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Messaging app Wire raises $21 million

By Romain Dillet

Wire, the end-to-end encrypted messaging app and service, has raised a $21 million Series B funding round led by UVC Partners. As the company said a couple of years ago, the company is focusing on the enterprise market more than ever.

While Wire started as a consumer app, it never managed to attract hundreds of millions of customers like other messaging apps. That doesn’t mean that Wire is a bad product.

The app lets you securely talk with other people using text messages, photos, videos and voice messages. You can also start a video call and send files with other users. Wire supports both one-to-one conversations as well as rooms.

Everything is end-to-end encrypted by default, which means that the company can’t decrypt your conversations, can’t hand them over to a court or can’t expose your conversations to a potential hacker. You can also view the source code on GitHub.

In 2019, the company told TechCrunch that it would open a holding company in the U.S. to raise some funding. The idea was to double down on enterprise customers to find a clear path toward profitability. And this focus hasn’t changed since then.

“If I think back on the evolution of the business – three years ago we had zero revenue and zero customers – whereas today we’re announcing a B round and we have clearly established a well-recognised enterprise brand amongst the likes of Gartner, which is one of the things I am extremely proud of,” Wire’s CEO Morten Brogger told me.

“I also think that with the focus on a revenue-generating, enterprise business, we avoid situations like WhatsApp, where the only model you can ultimately turn to is monetising data,” he added.

And it seems to be working well when it comes to revenue growth. Right now, Wire has 1,800 customers. The number of customers has increased by almost 50% over the past year.

The company focuses on large customers, such as big corporations and government customers with a ton of potential users. Five G7 governments are currently using Wire. Overall, revenue has tripled in 2020.

In addition to working on Messaging Layer Security (MLS), Wire has been focused on improving conference calls and real-time interactions. The company believes messaging apps and real-time collaboration apps are slowly converging. And the startup wants to offer a service that works well across various scenarios.

You can also expect more end-to-end encrypted services in the collaboration space. Wire is still relatively small with 90 employees, which means it has room to grow and iterate.

A ‘more honest’ stock market

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review!

Last week, I talked about Clubhouse’s slowing user growth. Well, this week news broke that they had been in talks with Twitter for a $4 billion acquisition, so it looks like they’re still pretty desirable. This week, I’m talking about a story I published a couple days ago that highlights pretty much everything that’s wild about the alternative asset world right now.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.


The big thing

If you successfully avoided all mentions of NFTs until now, I congratulate you, because it certainly does seem like the broader NFT market is seeing some major pullback after a very frothy February and March. You’ll still be seeing plenty of late-to-the-game C-list celebrities debuting NFT art in the coming weeks, but a more sober pullback in prices will probably give some of the NFT platforms that are serious about longevity a better chance to focus on the future and find out how they truly matter.

I spent the last couple weeks, chatting with a bunch of people in one particular community — one of the oldest active NFT communities on the web called CryptoPunks. It’s a platform with 10,000 unique 24×24 pixel portraits and they trade at truly wild prices.

I wrote about the history and legacy of CryptoPunks, a vibrant $200 million NFT marketplace built around trading pixelated characters. There are only 10,000 of them and owning the cheapest one will cost you about $30k. https://t.co/X4iTSl6FjC

— Lucas Matney (@lucasmtny) April 8, 2021

This picture sold for a $1.05 million.

I talked to a dozen or so people (including the guy who sold that one ^^) that had spent between tens of thousands and millions of dollars on these pixelated portraits, my goal being to tap into the psyche of what the hell is happening here. The takeaway is that these folks don’t see these assets as any more non-sensical than what’s going on in more traditional “old world” markets like public stock exchanges.

A telling quote from my reporting:

“Obviously this is a very speculative market… but it’s almost more honest than the stock market,” user Max Orgeldinger tells TechCrunch. “Kudos to Elon Musk — and I’m a big Tesla fan — but there are no fundamentals that support that stock price. It’s the same when you look at GameStop. With the whole NFT community, it’s almost more honest because nobody’s getting tricked into thinking there’s some very complicated math that no one can figure out. This is just people making up prices and if you want to pay it, that’s the price and if you don’t want to pay it, that’s not the price.”

