2022 could be an exciting year for Android fans, as a new rumor suggests OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei is creating a 'Nothing' smartphone. Any longtime OnePlus followers will know the company has taken a few big shifts in recent years. While OnePlus started out as an enthusiast brand focused on big specs and low prices, it's in a very different place today. Carl Pei left the company in October 2020, OnePlus is preparing to merge its OxygenOS platform with Oppo's ColorOS, and its product lineup is now very reminiscent of any other major smartphone brand.
Shortly after departing OnePlus last year, Carl Pei announced his own tech company called 'Nothing.' Nothing's first product ended up being a pair of true wireless earbuds — called the Nothing Ear (1). The earbuds didn't receive perfect reviews, but they were mostly praised for delivering good audio, a stunning design, and a competitive price. Now, Nothing is getting ready to set its sights on something much bigger.
According to a new report from 91Mobiles, Nothing is preparing to launch its first Android-powered smartphone in early 2022. The report doesn't go into great detail about the device, simply stating that the site has "exclusively learned from noted tipster Mukul Sharma that Nothing will launch its first phone." It's also teased that Nothing will release the Nothing Power (1) battery bank "in the next few weeks," but all attention is obviously on the rumored smartphone.
Although this report doesn't share any concrete details about the Nothing phone, it's not hard to imagine what it could entail. If the Ear (1) earbuds are any indication of Nothing's hardware ambitions, a phone from the company could be really beautiful. Nothing's earbuds are lightweight, comfy to wear, and their transparent design with neatly packed internals is beyond impressive. If Nothing's phone manages to offer that same mix of practicality with a unique aesthetic, it could have a strong design lead over much of the competition. It's also safe to assume the Android experience of the Nothing phone would be reminiscent of the old OxygenOS — that's to say, a stock-like interface, robust customization options, and select few feature add-ons to keep it lightweight.
It's certainly fun to speculate about Carl Pei returning to the smartphone space, but how much weight does this rumor actually carry? There's actually a bit to it. Don't forget that Nothing acquired Essential back in February — a purchase that included all of the latter company's trademarks, logos, and other branding material. While Essential was short-lived, the Essential PH1 was a pretty solid Android handset. The company also teased its Project GEM successor in late 2019, though it was ultimately scrapped following Essential's quick demise. Nothing also announced earlier this week a $50 million partnership with Qualcomm. In a press release, Nothing says the funds will be used for "research and development in preparation for the brand’s entry into new product categories as part of its ecosystem."
It's entirely possible this report is inaccurate and a Nothing smartphone doesn't exist. However, all signs are currently pointing to the opposite being true. If the rumored Nothing phone is real, 91Mobiles says to expect "teasers and reports" coming in the next few weeks.
If you use an Android phone and are (rightfully!) worried about digital privacy, you’ve probably taken care of the basics already. You’ve deleted the snoopiest of the snoopy apps, opted out of tracking whenever possible, and taken all of the other precautions the popular how-to privacy guides have told you to. The bad news—and you might want to sit down for this—is that none of those steps are enough to be fully free of trackers.
Or at least, that’s the thrust of a new paper from researchers at Trinity College in Dublin who took a look at the data-sharing habits of some popular variants of Android’s OS, including those developed by Samsung, Xiaomi, and Huawei. According to the researchers, “with little configuration” right out of the box and when left sitting idle, these devices would incessantly ping back device data to the OS’s developers and a slew of selected third parties. And what’s worse is that there’s often no way to opt out of this data-pinging, even if users want to.
