying emoji will float across the screen. In an example, Messenger showed the phrase “happy birthday” accompanied with a word effect of confetti emojis flooding the screen. (That one’s pretty tame, but this could be a remarkable application of the poop emoji.) The company only shared a “sneak peak” of this feature, as it’s not rolling out immediately.

In total, Facebook is announcing a total of ten features, most of which will begin rolling out today.

Messenger has come a long way over the past decade.

Ten years ago, Facebook acqui-hired a small group messaging start-up called Beluga, started by three former Google employees (apparently, a functional group thread was a white whale back then — simpler times). Several months later, the company unveiled Messenger, a standalone messaging app.

But three years into Messenger’s existence, it was no longer an optional add-on to the Facebook experience, but a mandatory download for anyone who wanted to keep up with their friends on the go. Facebook removed the option to send messages within its flagship app, directing users to use Messenger instead. Facebook’s reasoning behind this, the company told TechCrunch at the time, was that they wanted to eliminate the confusion of having two different mobile messaging systems. Just months earlier, Facebook had spent $19 billion to acquire WhatsApp and woo international users. Though removing Messenger from the Facebook app was controversial, the app reached 1.2 billion users three years later in 2017.

Today, Facebook has declared that it wants to evolve into a “metaverse” company, and on the same day as the anti-trust filing last week, Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a product that applies virtual reality in an impressively boring way: helping people attend work meetings. This metaverse would be enabled by technologies built by Facebook’s platform team, noted Vice President of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky. However, he added that people in the metaverse will still need platforms like Messenger.

“I don’t think messaging is going anywhere, even in the metaverse, because a asynchronous communication is going to continue to exist,” Chudnovsky said. People will still need to send messages to those who aren’t currently available to chat, he explained. Plus, Chudnovsky believes this sort of communication will become even more popular with the launch of the metaverse, as the technology will help to serve as a bridge between your phone, real life, and the metaverse.

“if anything is gonna happen more, not less. Because messaging is that things that just continues to grow with every new platform leap,” he said.

Additional reporting: Sarah Perez

ForgeRock files for IPO as identity and access management business grows

By Sean Michael Kerner

ForgeRock filed its form S-1 with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) this morning as the identity management provider takes the next step toward its IPO.

The company did not provide initial pricing for its shares, which will trade on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol FORG. The IPO is being led by Morgan Stanley and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., with the company being valued as high as $4 billion, according to Bloomberg, which is a significant uplift over the $730 million post-money value that PitchBook had for the company after its last round in 2020.

With the ever-increasing volume of cybersecurity attacks against organizations of all sizes, the need to secure and manage user identities is of growing importance. Based in San Francisco, ForgeRock has raised $233 million in funding across multiple rounds. The company’s last round was a $93.5 million Series E announced in April 2020, which was led by Riverwood Capital alongside Accenture Ventures. At that time, CEO Fran Rosch told TechCrunch that the round would be the last before an IPO, which was also what former CEO Mike Ellis told us after the startup’s $88 million Series D in September 2017.

While the timing of its IPO might have been unclear over the last few years, the company has been on a positive trajectory for growth. In its S-1, ForgeRock reported that as of June 30, its annual recurring revenue (ARR) was $155 million, representing 30% year-over-year growth. 

While revenue is growing, losses are narrowing as the company reported a $20 million net loss down from $36 million a year ago. There certainly is a whole lot of room to grow, as the company estimates that the total global addressable market for identity services to be worth $71 billion. 

Among the many competitors that ForgeRock faces is Okta, which went public in 2017 and has been growing in the years since. In March, Okta acquired cloud identity startup Auth0 for $6.5 billion in a deal that raised a few eyebrows. Another competitor is Ping Identity, which went public in 2019 and is also growing, reporting on August 4 that its ARR hit $279.6 million in its quarter ended June 30, for a 19% year-over-year gain. There have also been a few big exits in the space over the years, including Duo Security, which was acquired by Cisco for $2.35 billion in 2018.

“ForgeRock has a good access management tool and they continue to be a strong player in customer identity and access management (CIAM),” commented Michael Kelley, senior research director at Gartner.

Kelley noted that in 2020, ForgeRock converted most of its core access management services to a SaaS delivery model, which helped the company catch up with the rest of the market that already offered access management as SaaS. Also last year the company expanded into identity governance, introducing a brand new identity, governance and administration (IGA) product.

“I think one of the more interesting products that ForgeRock offers is ForgeRock Trees, which is a no-code/low-code orchestration tool for building complex authentication and authorization journeys for customers, which is particularly helpful in the CIAM market,” Kelly added.

ForgeRock was founded in 2010, but its roots go back even further to an open-source single sign-on project known as OpenSSO that was created by Sun Microsystems in 2005. When Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems in early 2010, a number of its open-source efforts were left to languish, which is what led a number of former Sun employees to start ForgeRock. 