Shortly after I published my piece, Christie’s announced that they were auctioning off nine of the CryptoPunks in an auction likely to fetch at least $10 million at current prices. The market surged in the aftermath and many millions worth of volume quickly moved through the marketplace minting more NFT millionaires.

Is this all just absolutely nuts? Sure.

Is it also a poignant picture of where alternative asset investing is at in 2021? You bet.

Read the full thing.


an illustration of a cardboard ballot box with an Amazon smile on the front

Other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

Amazon workers vote down union organization attempt
Amazon is breathing a sigh of relief after workers at their Bessemer, Alabama warehouse opted out of joining a union, lending a crushing defeat to labor activists who hoped that the high-profile moment would lead more Amazon workers to organize. The vote has been challenged, but the margin of victory seems fairly decisive.

Supreme court sides with Google in Oracle case
If any singular event impacted the web the most this week, it was the Supreme Court siding with Google in a very controversial lawsuit by Oracle that could’ve fundamentally shifted the future of software development.

Coinbase is making waves
The Coinbase direct listing is just around the corner and they’re showing off some of their financials. Turns out crypto has been kind of hot lately and they’re raking in the dough, with revenue of $1.8 billion this past quarter.

Apple share more about the future of user tracking
Apple is about to upend the ad-tracking market and they published some more details on what exactly their App Tracking Transparency feature is going to look like. Hint: more user control.

Consumers are spending lots of time in apps
A new report from mobile analytics firm App Annie suggests that we’re dumping more of our time into smartphone apps, with the average users spending 4.2 hours a day doing so, a 30 percent increase over two years.

Sonos perfects the bluetooth speaker
I’m a bit of an audio lover, which made my colleague Darrell’s review of the new Sonos Roam bluetooth speaker a must-read for me. He’s pretty psyched about it, even though it comes in at the higher-end of pricing for these devices, still I’m looking forward to hearing one with my own ears.


 

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:
The StockX EC-1
“StockX is a unique company at the nexus of two radical transitions that isn’t just redefining markets, but our culture as well. E-commerce upended markets, diminishing the physical experience by intermediating and aggregating buyers and sellers through digital platforms. At the same time, the internet created rapid new communication channels, allowing euphoria and desire to ricochet across society in a matter of seconds. In a world of plenty, some things are rare, and the hype around that rarity has never been greater. Together, these two trends demanded a stock market of hype, an opportunity that StockX has aggressively pursued.”

Building the right team for a billion-dollar startup
“I would really encourage you to take some time to think about what kind of company you want to make first before you go out and start interviewing people. So that really is going to be about understanding and defining your culture. And then the second thing I’d be thinking about when you’re scaling from, you know, five people up to, you know, 50 and beyond is that managers really are the key to your success as a company. It’s hard to overstate how important managers, great managers, are to the success of your company.

So you want to raise a Series A
“More companies will raise seed rounds than Series A rounds, simply due to the fact that many startups fail, and venture only makes sense for a small fraction of businesses out there. Every check is a new cycle of convincing and proving that you, as a startup, will have venture-scale returns. Moore explained that startups looking to move to their next round need to explain to investors why now is their moment.”

Until next week,
Lucas M.

And again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.

Quiq acquires Snaps to create a combined customer messaging platform

By Anthony Ha

At first glance, Quiq and Snaps might sound like similar startups — they both help businesses talk to their customers via text messaging and other messaging apps. But Snaps CEO Christian Brucculeri said “there’s almost no overlap in what we do” and that the companies are “almost complete complements.”

That’s why Quiq (based in Bozeman, Montana) is acquiring Snaps (based in New York). The entire Snaps team is joining Quiq, with Brucculeri becoming senior vice president of sales and customer success for the combined organization.

Quiq CEO Mike Myer echoed Bruccleri’s point, comparing the situation to dumping two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on the floor and discovering “the two pieces fit perfectly.”