A lot of the blame here, as the researchers point out, fall on so-called “system apps.” These are apps that come pre-installed by the hardware manufacturer on a certain device in order to offer a certain kind of functionality: a camera or messages app are examples. Android generally packages these apps into what’s known as the device’s “read only memory” (ROM), which means you can’t delete or modify these apps without, well, rooting your device. And until you do, the researchers found they were constantly sending device data back to their parent company and more than a few third parties—even if you never opened the app at all.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you own a Samsung device that happens to be packaged with some Microsoft bloatware pre-installed, including (ugh) LinkedIn. Even though there’s a good chance you’ll never open LinkedIn for any reason, that hard-coded app is constantly pinging back to Microsoft’s servers with details about your device. In this case, it’s so-called “telemetry data,” which includes details like your device’s unique identifier, and the number of Microsoft apps you have installed on your phone. This data also gets shared with any third-party analytics providers these apps might have plugged in, which typically means Google, since Google Analytics is the reigning king of all the analytics tools out there.
As for the hard-coded apps that you might actually open every once in a while, even more data gets sent with every interaction. The researchers caught Samsung Pass, for example, sharing details like timestamps detailing when you were using the app, and for how long, with Google Analytics. Ditto for Samsung’s Game Launcher, and every time you pull up Samsung’s virtual assistant, Bixby.
Samsung isn’t alone here, of course. The Google messaging app that comes pre-installed on phones from Samsung competitor Xiaomi was caught sharing timestamps from every user interaction with Google Analytics, along with logs of every time that user sent a text. Huawei devices were caught doing the same. And on devices where Microsoft’s SwiftKey came pre-installed, logs detailing every time the keyboard was used in another app or elsewhere on the device were shared with Microsoft, instead.
We’ve barely scratched the surface here when it comes to what each app is doing on every device these researchers looked into, which is why you should check out the paper or, better yet, check out our handy guide on spying on Android’s data-sharing practices yourself. But for the most part, you’re going to see data being shared that looks pretty, well, boring: event logs, details about your device’s hardware (like model and screen size), along with some sort of identifier, like a phone’s hardware serial number and mobile ad identifier, or “AdID.”
On their own, none of these data points can identify your phone as uniquely yours, but taken together, they form a unique “fingerprint” that can be used to track your device, even if you try to opt out. The researchers point out that while Android’s advertising ID is technically resettable, the fact that apps are usually getting it bundled with more permanent identifiers means that these apps—and whatever third parties they’re working with—will know who you are anyway. The researchers found this was the case with some of the other resettable IDs offered by Samsung, Xiaomi, Realme, and Huawei.
To its credit, Google does have a few developer rules meant to hinder particularly invasive apps. It tells devs that they can’t connect a device’s unique ad ID with something more persistent (like that device’s IMEI, for example) for any sort of ad-related purpose. And while analytics providers are allowed to do that linking, they can only do it with a user’s “explicit consent.”
“If reset, a new advertising identifier must not be connected to a previous advertising identifier or data derived from a previous advertising identifier without the explicit consent of the user,” Google explains on a separate page detailing these dev policies. “You must abide by a user’s ‘Opt out of Interest-based Advertising’ or ‘Opt out of Ads Personalization’ setting. If a user has enabled this setting, you may not use the advertising identifier for creating user profiles for advertising purposes or for targeting users with personalized advertising.”
It’s worth pointing out that Google puts no rules on whether developers can collect this information, just what they’re allowed to do with it after it’s collected. And because these are pre-installed apps that are often stuck on your phone, the researchers found that they were often allowed to side-step user’s privacy explicit opt-out settings by just... chugging along in the background, regardless of whether or not that user opened them. And with no easy way to delete them, that data collection’s going to keep on happening (and keep on happening) until that phone’s owner either gets creative with rooting or throws their device into the ocean.
Google, when asked about this un-opt-out-able data collection by the folks over at BleepingComputer, responded that this is simply “how modern smartphones work”:
As explained in our Google Play Services Help Center article, this data is essential for core device services such as push notifications and software updates across a diverse ecosystem of devices and software builds. For example, Google Play services uses data on certified Android devices to support core device features. Collection of limited basic information, such as a device’s IMEI, is necessary to deliver critical updates reliably across Android devices and apps.