Over the last decade, ForgeRock has expanded significantly beyond just providing a single sign-on to providing an identity platform that can handle consumer, enterprise and IoT use-cases. The company’s platform today handles identity and access management as well as identity governance.

The ability to scale is a key selling point that ForgeRock makes in the S-1, noting that its platform can handle over 60,000 user-based access transactions per second per customer. 

“As of June 30, 2021, we had four customers with 100 million or more licensed identities, the company stated in the S-1. “Our ability to serve mission-critical needs in complex environments for large customers enables us to grow our base of large customers and expand within each of them. “

 

How Cisco keeps its startup acquisition engine humming

By Ron Miller

Enterprise startups have several viable exit strategies: Some will go public, but most successful outcomes will be via acquisition, often by one of the highly acquisitive large competitors like Salesforce, Microsoft, Amazon, Oracle, SAP, Adobe or Cisco.

From rivals to “spin-ins,” Cisco has a particularly rich history of buying its way to global success. It has remained quite active, acquiring more than 30 startups over the last four years for a total of 229 over the life of the company. The most recent was Epsagon earlier this month, with five more in its most recent quarter (Q4 FY2021): Slido, Sedona Systems, Kenna Security, Involvio and Socio. It even announced three of them in the same week.

It begins by identifying targets; Cisco does that by being intimately involved with a list of up to 1,000 startups that could be a fit for acquisition.

What’s the secret sauce? How it is going faster than ever? For startups that encounter a company like Cisco, what do you need to know if you have talks that go places with it? We spoke to the company CFO, senior vice president of corporate development, and the general manager and executive vice president of security and collaboration to help us understand how all of the pieces fit together, why they acquire so many companies and what startups can learn from their process.

Cisco, as you would expect, has developed a rigorous methodology over the years to identify startups that could fit its vision. That involves product, of course, but also team and price, all coming together to make a successful deal. From targeting to negotiating to closing to incorporating the company into the corporate fold, a startup can expect a well-tested process.

Even with all this experience, chances are it won’t work perfectly every time. But since Cisco started doing M&A nine years into its history with the purchase of LAN switcher Crescendo Communications in 1993 — leading to its massive switching business today — the approach clearly works well enough that they keep doing it.

It starts with cash

If you want to be an acquisitive company, chances are you have a fair amount of cash on hand. That is certainly the case with Cisco, which currently has more than $24.5 billion in cash and equivalents, albeit down from $46 billion in 2017.

CFO Scott Herren says that the company’s cash position gives it the flexibility to make strategic acquisitions when it sees opportunities.

“We generate free cash flow net of our capex in round numbers in the $14 billion a year range, so it’s a fair amount of free cash flow. The dividend consumes about $6 billion a year,” Herren said. “We do share buybacks to offset our equity grant programs, but that still leaves us with a fair amount of cash that we generate year on year.”

He sees acquisitions as a way to drive top-line company growth while helping to push the company’s overall strategic goals. “As I think about where our acquisition strategy fits into the overall company strategy, it’s really finding the innovation we need and finding the companies that fit nicely and that marry to our strategy,” he said.

“And then let’s talk about the deal … and does it make sense or is there a … seller price point that we can meet and is it clearly something that I think will continue to be a core part of our strategy as a company in terms of finding innovation and driving top-line growth there,” he said.

The company says examples of acquisitions that both drove innovation and top-line growth include Duo Security in 2018, ThousandEyes in 2020 and Acacia Communications this year. Each offers some component that helps drive Cisco’s strategy — security, observability and next-generation internet infrastructure — while contributing to growth. Indeed, one of the big reasons for all these acquisitions could be about maintaining growth.

Playing the match game

Cisco is at its core still a networking equipment company, but it has been looking to expand its markets and diversify outside its core networking roots for years by moving into areas like communications and security. Consider that along the way it has spent billions on companies like WebEx, which it bought in 2007 for $3.2 billion, or AppDynamics, which it bought in 2017 for $3.7 billion just before it was going to IPO. It has also made more modest purchases (by comparison at least), such as MindMeld for $125 million and countless deals that were too small to require them to report the purchase price.

Derek Idemoto, SVP for corporate development and Cisco investments, has been with the company for 100 of those acquisitions and has been involved in helping scout companies of interest. His team begins the process of identifying possible targets and where they fall within a number of categories, such as whether it allows them to enter new markets (as WebEx did), extend their markets (as with Duo Security), or acqui-hire top technical talent and get some cool tech, as they did when they purchased BabbleLabs last year.

TikTok is building its own AR development platform, TikTok Effect Studio

By Sarah Perez

Both Facebook and Snap offer tools that allow developers to build out augmented reality (AR) experiences and features for their own respective family of apps. Now, TikTok is looking to do the same. The company recently launched a new creative toolset called TikTok Effect Studio, currently in private beta testing, which will allow its own developer community to build AR effects for TikTok’s short-form video app.

On a new website titled “Effect House,” TikTok asks interested developers to sign up for early access to Effect Studio.