More specifically, he told me that Quiq has generally focused on customer service messaging, with a “do it yourself, toolset approach.” After all, the company was founded by two technical co-founders, and Myer joked, “We can’t understand why [a customer] can’t just call an API.” Snaps, meanwhile, has focused more on marketing conversations, and on a managed service approach where it handles all of the technical work for its customers.

In addition, Myer said that while Quiq has “really focused on the platform aspect from beginning” — building integrations with more than a dozen messaging channels including Apple Business Chat, Google’s Business Messages, Instagram, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp — it doesn’t have “a deep natural language or conversational AI capability” the way Snaps does.

Myer said that demand for Quiq’s offering has been growing dramatically, with revenue up 300% year-over-year in the last six months of 2020. At the same time, he suggested that the divisions between marketing and customer service are beginning to dissolve, with service teams increasingly given sales goals, and “at younger, more commerce-focused organizations, they don’t have this differentiation between marketing and customer service” at all.

Apparently the two companies were already working together to create a combined offering for direct messaging on Instagram, which prompted broader discussions about how to bring the two products together. Moving forward, they will offer a combined platform for a variety of customers under the Quiq brand. (Quiq’s customers include Overstock.com, West Elm, Men’s Wearhouse and Brinks Home Security, while Snaps’ include Bryant, Live Nation, General Assembly, Clairol and Nioxin.) Brucculeri said this will give businesses one product to manage their conversations across “the full customer journey.”

“The key term you’re hearing is conversation,” Myer added. “It’s not about a ticket or a case or a question […] it’s an ongoing conversation.”

Snaps had raised $11.3 million in total funding from investors including Signal Peak Ventures. The financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed.

Sendbird raises $100M at a $1B+ valuation, says 150M+ users now interact using its chat and video APIs

By Ingrid Lunden

Messaging is the medium these days, and today a startup that has built an API to help others build text and video interactivity into their services is announcing a big round to continue scaling its business. Sendbird, a popular provider of chat, video and other interactive services to the likes of Reddit, Hinge, Paytm, Delivery Hero and hundreds of others by way of a few lines of code, has closed a round of $100 million, money that it plans to use to continue expanding the functionalities of its platform to meet our changing interactive times. Sendbird has confirmed that the funding values the company at $1.05 billion.

Today, customers collectively channel some 150 million users through Sendbird’s APIs to chat with each other and large groups of users over text and video, a figure that has seen a lot of growth in particular in the last year, where people were spending so much more time in front of screens as their primary interface to communicate with the world.

Sendbird already provides some services around that core functionality such as moderation and text search. John Kim, Sendbird’s CEO and founder, said that additional developments like moderation has seen a huge take-up, and services it plans to add into the mix include payments and logistics features, and that it is looking at adding in group audio conversations for customers to build their own Clubhouse clones.

“We are getting enquiries,” said Kim. “We will be setting it up in a personalized way. Voice chat has certainly picked up due to Clubhouse.”

The funding — oversubscribed, the company says — is being led by Steadfast Financial, with Softbank’s Vision Fund 2 also participating, along with previous backers ICONIQ Capital, Tiger Global Management, and Meritech Capital. It comes about two years after Sendbird closed its Series B at $102 million, and the startup appears to have nearly doubled its valuation since then: PitchBook estimates it was around $550 million in 2019.

That growth, in a sense, is not a surprise, given not just the climate right now for virtual interaction, but the fact that Sendbird itself has tripled the number of customers using its tools since 2019. The company, co-headquartered in Seoul, Korea and San Mateo, has now raised around $221 million.

The market that Sendbird has been pecking away at since being founded in 2013 is a hefty one.

Messaging apps have become a major digital force, with a small handful of companies overtaking (and taking on) the primary features found on the most basic of phones and finding traction with people by making them easier to use and full of more interesting features to use alongside the basic functionality. That in turn has led a wave of other companies to build in their own communications features, a way both to provide more community for their users, and to keep people on their own platforms in the process.