Which sounds logical and reasonable, but the study itself proves that it’s not the whole story. As part of the study, the team looked into a device outfitted with /e/OS, a privacy-focused open-source operating system that’s been pitched as a “deGoogled” version of Android. This system swaps Android’s baked-in apps—including the Google Play store—with free and open source equivalents that users can access with no Google account required. And wouldn’t you know it, when these devices were left idle, they sent “no information to Google or other third parties,” and “essentially no information” to /e/’s devs themselves.
In other words, this aforementioned tracking hellscape is clearly only inevitable if you feel like Google’s presence on your phones is inevitable, too. Let’s be honest here—it kind of is for most Android users. So what’s a Samsung user to do, besides, y’know, get tracked?
Well, you can get lawmakers to care, for starters. The privacy laws we have on the books today—like GDPR in the EU, and the CCPA in the U.S.—are almost exclusively built to address the way tech companies handle identifiable forms of data, like your name and address. So-called “anonymous” data, like your device’s hardware specs or ad ID, typically falls through the cracks in these laws, even though they can typically be used to identify you regardless. And if we can’t successfully demand an overhaul of our country’s privacy laws, then maybe one of the many massive antitrust suits Google’s staring down right now will eventually get the company to put a cap in some of these invasive practices.
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.
— 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.
— 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.
TheCut, a technology platform designed to handle back-end operations for barbers, raised $4.5 million in new funding.
Nextgen Venture Partners led the round and was joined by Elevate Ventures, Singh Capital and Leadout Capital. The latest funding gives theCut $5.35 million in total funding since the company was founded in 2016, founder Obi Omile Jr. told TechCrunch.
Omile and Kush Patel created the mobile app that provides information and reviews on barbers for potential customers while also managing appointments, mobile payments and pricing on the back end for barbers.
“Kush and I both had terrible experiences with haircuts, and decided to build an app to help find good barbers,” Omile said. “We found there were great barbers, but no way to discover them. You can do a Google search, but it doesn’t list the individual barber. With theCut, you can discover an individual barber and discover if they are a great fit for you and won’t screw up your hair.”
The app also enables barbers, perhaps for the first time, to have a list of clients and keep notes and photos of hair styles, as well as track visits and spending. By providing payments, barbers can also leverage digital trends to provide additional services and extras to bring in more revenue. On the customer side, there is a search function with barber profile, photos of their work, ratings and reviews, a list of service offerings and pricing.
Omile said there are 400,000 to 600,000 barbers in the U.S., and it is one of the fastest-growth markets. As a result, the new funding will be used to hire additional talent, marketing and to grow the business across the country.
“We’ve gotten to a place where we are hitting our stride and seeing business catapulting, so we are in hiring mode,” he added.
Indeed, the company generated more than $500 million in revenue for barbers since its launch and is adding over 100,000 users each month. In addition, the app averages 1.5 million appointment bookings each month.
Next up, Omile wants to build out some new features like a digital store and the ability to process more physical payments by rolling out a card reader for in-person payments. TheCut will also focus on enabling barbers to have more personal relationships with their customers.
“We are building software to empower people to be the best version of themselves, in this case barbers,” he added. “The relationship with customers is an opportunity for the barber to make specific recommendations on products and create a grooming experience.”
As part of the investment, Leadout founder and managing partner Ali Rosenthal joined the company’s board of directors. She said Omile and Patel are the kind of founders that venture capitalists look for — experts in their markets and data-driven technologists.
“They had done so much with so little by the time we met them,” Rosenthal added. “They are creating a passionate community and set of modern, tech-driven features that are tailored to the needs of their customers.”
The FBI has warned that the Chinese government is using both in-person and digital techniques to intimidate, silence and harass U.S.-based Uyghur Muslims.