On the form provided, developers fill out their name, email, TikTok account info, company, and level of experience with building for AR, as well as examples of their work. The website also asks if they’re using a Mac or PC (presumably to gauge which desktop platform to prioritize), and whether they would test Effect House for work or for personal use.

The project was first spotted by social media consultant Matt Navarra, via a tip from Sam Schmir.

TikTok is launching an Effects Studio in beta

h/t @Sam_Schmir pic.twitter.com/K3LS5S2Yoq

— Matt Navarra (@MattNavarra) August 14, 2021

TikTok confirmed to TechCrunch the website launched earlier in August, but the project itself is still in the early stages of testing in only a few select markets, one of which is the U.S.

The company couldn’t offer a timeframe as to when these tools would become more broadly available. Instead, TikTok characterized Effect Studio as an early “experiment,” adding that some of its experiments don’t always make it to launch. Plus, other experiments may undergo significant changes between their early beta phases and what later becomes a public product.

That said, the launch of an AR toolset would make TikTok more competitive with industry rivals, who today rely on creative communities to expand their apps’ features sets with new features and experiences. Snap, for example, launched a $3.5 million fund last year directed toward Snapchat AR Lens creation. Meanwhile, at Facebook’s F8 developer conference in June, the company announced it had grown its Spark AR platform to over 600,000 creators across 190 countries, making it the largest mobile AR platform worldwide.

Image Credits: screenshot of TikTok website

TikTok, too, has been increasing its investment in developer tools over the past couple of years. However, its focus as of late has been on toolkits aimed at third-party developers who want to integrate more closely with TikTok in their own apps. Today, TikTok’s developer website provides access to tools that allow app makers to add TikTok features to their apps like user authentication flows, sound sharing, and others that allow users to publish videos from a third-party editing app out to TikTok.

The new TikTok Effect Studio isn’t meant to be used with third-party apps, however.

Instead, it’s about building AR experiences (and possibly, other creative effects), that would be provided to TikTok users directly in the consumer-facing video app.

Though willing to confirm its broader goals for TikTok Effect Studio, the company declined to share specific details about the exact tools may be included, citing the project’s early days.

“We’re always thinking about new ways to bring value to our community and enrich the TikTok experience,” a TikTok spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Currently, we’re experimenting with ways to give creators additional tools to bring their creative ideas to life for the TikTok community,” they added.

This Week in Apps: OnlyFans bans sexual content, SharePlay delayed, TikTok questioned over biometric data collection

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 continues to grow, 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 in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

OnlyFans to ban sexually explicit content

OnlyFans logo displayed on a phone screen and a website

(Photo Illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Creator platform OnlyFans is getting out of the porn business. The company announced this week it will begin to prohibit any “sexually explicit” content starting on October 1, 2021 — a decision it claimed would ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform. The news angered a number of impacted creators who weren’t notified ahead of time and who’ve come to rely on OnlyFans as their main source of income.

However, word is that OnlyFans was struggling to find outside investors, despite its sizable user base, due to the adult content it hosts. Some VC firms are prohibited from investing in adult content businesses, while others may be concerned over other matters — like how NSFW content could have limited interest from advertisers and brand partners. They may have also worried about OnlyFans’ ability to successfully restrict minors from using the app, in light of what appears to be soon-to-come increased regulations for online businesses. Plus, porn companies face a number of other issues, too. They have to continually ensure they’re not hosting illegal content like child sex abuse material, revenge porn or content from sex trafficking victims — the latter which has led to lawsuits at other large porn companies.

The news followed a big marketing push for OnlyFans’ porn-free (SFW) app, OFTV, which circulated alongside reports that the company was looking to raise funds at a $1 billion+ valuation. OnlyFans may not have technically needed the funding to operate its current business — it handled more than $2 billion in sales in 2020 and keeps 20%. Rather, the company may have seen there’s more opportunity to cater to the “SFW” creator community, now that it has big names like Bella Thorne, Cardi B, Tyga, Tyler Posey, Blac Chyna, Bhad Bhabie and others on board.

U.S. lawmakers demand info on TikTok’s plans for biometric data collection

The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max

The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max. Image Credits: Nur Photo/Getty Images

U.S. lawmakers are challenging TikTok on its plans to collect biometric data from its users. TechCrunch first reported on TikTok’s updated privacy policy in June, where the company gave itself permission to collect biometric data in the U.S., including users’ “faceprints and voiceprints.” When reached for comment, TikTok could not confirm what product developments necessitated the addition of biometric data to its list of disclosures about the information it automatically collects from users, but said it would ask for consent in the case such data collection practices began.

