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Babbel makes its language learning app free for all US students

By Frederic Lardinois

Babbel, the Berlin-based paid language learning app, today announced that, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is making its service available for free to all K-12 and college students until the end of the term. Previously, the company offered a similar deal for students in Italy, the U.K., Germany, Spain and France.

The service currently offers courses for Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Polish, Russian, Dutch, Turkish, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Indonesian and English. Students who want to sign up (or whose parents force them to do so) only need a valid school address to get started.

“The number of students being affected by high school and college closures across the U.S. is increasing daily, and the education system is anticipated to be further disrupted in the coming weeks,” said Julie Hansen, Babbel’s U.S. CEO. “As students are being forced to stay at home, Babbel is in a position to help right now and that is exactly what we want to do. At this time of global concern, we are reminded of the similarities we have with other people around the world, rather than that which divides us.”

The company also tells me that it is seeing increased demand from schools that are looking for ways to keep their students practicing their language skills while they are out of the classroom. Even without taking these students into account, though, Babbel’s overall subscriber numbers are actually up right now, which comes as a bit of a surprise, given that most people are probably not currently thinking about learning the basics of a language for their next vacation.

“Since people globally are bound to their homes we see a steep uptake in learning activity,” said Babbel CEO Arne Schepker. “More than ever, large numbers of people are currently starting a new language journey with Babbel. This is something that makes us extremely humble and grateful. If our work helps to make your day just a little bit better I think this is more than we ever could have asked for.”

Across geographies, Babbel is seeing the same trends, where new subscriptions slow down as the pandemic first becomes top of mind and then picks up again once school closing and rules like shelter-in-place go into effect. The same also holds true for existing subscribers, who, on average, are now more active, too. Unsurprisingly, though, “travel” isn’t quite the motivator for new learners that it was before this pandemic hit.

The popular free language learning app Duolingo, too, is seeing similar growth. The company tells me its new user growth is up 40% worldwide, and especially high in countries that have been aggressive about their isolation measures. In the last week alone, Duolingo saw a 91% increase in new users in the U.S., and even higher growth in European countries like France and Spain. With TOEFL and IELTS testing centers in China and other countries closed, Duolingo’s certification program is also seeing close to 300% growth in China and Korea.

Google Cloud launches Game Servers, a managed cloud backend for games

By Frederic Lardinois

Google Cloud today announced the beta launch of Game Servers, a managed service that provides game developers with the usual backend services for running their games, including multi-player games, in the company’s cloud. It’s worth stressing that these are not game streaming servers but solely meant to make it easier for game developers to build, scale and manage the backend services for their games.

The service sits on top of the Agones open-source game server, a project Google and Ubisoft first announced in 2018, and the Kubernetes container orchestration platform. As Google Cloud product manager Scott Van Woudenberg also told me, the team is also reusing some parts of Anthos, Google’s service for managing multi-cloud Kubernetes clusters. And while Game Servers can currently only run on the Google Kubernetes Engine, the plan is to allow for hybrid and multi-cloud support later this year.

Quite a few gaming companies have already built their own on-premises server fleets, so just like in the enterprise, having hybrid-cloud capabilities is a must-have for a tool like this. Google will also make it easy for developers who already use Agones outside of Game Servers today to bring those servers into the same managed Game Servers ecosystem by registering them with the Game Servers API.

As Van Woudenberg noted, virtually every game now needs some kind of cloud backend, be that for multi-player features, match-making or keeping persistent game stats, for example. That’s true for indie developers and major game studios. Game Servers, ideally, will make it easier for these companies to scale their clusters up and down as needed. Game Servers also provides for A/B testing and canary tests, and in future updates, it will include integrations with the Open Match matchmaking framework.

To get started, developers still have to containerize their game servers. For those companies that already use Agones, that’s a pretty straightforward exercise, Van Woudenberg said. Others, though, need a bit more help with that and Google is working with partners to walk them through this.

Strattic raises $6.5M to bring static WordPress to the masses

By Frederic Lardinois

WordPress remains the juggernaut of content management systems, even though it now often gets used in ways it was never intended. And with that, managing the life cycle of WordPress sites has only gotten more complicated, too, all while hackers are trying to exploit any and all security issues to take control of a site. Strattic aims to make all of this a lot easier by turning WordPress sites into static sites that don’t query a database whenever a user looks at a page.

The Israeli company today announced that it has raised a $6.5 million seed round led by SignalFire and TenOneTen Ventures, with participation from Accel, Automattic, Seneca VC, Eric Ries and Village Global VC. It also announced that Zeev Suraski, who co-created PHP 3 and the Zend Engine that’s at the core of PHP 4, has joined the company as its CTO.

About 13 years ago, Strattic CEO and co-founder Miriam Schwab founded a WordPress web development company. At that time, WordPress was often still seen as a tool for running personal blogs, but that has obviously changed over time. But she realized that once her agency handed off the site to the customer, they would often come back to her to ask for maintenance as well — and the idea behind Strattic is based on that experience and trying to simplify that process by using static site generators. Schwab noted that those aren’t necessarily all that user friendly, though.

“WordPress is still the best option out there, but it has these major issues, so I thought, all right, why not marry these two worlds? WordPress stays WordPress, but maybe we turn it into a static site generator. And that was the initial concept for Strattic,” Schwab told me.

“It was just such an obviously good idea,” co-founder and COO Josh Lawrence added. “It means that you don’t need to do maintenance anymore. It means that your site is 99.99999% more unhackable than before. It’s going to be faster, no matter what. Totally scalable. It’s just all these things and as long as you can make it work — which was not simple — it’s just obvious from a business perspective.”

With Strattic, users still get the usual WordPress experience, but the company only spins up a WordPress container when you are using it, which significantly reduces the attack surface, and then generates the static sites as you make changes. Those static sites obviously load very fast and also provide a smaller attack surface. To speed up the sites, Strattic also uses AWS’s CDN solution.

Lawrence, however, also told me, that getting funding wasn’t easy at first. VCs in Israel weren’t really looking to fund a WordPress company at the time, even though Strattic was growing (mostly organically) at a very nice pace and getting real customers. So in order to raise this round, the company went to Silicon Valley, looking to raise $2 million but came back with $6.5 million in an oversubscribed round.

The team plans to use the new funding round to build out its product team and start rolling out new features quickly. Currently, for example, there are still a few types of sites that don’t work with Strattic, including those that use the popular WooCommerce system, because they rely on database connections. Support for these types of sites is in the works, though.

Compound’s Mike Dempsey on virtual influencers and AI characters

By Eric Peckham

In films, TV shows and books — and even in video games where characters are designed to respond to user behavior — we don’t perceive characters as beings with whom we can establish two-way relationships. But that’s poised to change, at least in some use cases.

Interactive characters — fictional, virtual personas capable of personalized interactions — are defining new territory in entertainment. In my guide to the concept of “virtual beings,” I outlined two categories of these characters:

  • virtual influencers: fictional characters with real-world social media accounts who build and engage with a mass following of fans.
  • virtual companions: AIs oriented toward one-to-one relationships, much like the tech depicted in the films “Her” and “Ex Machina.” They are personalized enough to engage us in entertaining discussions and respond to our behavior (in the physical world or within games) like a human would.

Part 1 of 3: the investor perspective

In a series of three interviews, I’m exploring the startup opportunities in both of these spaces in greater depth. First, Michael Dempsey, a partner at VC firm Compound who has blogged extensively about digital characters, avatars and animation, offers his perspective as an investor hunting for startup opportunities within these spaces.

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