The Chinese government has long been accused of human rights abuses over its treatment of the Uyghur population and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in China’s Xinjiang region. More than a million Uyghurs have been detained in internment camps, according to a United Nations human rights committee, and many other Uyghurs have been targeted and hacked by state-backed cyberattacks. China has repeatedly denied the claims.
In recent months, the Chinese government has become increasingly aggressive in its efforts to shut down foreign critics, including those based in the United States and other Western democracies. These efforts have now caught the attention of the FBI.
In an unclassified bulletin, the FBI warned that officials are using transnational repression — a term that refers to foreign government transgression of national borders through physical and digital means to intimidate or silence members of diaspora and exile communities — in an attempt to compel compliance from U.S.-based Uyghurs and other Chinese refugees and dissidents, including Tibetans, Falun Gong members, and Taiwan and Hong Kong activists.
“Threatened consequences for non-compliance routinely include detainment of a U.S.-based person’s family or friends in China, seizure of China-based assets, sustained digital and in-person harassment, Chinese government attempts to force repatriation, computer hacking and digital attacks, and false representation online,” the FBI bulletin warns.
The bulletin was reported by video surveillance news site IPVM.
The FBI highlighted four instances of U.S.-based individuals facing harassment. In one case from June, the Chinese government imprisoned dozens of family members of six U.S.-based Uyghur journalists in retaliation for their continued reporting on China and its repression of Uyghurs for the U.S. government-funded news service Radio Free Asia. The bulletin said that between 2019 and March 2021, Chinese officials used WeChat to call and text a U.S.-based Uyghur to discourage her from publicly discussing Uyghur mistreatment. Members of this person’s family were later detained in Xinjiang detention camps.
“The Chinese government continues to conduct this activity, even as the U.S. government has sanctioned Chinese officials and increased public and diplomatic messaging to counter China’s human rights and democratic abuses in Xinjiang over the past year,” the FBI states. “This transnational repression activity violates US laws and individual rights.
The FBI has urged U.S. law enforcement personnel, as well as members of the public, to report any suspected incidents of Chinese government harassment.
Europe’s top court has dealt another blow to ‘zero rating’ — ruling for a second time that the controversial carrier practice goes against the European Union’s rules on open Internet access.
‘Zero rating’ refers to commercial offers that can be made by mobile network operators to entice customers by excluding the data consumption of certain (often popular) apps from a user’s tariff.
The practice is controversial because it goes against the ‘level playing field’ principle of the open Internet (aka ‘net neutrality’).
EU legislators passed the bloc’s first set of open Internet/net neutrality rules back in 2015 — with the law coming into application in 2016 — but critics warned at the time over vague provisions in the regulation which they suggested could be used by carriers to undermine the core fairness principle of treating all Internet traffic the same.
Some regional telcos have continued to put out zero rating offers — which has led to a number of challenges to test the robustness of the law. But the viability of zero rating within the EU must now be in doubt given the double slap-down by the CJEU.
In its first major decision last year — relating to a challenge against Telenor in Hungary — the court found that commercial use of zero rating was liable to limit the exercise of end users’ rights within the meaning of the regulation.
Its ruling today — which relates to a challenge against zero rating by Vodafone and Telekom Deutschland in Germany (this time with a roaming component) — comes to what looks like an even clearer conclusion, with the court giving the practice very short shrift indeed.
“By today’s judgments, the Court of Justice notes that a ‘zero tariff’ option, such as those at issue in the main proceedings, draws a distinction within internet traffic, on the basis of commercial considerations, by not counting towards the basic package traffic to partner applications. Such a commercial practice is contrary to the general obligation of equal treatment of traffic, without discrimination or interference, as required by the regulation on open internet access,” it writes in a (notably brief) press release summarizing the judgement.
“Since those limitations on bandwidth, tethering or on use when roaming apply only on account of the activation of the ‘zero tariff’ option, which is contrary to the regulation on open internet access, they are also incompatible with EU law,” it added.
We’ve reached out to Vodafone and Telekom Deutschland for comment on the ruling.