Earlier this month, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Thune (R-SD) sent a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, which said they were “alarmed” by the change, and demanded to know what information TikTok will be collecting and what it plans to do with the data. This wouldn’t be the first time TikTok got in trouble for excessive data collection. Earlier this year, the company paid out $92 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that claimed TikTok had unlawfully collected users’ biometric data and shared it with third parties.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Image Credits: Apple

  • ⭐ Apple told developers that some of the features it announced as coming in iOS 15 won’t be available at launch. This includes one of the highlights of the new OS, SharePlay, a feature that lets people share music, videos and their screen over FaceTime calls. Other features that will come in later releases include Wallet’s support for ID cards, the App Privacy report and others that have yet to make it to beta releases.
  • Apple walked back its controversial Safari changes with the iOS 15 beta 6 update. Apple’s original redesign had shown the address bar at the bottom of the screen, floating atop the page’s content. Now the tab bar will appear below the page’s content, offering access to its usual set of buttons as when it was at the top. Users can also turn off the bottom tab bar now and revert to the old, Single Tab option that puts the address bar back at the top as before.
  • In response to criticism over its new CSAM detection technology, Apple said the version of NeuralHash that was reverse-engineered by a developer, Asuhariet Ygvar, was a generic version, and not the complete version that will roll out later this year.
  • The Verge dug through over 800 documents from the Apple-Epic trial to find the best emails, which included dirt on a number of other companies like Netflix, Hulu, Sony, Google, Nintendo, Valve, Microsoft, Amazon and more. These offered details on things like Netflix’s secret arrangement to pay only 15% of revenue, how Microsoft also quietly offers a way for some companies to bypass its full cut, how Apple initially saw the Amazon Appstore as a threat and more.

Platforms: Google

  • A beta version of the Android Accessibility Suite app (12.0.0) which rolled out with the fourth Android beta release added something called “Camera Switches” to Switch Access, a toolset that lets you interact with your device without using the touchscreen. Camera Switches allows users to navigate their phone and use its features by making face gestures, like a smile, open mouth, raised eyebrows and more.
  • Google announced its Pixel 5a with 5G, the latest A-series Pixel phone, will arrive on August 27, offering IP67 water resistance, long-lasting Adaptive Battery, Pixel’s dual-camera system and more, for $449. The phone makes Google’s default Android experience available at a lower price point than the soon to arrive Pixel 6.
  • An unredacted complaint from the Apple-Epic trial revealed that Google had quietly paid developers hundreds of millions of dollars via a program known as “Project Hug,” (later “Apps and Games Velocity Program”) to keep their games on the Play Store. Epic alleges Google launched the program to keep developers from following its lead by moving their games outside the store.

Augmented Reality

  • Snap on Thursday announced it hired its first VP of Platform Partnerships to lead AR, Konstantinos Papamiltiadis (“KP”). The new exec will lead Snap’s efforts to onboard partners, including individual AR creators building via Lens Studio as well as large companies that incorporate Snapchat’s camera and AR technology (Camera Kit) into their apps. KP will join in September, and report to Ben Schwerin, SVP of Content and Partnerships.

Fintech

  • Crypto exchange Coinbase will enter the Japanese market through a new partnership with Japanese financial giant Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG). The company said it plans to launch other localized versions of its existing global services in the future.

Social

Image Credits: Facebook

  • Facebook launched a “test” of Facebook Reels in the U.S. on iOS and Android. The new feature brings the Reels experience to Facebook, allowing users to create and share short-form video content directly within the News Feed or within Facebook Groups. Instagram Reels creators can also now opt in to have their Reels featured on users’ News Feed. The company is heavily investing its its battle with TikTok, even pledging that some portion of its $1 billion creator fund will go toward Facebook Reels.
  • Twitter’s redesign of its website and app was met with a lot of backlash from users and accessibility experts alike. The company choices add more visual contrast between various elements and may have helped those with low vision. But for others, the contrast is causing strain and headaches. Experts believe accessibility isn’t a one-size fits all situation, and Twitter should have introduced tools that allowed people to adjust their settings to their own needs.
  • The pro-Trump Twitter alternative Gettr’s lack of moderation has allowed users to share child exploitation images, according to research from the Stanford Internet Observatory’s Cyber Policy Center.
  • Pinterest rolled out a new set of more inclusive search filters that allow people to find styles for different types of hair textures — like coily, curly, wavy, straight, as well as shaved or bald and protective styles. 

Photos

  • Photoshop for iPad gained new image correction tools, including the Healing Brush and Magic Wand, and added support for connecting an iPad to external monitors via HDMI or USB-C. The company also launched a Photoshop Beta program on the desktop.

Messaging

  • WhatsApp is being adopted by the Taliban to spread its message across Afghanistan, despite being on Facebook’s list of banned organizations. The company says it’s proactively removing Taliban content — but that may be difficult to do since WhatsApp’s E2E encryption means it can’t read people’s texts. This week, Facebook shut down a Taliban helpline in Kabul, which allowed civilians to report violence and looting, but some critics said this wasn’t actually helping local Afghans, as the group was now in effect governing the region.
  • WhatsApp is also testing a new feature that will show a large preview when sharing links, which some suspect may launch around the time when the app adds the ability to have the same account running on multiple devices.