“It’s an arms race going on between messaging and payment apps,” Sid Suri, Sendbird’s marketing head, said to me in describing the competitive landscape. “There is a high degree of urgency among all businesses to say we don’t have to lose users to any of them. White label services like ours are powering the ability to keep up.”

Sendbird is indeed one of a wave of companies that have identified both that trend and the opportunity of building that functionality out as a commodity of sorts that can be embedded anywhere a developer chooses to place it by way of an API. It’s not the only one: others in the same space include publicly-listed Twilio, the similarly-named competitor MessageBird (which is also highly capitalised and has positioned itself as a consolidator in the space), PubNub, Sinch, Stream, Firebase and many more.

That competition is one reason why Sendbird has raised money. It gives it more capital to bring on more users, and critically to invest in building out more functionality alongside its core features, to address the needs of its existing users, and to discover new opportunities to provide them with features they perhaps didn’t know they needed in their messaging channels to keep users’ attention.

“We are doing a lot around transactions and payments, as well as logistics,” Kim said in an interview. “We are really building out the end to end experience [since that] really ties into engagement. A couple of new features will be heavily around transactions, and others will be around more engagement.”

Karan Mehandru, a partner at Steadfast, is joining the board with this round, and he believes that there remains a huge opportunity especially when you consider the many verticals that have yet to adopt solid and useful communications channels within their services, such as healthcare.

“The channel that Sendbird is leveraging is the next channel we have come to expect from all brands,” he said in an interview. “Sendbird may look the same as others but if you peel the onion, providing a scalable chat experience that is highly customized is a real problem to solve. Large customers think this is critical but not a core competence and then zoom back to Sendbird because they can’t do it. Sendbird is a clear leader. Sendbird is permeating many verticals and types of companies now. This is one of those rare companies that has been at the right place at the right time.”

Holler raises $36M to power ‘conversational media’ in your favorite apps

By Anthony Ha

Holler, described by founder and CEO Travis Montaque as “a conversational media company,” just announced that it’s raised $36 million in Series B funding.

You may not know what conversational media is, but there’s a decent chance you’ve used Holler’s technology. For example, if you’ve added a sticker or a GIF to your Venmo payments, Holler actually manages the app’s search and suggestion experience around that media. (You may notice a little “powered by Holler” identifier at the bottom of the window.)

Montaque told me the company started out initially as a news and video content app before focusing on messaging in 2016. Messaging, he argued, is “the most important experience for people online,” since “it’s where we communicate with the people who are closest to us.”

He continued, “It seemed bizarre that we haven’t seen much innovation in the text messaging experience since the first text message was sent in 1992.”

So Holler works with partners like PayPal-owned Venmo and The Meet Group to bring more compelling content into the messaging side of their apps — or as Montaque put it, the startup aims to “enrich conversations everywhere.”

Holler/Venmo screenshot

Image Credits: Holler

There’s both an art and a science to this, he said. The art involves creating and curating the best stickers and GIFs, while the science takes the form of Holler’s Suggestion AI technology, which will recommend the right content based on the user’s conversations and contexts — the stickers and GIFs you want to send in a dating app are probably different from what you’d in a work-related chat. Montaque said that this context-focused approach allows the company to provide smart recommendations in a way that also respects user privacy.

“I believe that the future is context, not identity,” he said. “Because I don’t really need to know about Anthony, I just need to know someone is in need of lunch. If I know you’re in the mood for Mexican food, I don’t need to know every aspect of the last 10 times you went to a Mexican restaurant.”

Holler monetizes this content by partnering with brands like HBO Max, Ikea and Starbucks to create branded stickers and GIFs that become part of the company’s content library. Montaque said the startup has also worked with brands to measure the impact of these campaigns across a variety of metrics.

Holler’s content now reaches 75 million users each month, compared to 19 million users a year ago, while revenue has grown 226%, he said. (Apparently, last year was the first time the company saw significant revenue growth.)