In a statement welcoming the CJEU’s decision, the European consumer protection association BEUC’s senior digital policy officer, Maryant Fernández Pérez, subbed the ruling “very positive news for consumers and those who want the internet to stay open to all”.
“When companies like Vodafone use these ‘zero tariff’ rates, they essentially lock-in consumers and limit what the Internet can offer to them. Zero-rating is detrimental to consumer choice, competition, innovation, media diversity and freedom of information,” she added.
If the past 18 months is any indication, the nature of the workplace is changing. And while Box and Zoom already have integrations together, it makes sense for them to continue to work more closely.
Their newest collaboration is the Box app for Zoom, a new type of in-product integration that allows users to bring apps into a Zoom meeting to provide the full Box experience.
While in Zoom, users can securely and directly access Box to browse, preview and share files from Zoom — even if they are not taking part in an active meeting. This new feature follows a Zoom integration Box launched last year with its “Recommended Apps” section that enables access to Zoom from Box so that workflows aren’t disrupted.
The companies’ chief product officers, Diego Dugatkin with Box and Oded Gal with Zoom, discussed with TechCrunch why seamless partnerships like these are a solution for the changing workplace.
With digitization happening everywhere, an integration of “best-in-breed” products for collaboration is essential, Dugatkin said. Not only that, people don’t want to be moving from app to app, instead wanting to stay in one environment.
“It’s access to content while never having to leave the Zoom platform,” he added.
It’s also access to content and contacts in different situations. When everyone was in an office, meeting at a moment’s notice internally was not a challenge. Now, more people are understanding the value of flexibility, and both Gal and Dugatkin expect that spending some time at home and some time in the office will not change anytime soon.
As a result, across the spectrum of a company, there is an increasing need for allowing and even empowering people to work from anywhere, Dugatkin said. That then leads to a conversation about sharing documents in a secure way for companies, which this collaboration enables.
The new Box and Zoom integration enables meeting in a hybrid workplace: chat, video, audio, computers or mobile devices, and also being able to access content from all of those methods, Gal said.
“Companies need to be dynamic as people make the decision of how they want to work,” he added. “The digital world is providing that flexibility.”
This long-term partnership is just scratching the surface of the continuous improvement the companies have planned, Dugatkin said.
Dugatkin and Gal expect to continue offering seamless integration before, during and after meetings: utilizing Box’s cloud storage, while also offering the ability for offline communication between people so that they can keep the workflow going.
“As Diego said about digitization, we are seeing continuous collaboration enhanced with the communication aspect of meetings day in and day out,” Gal added. “Being able to connect between asynchronous and synchronous with Zoom is addressing the future of work and how it is shaping where we go in the future.”
Over the previous two or three years we’ve seen an explosion of new debit and credit card products come to market from consumer and B2B fintech startups, as well as companies that we might not traditionally think of as players in the financial services industry.
On the consumer side, that means companies like Venmo or PayPal offering debit cards as a new way for users to spend funds in their accounts. In the B2B space, the availability of corporate card issuing by startups like Brex and Ramp has ushered in new expense and spend management options. And then there is the growth of branded credit and debit cards among brands and sports teams.
But if your company somehow hasn’t yet found its way to launch a debit or credit card, we have good news: It’s easier than ever to do so and there’s actual money to be made. Just know that if you do, you’ve got plenty of competition and that actual customer usage will probably depend on how sticky your service is and how valuable the rewards are that you offer to your most active users.
To learn more about launching a card product, TechCrunch spoke with executives from Marqeta, Expensify, Synctera and Cardless about the pros and cons of launching a card product. So without further ado, here are all the reasons you should think about doing so, and one big reason why you might not want to.
Probably the biggest reason we’ve seen so many new fintech and non-fintech companies rush to offer debit and credit cards to customers is simply that it’s easier than ever for them to do so. The launch and success of businesses like Marqeta has made card issuance by API developer friendly, which lowered the barrier to entry significantly over the last half-decade.