Streaming & Entertainment

  • Netflix announced it’s adding spatial audio support on iPhone and iPad on iOS 14, joining other streamers like HBO Max, Disney+ and Peacock that have already pledged to support the new technology. The feature will be available to toggle on and off in the Control Center, when it arrives.
  • Blockchain-powered streaming music service Audius partnered with TikTok to allow artists to upload their songs using TikTok’s new SoundKit in just one click.
  • YouTube’s mobile app added new functionality that allows users to browse a video’s chapters, and jump into the chapter they want directly from the search page.
  • Spotify’s Anchor app now allows users in global markets to record “Music + Talk” podcasts, where users can combine spoken word recordings with any track from Spotify’s library of 70 million songs for a radio DJ-like experience.
  • Podcasters are complaining that Apple’s revamped Podcasts platform is not working well, reports The Verge. Podcasts Connect has been buggy, and sports a confusing interface that has led to serious user errors (like entire shows being archived). And listeners have complained about syncing problems and podcasts they already heard flooding their libraries.

Dating

  • Tinder announced a new feature that will allow users to voluntarily verify their identity on the platform, which will allow the company to cross-reference sex offender registry data. Previously, Tinder would only check this database when a user signed up for a paid subscription with a credit card.

Gaming

Image Source: The Pokémon Company

  • Pokémon Unite will come to iOS and Android on September 22, The Pokémon Company announced during a livestream this week. The strategic battle game first launched on Nintendo Switch in late July.
  • Developer Konami announced a new game, Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls, which will come exclusively to Apple Arcade. The game is described as a “full-fledged side-scrolling action game,” featuring a roster of iconic characters from the classic game series. The company last year released another version of Castelvania on the App Store and Google Play.
  • Dragon Ball Z: Dokkan Battle has now surpassed $3 billion in player spending since its 2015 debut, reported Sensor Tower. The game from Bandai Namco took 20 months to reach the figure after hitting the $2 billion milestone in 2019. The new landmark sees the game joining other top-grossers, including Clash Royale, Lineage M and others.
  • Sensor Tower’s mobile gaming advertising report revealed data on top ad networks in the mobile gaming market, and their market share. It also found puzzle games were among the top advertisers on gaming-focused networks like Chartboost, Unity, IronSource and Vungle. On less game-focused networks, mid-core games were top titles, like Call of Duty: Mobile and Top War. 

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Health & Fitness

  • Apple is reportedly scaling back HealthHabit, an internal app for Apple employees that allowed them to track fitness goals, talk to clinicians and coaches at AC Wellness (a doctors’ group Apple works with) and manage hypertension. According to Insider, 50 employees had been tasked to work on the project.
  • Samsung launched a new product for Galaxy smartphones in partnership with healthcare nonprofit The Commons Project, that allows U.S. users to save a verifiable copy of their vaccination card in the Samsung Pay digital wallet.

Image Credits: Samsung

Adtech

Government & Policy

  • China cited 43 apps, including Tencent’s WeChat and an e-reader from Alibaba, for illegally transferring user data. The regulator said the apps had transferred users location data and contact list and harassed them with pop-up windows. The apps have until August 25 to make changes before being punished.

Security & Privacy

  • A VICE report reveals a fascinating story about a jailbreaking community member who had served as a double agent by spying for Apple’s security team. Andrey Shumeyko, whose online handles included JVHResearch and YRH04E, would advertise leaked apps, manuals and stolen devices on Twitter and Discord. He would then tell Apple things like which Apple employees were leaking confidential info, which reporters would talk to leakers, who sold stolen iPhone prototypes and more. Shumeyko decided to share his story because he felt Apple took advantage of him and didn’t compensate him for the work.

Funding and M&A

💰 South Korea’s GS Retail Co. Ltd will buy Delivery Hero’s food delivery app Yogiyo in a deal valued at 800 billion won ($685 million USD). Yogiyo is the second-largest food delivery app in South Korea, with a 25% market share.

💰 Gaming platform Roblox acquired a Discord rival, Guilded, which allows users to have text and voice conversations, organize communities around events and calendars and more. Deal terms were not disclosed. Guilded raised $10.2 million in venture funding. Roblox’s stock fell by 7% after the company reported earnings this week, after failing to meet Wall Street expectations.

💰 Travel app Hopper raised $175 million in a Series G round of funding led by GPI Capital, valuing the business at over $3.5 billion. The company raised a similar amount just last year, but is now benefiting from renewed growth in travel following COVID-19 vaccinations and lifting restrictions.

💰 Indian quiz app maker Zupee raised $30 million in a Series B round of funding led by Silicon Valley-based WestCap Group and Tomales Bay Capital. The round values the company at $500 million, up 5x from last year.

💰 Danggeun Market, the publisher of South Korea’s hyperlocal community app Karrot, raised $162 million in a Series D round of funding led by DST Global. The round values the business at $2.7 billion and will be used to help the company launch its own payments platform, Karrot Pay.