The startup has now raised more than $51 million in total funding. The Series B was co-led by CityRock Venture Partners and New General Market Partners, with participation from Gaingels, Interplay Ventures, Relevance Ventures, Towerview Ventures and WorldQuant Ventures.

“Holler is more than simply a groundbreaking technology company,” said CityRock Managing Partner Oliver Libby in a statement. “Under Travis Montaque’s visionary leadership, Holler boldly stands for a new era of ethics in social media, and also deeply reflects the values of diversity, inclusion, and belonging.”

Montaque (who, as a Black tech CEO, wrote a post for TechCrunch last year about bringing more diversity to the industry) said that Holler will use the funds to continue developing its product and advertising model. For one thing, he noted that although stickers and GIFs were an obvious starting point, the company is now looking to explore and create new media formats.

“We want to invent a new kind of content consumption paradigm,” he said.

Update: Telegram raises $1BN+, including $150M from Mubadala and Abu Dhabi CP via pre-IPO convertible bonds

By Natasha Lomas

Update: Telegram has now announced it’s pulled in over $1BN in debt financing by selling bonds.

Founder Pavel Durov put out an update via his official Telegram channel after a press announcement earlier today had revealed the company had taken in $150M from Mubadala and Abu Dhabi Catalyst Partners by selling 5-year pre-IPO convertible bonds.

It’s not clear where the additional millions in debt funding are coming from — Durov merely writes that Telegram has sold bonds to “some of the largest and most knowledgable investors from all over the world”.

“This will enable Telegram to continue growing globally while sticking to its values and remaining independent,” he goes on, adding that the $1BN debt cushion will also be used to implement a monetization strategy he set out in December — when Durov wrote that “a project of our size needs at least a few hundred million dollars per year to keep going”.

He also committed not to sell Telegram, reiterating then that he wants it to remain independent.

Monetization would be non-intrusive, he pledged too, saying any future move to monetize large one-to-many channels through ads would see benefits flow back to the community — such as in the form of “free traffic in proportion to their size” — while future content sales (like premium stickers) would also entail contributing artists getting “a part of the profit”. “We want millions of Telegram-based creators and small businesses to thrive, enriching the experience of all our users,” was Durov’s pledge in December.

Now he’s got the debt war chest to execute the plan.

Our original report follows below… 

Messaging platform Telegram, which recently passed 500 million monthly active users but still isn’t monetizing all the digital chatter it hosts — has taken in a little more funding to keep its engines ticking over.

Mubadala Investment Company, the Abu Dhabi-based sovereign investor, is throwing in $75M in exchange for 5-year pre-IPO convertible bonds of Telegram — with Abu Dhabi Catalyst Partners investing a further $75M, the pair said today in a press release.

The investment is touted as a strategic partnership, with Mubadala anticipating benefits for Abu Dhabi’s startup ecosystem by having a local Telegram presence drawing in skills and talent to the capital.

Per Reuters Telegram will be opening an office in Abu Dhabi following the investment — building out its regional presence from a Dubai, UAE base.

Commenting in a statement, Pavel Durov, Telegram founder and CEO, said: “We are honoured by the $150M investment into Telegram from Mubadala and Abu Dubai Catalyst Partners. We look forward to developing this strategic partnership to continue our growth in the MENA region and globally.”

To date, Telegram has been bankrolled over a seven+ year lifespan by Durov, who made ~$300M from selling his stake in the vk social network he also founded — aka Russia’s ‘Facebook’ — back in 2015.

But sustaining a messaging platform with half a billion users can’t be done through billionaire bootstrapping alone.

Some additional investment did come in via Telegram’s recent attempt to launch a blockchain platform. However the effort was derailed by US regulators last year — forcing it to refund most (but not all) of the money it had booked for the failed TON platform — so speculation over how Telegram will monetize its platform goes on.

In recent weeks Durov has responded to this chatter via his public Telegram channel to confirm he’s considering introducing ads for “large one-to-many channels” — but pledging he won’t do so in chats.

He has also rejected the notion of using user data to target ads — a move that would undermine the loud privacy promises Telegram repeatedly makes to users to put clear blue water between its platform and the (Facebook-owned) data-mining competition.