“The reason why this is happening is because the ‘fintech 1.0 infrastructure’ has succeeded,” Salman Syed, Marqeta’s SVP and GM of North America, said. “When you’ve got companies like [ours] out there, it’s just gotten a lot easier to be able to put a card product out.”
While noting that there have been good options for card issuance and payment processing for at least the last five or six years, Expensify Chief Operating Officer Anu Muralidharan said that a proliferation of technical resources for other pieces of fintech infrastructure has made the process of greenlighting a card offering much easier over the years.
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.
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YouTravel.Me is the latest startup to grab some venture capital dollars as the travel industry gets back on its feet amid the global pandemic.
Over the past month, we’ve seen companies like Thatch raise $3 million for its platform aimed at travel creators, travel tech company Hopper bring in $175 million, Wheel the World grab $2 million for its disability-friendly vacation planner, Elude raise $2.1 million to bring spontaneous travel back to a hard-hit industry and Wanderlog bag $1.5 million for its free travel itinerary platform.
Today YouTravel.Me joins them after raising $1 million to continue developing its online platform designed for matching like-minded travelers to small-group adventures organized by travel experts. Starta VC led the round and was joined by Liqvest.com, Mission Gate and a group of individual investors like Bas Godska, general partner at Acrobator Ventures.
Olga Bortnikova, her husband Ivan Bortnikov and Evan Mikheev founded the company in Europe three years ago. The idea for the company came to Bortnikova and Bortnikov when a trip to China went awry after a tour operator sold them a package where excursions turned out to be trips to souvenir shops. One delayed flight and other mishaps along the way, and the pair went looking for better travel experiences and a way to share them with others. When they couldn’t find what they were looking for, they decided to create it themselves.
“It’s hard for adults to make friends, but when you are on a two-week trip with just 15 people in a group, you form a deep connection, share the same language and experiences,” Bortnikova told TechCrunch. “That’s our secret sauce — we want to make a connection.”
Much like a dating app, the YouTravel.Me’s algorithms connect travelers to trips and getaways based on their interests, values and past experiences. Matched individuals can connect with each via chat or voice, work with a travel expert and complete their reservations. They also have a BeGuide offering for travel experts to do research and create itineraries.
Since 2018, CEO Bortnikova said that YouTravel.Me has become the top travel marketplace in Eastern Europe, amassing over 15,900 tours in 130 countries and attracting over 10,000 travelers and 4,200 travel experts to the platform. It was starting to branch out to international sales in 2020 when the global pandemic hit.
“Sales and tourism crashed down, and we didn’t know what to do,” she said. “We found that we have more than 4,000 travel experts on our site and they feel lonely because the pandemic was a test of the industry. We understood that and built a community and educational product for them on how to build and scale their business.”
After a McKinsey study showed that adventure travel was recovering faster than other sectors of the industry, the founders decided to go after that market, becoming part of 500 Startups at the end of 2020. As a result, YouTravel.Me doubled its revenue while still a bootstrapped company, but wanted to enter the North American market.
The new funding will be deployed into marketing in the U.S., hiring and attracting more travel experts, technology and product development and increasing gross merchandise value to $2.7 million per month by the end of 2021, Bortnikov said. The goal is to grow the number of trips to 20,000 and its travel experts to 6,000 by the beginning of next year.
Godska, also an angel investor, learned about YouTravel.Me from a mutual friend. It happened that it was the same time that he was vacationing in Sri Lanka where he was one of very few tourists. Godska was previously involved in online travel before as part of Orbitz in Europe and in Russia selling tour packages before setting up a venture capital fund.
“I was sitting there in the jungle with a bad internet connection, and it sparked my interest,” he said. “When I spoke with them, I felt the innovation and this bright vibe of how they are doing this. It instantly attracted me to help support them. The whole curated thing is a very interesting move. Independent travelers that want to travel in groups are not touched much by the traditional sector.”