💰 Bangalore-based fintech app Smallcase raised $40 million in Series C funding round led by Faering Capital and Premji Invest, with participation from existing investors, as well as Amazon. The Robinhood-like app has over 3 million users who are transacting about $2.5 billion per year.

💰 Social listening app Earbuds raised $3 million in Series A funding led by Ecliptic Capital. Founded by NFL star Jason Fox, the app lets anyone share their favorite playlists, livestream music like a DJ or comment on others’ music picks.

💰 U.S. neobank app One raised $40 million in Series B funding led by Progressive Investment Company (the insurance giant’s investment arm), bringing its total raise to date to $66 million. The app offers all-in-one banking services and budgeting tools aimed at middle-income households who manage their finances on a weekly basis.

Public Markets

📈Indian travel booking app ixigo is looking to raise Rs 1,600 crore in its initial public offering, The Economic Times reported this week.

📉Trading app Robinhood disappointed in its first quarterly earnings as a publicly traded company, when it posted a net loss of $502 million, or $2.16 per share, larger than Wall Street forecasts. This overshadowed its beat on revenue ($565 million versus $521.8 million expected) and its more than doubling of MAUs to 21.3 million in Q2.  Also of note, the company said dogecoin made up 62% of its crypto revenue in Q2.

Downloads

Polycam (update)

Image Credits: Polycam

3D scanning software maker Polycam launched a new 3D capture tool, Photo Mode, that allows iPhone and iPad users to capture professional-quality 3D models with just an iPhone. While the app’s scanner before had required the use of the lidar sensor built into newer devices like the iPhone 12 Pro and iPad Pro models, the new Photo Mode feature uses just an iPhone’s camera. The resulting 3D assets are ready to use in a variety of applications, including 3D art, gaming, AR/VR and e-commerce. Data export is available in over a dozen file formats, including .obj, .gtlf, .usdz and others. The app is a free download on the App Store, with in-app purchases available.

Jiobit (update)

Jiobit, the tracking dongle acquired by family safety and communication app Life360, this week partnered with emergency response service Noonlight to offer Jiobit Protect, a premium add-on that offers Jiobit users access to an SOS Mode and Alert Button that work with the Jiobit mobile app. SOS Mode can be triggered by a child’s caregiver when they detect — through notifications from the Jiobit app — that a loved one may be in danger. They can then reach Noonlight’s dispatcher who can facilitate a call to 911 and provide the exact location of the person wearing the Jiobit device, as well as share other details, like allergies or special needs, for example.

Tweets

When your app redesign goes wrong…

Image Credits: Twitter.com

Prominent App Store critic Kosta Eleftheriou shut down his FlickType iOS app this week after too many frustrations with App Review. He cited rejections that incorrectly argued that his app required more access than it did — something he had successfully appealed and overturned years ago. Attempted follow-ups with Apple were ignored, he said. 

Image Credits: Twitter.com

Anyone have app ideas?

India’s path to SaaS leadership is clear, but challenges remain

By Ram Iyer
Manav Garg Contributor
Manav Garg is CEO and founder of Eka Software Solutions and is founding partner of SaaSboomi and Together Fund.

Software as a service is one of the most important sectors in tech today. While its transformative potential was quite clear before the pandemic, the sudden pivot to distributed workforces caused interest in SaaS products to skyrocket as medium and large enterprises embraced digital and remote sales processes, significantly expanding their utility.

This phenomenon is global, but India in particular has the opportunity to take its SaaS momentum to the next level. The Indian SaaS industry is projected to generate revenue of $50 billion to $70 billion and win 4%-6% of the global SaaS market by 2030, creating as much as $1 trillion in value, according to a report by SaaSBOOMi and McKinsey.

The Indian SaaS industry is projected to generate revenue of $50 billion to $70 billion and win 4%-6% of the global SaaS market by 2030.

There are certain important long-term trends that are fueling this expansion.

The rise of Indian SaaS unicorns

The Indian SaaS community has seen a flurry of innovation and success. Entrepreneurs in India have founded about a thousand funded SaaS companies in the last few years, doubling the rate from five years ago and creating several unicorns in the process. Together, these companies generate $2 billion to $3 billion in total revenues and represent approximately 1% of the global SaaS market, according to SaaSBOOMi and McKinsey.

These firms are diverse in terms of the clients they serve and the problems they solve, but several garnered global attention during the pandemic by enabling flexibility for newly remote workers. Zoho helped streamline this pivot by providing sales teams with apps for collateral, videos and demos; Freshworks offered businesses a seamless customer experience platform, and Eka extended its cloud platform to unify workflows from procurement to payments for the CFO office.

Other SaaS firms stayed busy in other ways. Over the course of the pandemic, 10 new unicorns emerged: Postman, Zenoti, Innovacer, Highradius, Chargebee and Browserstack, Mindtickle, Byju, UpGrad and Unacademy. There were also several instances of substantial venture funding, including a $150 million deal for Postman, bringing the total amount raised by the Indian SaaS community in 2020 to around $1.5 billion, four times the investment in 2018.