“Users will be able to opt out of ads, but I do think that privacy-conscious ads are a good way for channel owners to monetize their efforts — as an alternative to donations or subscriptions, which we are also working to offer them,” Durov wrote last month.

Telegram’s usage has, meanwhile, continued to swell this year — boosted by users switching from Facebook-owned WhatsApp over privacy concerns. So there’s limited room for copycat monetization, unless Durov is willing to trash his personal ‘pro-privacy, pro-user’ brand. To say that’s highly unlikely is an understatement.

Nonetheless, he has further limited his options by rejecting a series of investment offers in recent months.

A report in Russian press earlier this year said he’d rejected an investment offer for a 5%-10% stake in the company that had valued it at $30BN. We’ve also been told he rejected a higher offer that had valued Telegram at $35BN — and another of $4BN at a $40BN pre-money valuation.

“Durov is afraid of investors of any kind,” one source told us on why he refused to give up any equity.

Debt financing seems to be Telegram’s preferred route at this stage. Back in January The Information reported that it was discussing raising up to $1BN in debt financing from with banks and investors — which would convert to shares in an eventual public offering.

That debt route — via pre-IPO convertible bonds — is now taking shape with today’s investment news out of Abu Dhabi. Although $150M is a lot less than the rumoured $1BN so this may be just an initial tranche. (And may in fact be needed to pay back TON investors’ whose refunds are falling due.)

But with a couple of debt backers sticking their necks out to take a punt on Durov’s anti-establishment alternative — and on the chance of an Telegram IPO by 2026 — the company is in a better position to get buy in from other debt funders, including in the region as it deepens its geographical commitment to the Middle East.

One key attraction for Telegram backers is likely to be its agile product dev. There Durov has repeatedly shown he can deliver — growing usage of his platform with the help of a steady pipeline of user-focused features.

Efforts on the product side at this stage look geared towards pivoting into a Patreon-style platform for content creators to build communities of followers willing to pay for their content (which would thereby enable Telegram to monetize by taking a cut as commission).

“Our end goal is to establish a new class of content creators — one that is financially sustainable and free to choose the strategy that is best for their subscribers,” wrote Durov last month. “Traditional social networks have exploited users and publishers for far too long with excessive data collection and manipulative algorithms. It’s time to change this.”

Just over a month later his channel lit up again with more product news — this time capitalizing on the buzz around social audio with the announcement of the launch of a Clubhouse-clone on Telegram channels dubbed “voice chats 2.0”.

He also announced feature that lets admins of channels and public groups host voice chats for millions of live listeners — taking the cap off the earlier feature. “No matter how popular your talk gets, new people will be able to tune in. It’s like public radio reinvented fo the 21st century,” Telegram’s blog post enthused.

Durov had more developments to tease: One-to-many video broadcasts that will see the platform let users host their own ‘TV stations’ which he said will be coming this “spring”. So Telegram continues to evolve as the social app landscape shifts.

Commenting on the debt financing in a statement, James Munce, CFO and COO of Abu Dhabi Catalyst Partners (ADCP), lauded Telegram’s management team’s “unshakeable dedication to building a platform centred around privacy and user experience”.

“We believe this creates a strong value proposition and will be a focal point for social media platforms and a new era of messaging,” he added.


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

By Sarah Perez

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: WhatsApp

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

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

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

Image Credits: WhatsApp

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

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

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

Image Credits: WhatsApp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Sarah Perez

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Beeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Beeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Rita Liao

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter’s decentralized future

By Lucas Matney

This week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey finally responded publicly to the company’s decision to ban President Trump from its platform, writing that Twitter had “faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance” and that he did not “feel pride” about the decision. In the same thread, he took time to call out a nascent Twitter-sponsored initiative called “bluesky,” which is aiming to build up an “open decentralized standard for social media” that Twitter is just one part of.

Researchers involved with bluesky reveal to TechCrunch an initiative still in its earliest stages that could fundamentally shift the power dynamics of the social web.