India’s path to leadership

While the Indian SaaS community has made admirable progress in recent years, there are several key growth drivers that could lead to as much as $1 trillion in revenue by 2030. They include:

The global pivot to digital go-to-market

The number of enterprises that are comfortable with assessing products and making business decisions via Zoom is increasing rapidly. This embrace of digital go-to-market fundamentally levels the playing field for Indian companies in terms of access to customers and end markets.

Facebook is bringing end-to-end encryption to Messenger calls and Instagram DMs

By Carly Page

Facebook has extended the option of using end-to-end encryption for Messenger voice calls and video calls.

End-to-end encryption (E2EE) — a security feature that prevents third-parties from eavesdropping on calls and chats — has been available for text conversations on Facebook’s flagship messaging service since 2016. Although the company has faced pressure from governments to roll back its end-to-end encryption plans, Facebook is now extending this protection to both voice and video calls on Messenger, which means that “nobody else, including Facebook, can see or listen to what’s sent or said.”

“End-to-end encryption is already widely used by apps like WhatsApp to keep personal conversations safe from hackers and criminals,” Ruth Kricheli, director of product management for Messenger, said in a blog post on Friday. “It’s becoming the industry standard and works like a lock and key, where just you and the people in the chat or call have access to the conversation.”

Facebook has some other E2EE features in the works, too. It’s planning to start public tests of end-to-end encryption for group chats and calls in Messenger in the coming weeks and is also planning a limited test of E2EE for Instagram direct messages. Those involved in the trial will be able to opt-in to end-to-end encrypted messages and calls for one-on-one conversations carried out on the photo-sharing platform.

Beyond encryption, the social networking giant is also updating its expiring messages feature, which is similar to the ephemeral messages feature available on Facebook-owned WhatsApp. It’s now offering more options for people in the chat to choose the amount of time before all new messages disappear, from as few as five seconds to as long as 24 hours.

“People expect their messaging apps to be secure and private, and with these new features, we’re giving them more control over how private they want their calls and chats to be,” Kricheli added.

News of Facebook ramping up its E2EE rollout plans comes just days after the company changed its privacy settings — again.

Youreka Labs spins out with $8.5M to provide smart mobile assistant apps to field workers

By Christine Hall

Mobile field service startup Youreka Labs Inc. raised an $8.5 million Series A round of funding co-led by Boulder Ventures and Grotech Ventures, with participation from Salesforce Ventures.

The Maryland-based company also officially announced its CEO — Bill Karpovich joined to lead the company after previously general manager at IBM Cloud & Watson Platform.

Youreka Labs spun out into its own company from parent company Synaptic Advisors, a cloud consulting business focused on the customer relationship management transformations using Salesforce and other artificial intelligence and automation technologies.

The company is developing robotic smart mobile assistants that enable frontline workers to perform their jobs more safely and efficiently. This includes things like guided procedures, smart forms and photo or video capture. Youreka is also embedded in existing Salesforce mobile applications like Field Service Mobile so that end-users only have to operate from one mobile app.

Youreka has identified four use cases so far: healthcare, manufacturing, energy and utilities and the public sector. Working with companies like Shell, P&G, Humana and the Transportation Security Administration, the company’s technology makes it possible for someone to share their knowledge and processes with their colleagues in the field, Karpovich told TechCrunch.

“In the case of healthcare, we are taking complex medical assessments from a doctor and pushing them out to nurses out in the field by gathering data into a simple mobile app and making it useful,” he added. “It allows nurses to do a great job without being doctors themselves.”

Karpovich said the company went after Series A dollars because it was “time for it to be on its own.” He was receiving inbound interest from investors, and the capital would enable the company to proceed more rapidly. Today, the company is focused on the Salesforce ecosystem, but that can evolve over time, he added.

The funding will be used to expand the company’s reach and products. He expects to double the team in the next six to 12 months across engineering to be able to expand the platform. Youreka boasts 100 customers today, and Karpovich would also like to invest in marketing to grow that base.

In addition to the use cases already identified, he sees additional potential in financial services and insurance, particularly for those assessing damage. The company is also concentrated in the United States, and Karpovich has plans to expand in the U.K. and Europe.

In 2020, the company grew 300%, which Karpovich attributes to the need of this kind of tool in field service. Youreka has a licensing model with charges per end user per month, along with an administrative license, for the people creating the apps, that also charges per user and per month pricing.

“There are 2.5 million jobs open today because companies can’t find people with the right skills,” he added. “We are making these jobs accessible. Some say that AI is doing away with jobs, but we are using AI to enhance jobs. If we can take 90% of the knowledge and give a digital assistant to less experienced people, you could open up so many opportunities.”

 

Talkdesk’s valuation jumps to $10B with Series D for smart contact centers

By Christine Hall

Talkdesk, a provider of cloud-based contact center software, announced $230 million in new Series D funding that more than triples the company’s valuation to $10 billion, Talkdesk founder CEO Tiago Paiva confirmed to TechCrunch.