Bluesky is aiming to build a “durable” web standard that will ultimately ensure that platforms like Twitter have less centralized responsibility in deciding which users and communities have a voice on the internet. While this could protect speech from marginalized groups, it may also upend modern moderation techniques and efforts to prevent online radicalization.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive officer of Twitter Inc., arrives after a break during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Republicans pressed Dorsey for what they said may be the “shadow-banning” of conservatives during the hearing. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What is bluesky?

Just as Bitcoin lacks a central bank to control it, a decentralized social network protocol operates without central governance, meaning Twitter would only control its own app built on bluesky, not other applications on the protocol. The open and independent system would allow applications to see, search and interact with content across the entire standard. Twitter hopes that the project can go far beyond what the existing Twitter API offers, enabling developers to create applications with different interfaces or methods of algorithmic curation, potentially paying entities across the protocol like Twitter for plug-and-play access to different moderation tools or identity networks.

A widely adopted, decentralized protocol is an opportunity for social networks to “pass the buck” on moderation responsibilities to a broader network, one person involved with the early stages of bluesky suggests, allowing individual applications on the protocol to decide which accounts and networks its users are blocked from accessing.

Social platforms like Parler or Gab could theoretically rebuild their networks on bluesky, benefitting from its stability and the network effects of an open protocol. Researchers involved are also clear that such a system would also provide a meaningful measure against government censorship and protect the speech of marginalized groups across the globe.

Bluesky’s current scope is firmly in the research phase, people involved tell TechCrunch, with about 40-50 active members from different factions of the decentralized tech community surveying the software landscape and putting together proposals for what the protocol should ultimately look like. Twitter has told early members that it hopes to hire a project manager in the coming weeks to build out an independent team that will start crafting the protocol itself.

A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment on the initiative.

Bluesky’s initial members were invited by Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal early last year. It was later determined that the group should open the conversation up to folks representing some of the more recognizable decentralized network projects, including Mastodon and ActivityPub, which joined the working group hosted on the secure chat platform Element.

Jay Graber, founder of decentralized social platform Happening, was paid by Twitter to write up a technical review of the decentralized social ecosystem, an effort to “help Twitter evaluate the existing options in the space,” she tells TechCrunch.

“If [Twitter] wanted to design this thing, they could have just assigned a group of guys to do it, but there’s only one thing that this little tiny group of people could do better than Twitter, and that’s not be Twitter,” said Golda Velez, another member of the group who works as a senior software engineer at Postmates and co-founded civ.works, a privacy-centric social network for civic engagement.

The group has had some back and forth with Twitter executives on the scope of the project, eventually forming a Twitter-approved list of goals for the initiative. They define the challenges that the bluesky protocol should seek to address while also laying out what responsibilities are best left to the application creators building on the standard.

Parrot.VC Twitter account

Image: TechCrunch

Who is involved

The pain points enumerated in the document, viewed by TechCrunch, encapsulate some of Twitter’s biggest shortcomings. They include “how to keep controversy and outrage from hijacking virality mechanisms,” as well as a desire to develop “customizable mechanisms” for moderation, though the document notes that the applications, not the overall protocol, are “ultimately liable for compliance, censorship, takedowns etc.”

“I think the solution to the problem of algorithms isn’t getting rid of algorithms — because sorting posts chronologically is an algorithm — the solution is to make it an open pluggable system by which you can go in and try different algorithms and see which one suits you or use the one that your friends like,” says Evan Henshaw-Plath, another member of the working group. He was one of Twitter’s earliest employees and has been building out his own decentralized social platform called Planetary.

His platform is based on the secure scuttlebutt protocol, which allows users to browse networks offline in an encrypted fashion. Early on, Planetary had been in talks with Twitter for a corporate investment as well as a personal investment from CEO Jack Dorsey, Henshaw-Plath says, but the competitive nature of the platform prompted some concern among Twitter’s lawyers and Planetary ended up receiving an investment from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s venture fund Future Positive. Stone did not respond to interview requests.

After agreeing on goals, Twitter had initially hoped for the broader team to arrive at some shared consensus, but starkly different viewpoints within the group prompted Twitter to accept individual proposals from members. Some pushed Twitter to outright adopt or evolve an existing standard while others pushed for bluesky to pursue interoperability of standards early on and see what users naturally flock to.

One of the developers in the group hoping to bring bluesky onto their standard was Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko, who tells TechCrunch he sees the need for a major shift in how social media platforms operate globally.

“Banning Trump was the right decision though it came a little bit too late. But at the same time, the nuance of the situation is that maybe it shouldn’t be a single American company that decides these things,” Rochko tells us.

Like several of the other members in the group, Rochko has been skeptical at times about Twitter’s motivation with the bluesky protocol. Shortly after Dorsey’s initial announcement in 2019, Mastodon’s official Twitter account tweeted out a biting critique, writing, “This is not an announcement of reinventing the wheel. This is announcing the building of a protocol that Twitter gets to control, like Google controls Android.”

Today, Mastodon is arguably one of the most mature decentralized social platforms. Rochko claims that the network of decentralized nodes has more than 2.3 million users spread across thousands of servers. In early 2017, the platform had its viral moment on Twitter, prompting an influx of “hundreds of thousands” of new users alongside some inquisitive potential investors whom Rochko has rebuffed in favor of a donation-based model.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Inherent risks

Not all of the attention Rochko has garnered has been welcome. In 2019, Gab, a social network favored by right-wing extremists, brought its entire platform onto the Mastodon network after integrating the platform’s open-source code, bringing Mastodon its single biggest web of users and its most undesirable liability all at once.

Rochko quickly disavowed the network and aimed to sever its ties to other nodes on the Mastodon platform and convince application creators to do the same. But a central fear of decentralization advocates was quickly realized, as the platform type’s first “success story” was a home for right-wing extremists.

This fear has been echoed in decentralized communities this week as app store owners and networks have taken another right-wing social network, Parler, off the web after violent content surfaced on the site in the lead-up to and aftermath of riots at the U.S. Capitol, leaving some developers fearful that the social network may set up home on their decentralized standard.

“Fascists are 100% going to use peer-to-peer technologies, they already are and they’re going to start using it more… If they get pushed off of mainstream infrastructure or people are surveilling them really closely, they’re going to have added motivation,” said Emmi Bevensee, a researcher studying extremist presences on decentralized networks. “Maybe the far-right gets stronger footholds on peer-to-peer before the people who think the far-right is bad do because they were effectively pushed off.”

A central concern is that commoditizing decentralized platforms through efforts like bluesky will provide a more accessible route for extremists kicked off current platforms to maintain an audience and provide casual internet users a less janky path towards radicalization.

“Peer-to-peer technology is generally not that seamless right now. Some of it is; you can buy Bitcoin in Cash App now, which, if anything, is proof that this technology is going to become much more mainstream and adoption is going to become much more seamless,” Bevensee told TechCrunch. “In the current era of this mass exodus from Parler, they’re obviously going to lose a huge amount of audience that isn’t dedicated enough to get on IPFS. Scuttlebutt is a really cool technology but it’s not as seamless as Twitter.”

Extremists adopting technologies that promote privacy and strong encryption is far from a new phenomenon, encrypted chat apps like Signal and Telegram have been at the center of such controversies in recent years. Bevensee notes the tendency of right-wing extremist networks to adopt decentralized network tech has been “extremely demoralizing” to those early developer communities — though she notes that the same technologies can and do benefit “marginalized people all around the world.”

Though people connected to bluesky’s early moves see a long road ahead for the protocol’s development and adoption, they also see an evolving landscape with Parler and President Trump’s recent deplatforming that they hope will drive other stakeholders to eventually commit to integrating with the standard.

“Right at this moment I think that there’s going to be a lot of incentive to adopt, and I don’t just mean by end users, I mean by platforms, because Twitter is not the only one having these really thorny moderation problems,” Velez says. “I think people understand that this is a critical moment.”

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