New investors Whale Rock Capital Management, TI Platform Management and Alpha Square Group came on board for this round and were joined by existing investors Amity Ventures, Franklin Templeton, Top Tier Capital Partners, Viking Global Investors and Willoughby Capital.

Talkdesk uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve customer service for midmarket and enterprise businesses. It counts over 1,800 companies as customers, including IBM, Acxiom, Trivago and Fujitsu.

“The global pandemic was a big part of how customers interact and how we interacted with our customers, all working from home,” Paiva said. “When you think about ordering things online, call, chat and email interactions became more important, and contact centers became core in every company.”

San Francisco-based Talkdesk now has $498 million in total funding since its inception in 2011. It was a Startup Battlefield contestant at TechCrunch Disrupt NY in 2012. The new funding follows a $143 million Series C raised last July that gave it a $3 billion valuation. Prior to that, Talkdesk brought in $100 million in 2018.

The 2020 round was planned to buoy the company’s growth and expansion to nearly 2,000 employees, Paiva said. For the Series D, there was much interest from investors, including a lot of inbound interest, he said.

“We were not looking for new money, and finished last year with more money in the bank that we raised in the last round, but the investors were great and wanted to make it work,” Paiva said.

Half of Talkdesk’s staff is in product and engineering, an area he intends to double down in with the new funding as well as adding to the headcount to support customers. The company also has plans to expand in areas where it is already operating — Latin America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

This year, the company unveiled new features, including Talkdesk Workspace, a customizable interface for contact center teams, and Talkdesk Builder, a set of tools for customization across workspaces, routing, reporting and integrations. It also launched contact center tools designed specifically for financial services and healthcare organizations and what it is touting as the “industry’s first human-in-the-loop tool for contact centers and continues to lower the barrier to adopting artificial intelligence solutions.”

In addition to the funding, Talkdesk appointed its first chief financial officer, Sydney Carey, giving the company an executive team of 50% women, Paiva said. Carey has a SaaS background and joins the company from Sumo Logic, where she led the organization through an initial public offering in 2020.

“We were hiring our executive team over the past couple of years, and were looking for a CFO, but with no specific timeline, just looking for the right person,” Paiva added. “Sydney was the person we wanted to hire.”

Though Paiva didn’t hint at any upcoming IPO plans, TI Platform Management co-founders Trang Nguyen and Alex Bangash have followed Paiva since he started the company and said they anticipate the company heading in that direction in the future.

“Talkdesk is an example of what can happen when a strong team is assembled behind a winning idea,” they said in a written statement. “Today, Talkdesk has become near ubiquitous as a SaaS product with adoption across a broad array of industries and integrations with the most popular enterprise cloud platforms, including Salesforce, Zendesk and Slack.”

 

WhatsApp gains the ability to transfer chat history between mobile operating systems

By Sarah Perez

WhatsApp users will finally be able to move their entire chat history between mobile operating systems — something that’s been one of users’ biggest requests to date. The company today introduced a feature that will soon become available to users of both iOS and Android devices, allowing them to move their WhatsApp voice notes, photos, and conversations securely between devices when they switch between mobile operating systems.

The company had been rumored to be working on such functionality for some time, but the details of which devices would be initially supported or when it would be released weren’t yet known.

In product leaks, WhatsApp had appeared to be working on an integration into Android’s built-in transfer app, the Google Data Transfer Tool, which lets users move their files from one Android device to another, or switch from iOS to Android.

The feature WhatsApp introduced today, however, works with Samsung devices and Samsung’s own transfer tool, known as Smart Switch. Today, Smart Switch helps users transfer contacts, photos, music, messages, notes, calendars, and more to Samsung Galaxy devices. Now, it will transfer WhatsApp chat history, too.

WhatsApp showed off the new tool at Samsung’s Galaxy Unpacked event, and announced Samsung’s newest Galaxy foldable devices would get the feature first in the weeks to come. The feature will later roll out to Android more broadly. WhatsApp didn’t say when iOS users would gain access.

To use the feature, WhatsApp users will connect their old and new device together via a USB-C to Lightning cable, and launch Smart Switch. The new phone will then prompt you to scan a QR code using your old phone and export your WhatsApp history. To complete the transfer, you’ll sign into WhatsApp on the new device and import the messages.

Building such a feature was non-trivial, the company also explained, as messages across its service are end-to-end encrypted by default and stored on users’ devices. That meant the creation of a tool to move chat history between operating systems required additional work from both WhatsApp as well as operating system and device manufacturers in order to build it in a secure way, the company said.

“Your WhatsApp messages belong to you. That’s why they are stored on your phone by default, and not accessible in the cloud like many other messaging services,” noted Sandeep Paruchuri, product manager at WhatsApp, in a statement about the launch. “We’re excited for the first time to make it easy for people to securely transfer their WhatsApp history from one operating system to another. This has been one of our most requested features from users for years and we worked together with operating systems and device manufacturers to solve it,” he added.

 

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