Pixalate raised $18.1 million in growth capital for its fraud protection, privacy and compliance analytics platform that monitors connected television and mobile advertising.
Western Technology Investment and Javelin Venture Partners led the latest funding round, which brings Pixalate’s total funding to $22.7 million to date. This includes a $4.6 million Series A round raised back in 2014, Jalal Nasir, founder and CEO of Pixalate, told TechCrunch.
The company, with offices in Palo Alto and London, analyzes over 5 million apps across five app stores and more 2 billion IP addresses across 300 million connected television devices to detect and report fraudulent advertising activity for its customers. In fact, there are over 40 types of invalid traffic, Nasir said.
Nasir grew up going to livestock shows with his grandfather and learned how to spot defects in animals, and he has carried that kind of insight to Pixalate, which can detect the difference between real and fake users of content and if fraudulent ads are being stacked or hidden behind real advertising that zaps smartphone batteries or siphons internet usage and even ad revenue.
Digital advertising is big business. Nasir cited Association of National Advertisers research that estimated $200 billion will be spent globally in digital advertising this year. This is up from $10 billion a year prior to 2010. Meanwhile, estimated ad fraud will cost the industry $35 billion, he added.
“Advertisers are paying a premium to be in front of the right audience, based on consumption data,” Nasir said. “Unfortunately, that data may not be authorized by the user or it is being transmitted without their consent.”
While many of Pixalate’s competitors focus on first-party risks, the company is taking a third-party approach, mainly due to people spending so much time on their devices. Some of the insights the company has found include that 16% of Apple’s apps don’t have privacy policies in place, while that number is 22% in Google’s app store. More crime and more government regulations around privacy mean that advertisers are demanding more answers, he said.
The new funding will go toward adding more privacy and data features to its product, doubling the sales and customer teams and expanding its office in London, while also opening a new office in Singapore.
The company grew 1,200% in revenue since 2014 and is gathering over 2 terabytes of data per month. In addition to the five app stores Pixalate is already monitoring, Nasir intends to add some of the China-based stores like Tencent and Baidu.
Noah Doyle, managing director at Javelin Venture Partners, is also monitoring the digital advertising ecosystem and said with networks growing, every linkage point exposes a place in an app where bad actors can come in, which was inaccessible in the past, and advertisers need a way to protect that.
“Jalal and Amin (Bandeali) have insight from where the fraud could take place and created a unique way to solve this large problem,” Doyle added. “We were impressed by their insight and vision to create an analytical approach to capturing every data point in a series of transactions — more data than other players in the industry — for comprehensive visibility to help advertisers and marketers maintain quality in their advertising.”
Summer is still technically in session, but a snowball is slowly developing in the world of apps, and specifically the world of in-app payments. A report in Reuters today says that the Competition Commission of India, the country’s monopoly regulator, will soon be looking at an antitrust suit filed against Apple over how it mandates that app developers use Apple’s own in-app payment system — thereby giving Apple a cut of those payments — when publishers charge users for subscriptions and other items in their apps.
The suit, filed by an Indian non-profit called “Together We Fight Society”, said in a statement to Reuters that it was representing consumer and startup interests in its complaint.
The move would be the latest in what has become a string of challenges from national regulators against app store operators — specifically Apple but also others like Google and WeChat — over how they wield their positions to enforce market practices that critics have argued are anti-competitive. Other countries that have in recent weeks reached settlements, passed laws, or are about to introduce laws include Japan, South Korea, Australia, the U.S. and the European Union.
And in India specifically, the regulator is currently working through a similar investigation as it relates to in-app payments in Android apps, which Google mandates use its proprietary payment system. Google and Android dominate the Indian smartphone market, with the operating system active on 98% of the 520 million devices in use in the country as of the end of 2020.
It will be interesting to watch whether more countries wade in as a result of these developments. Ultimately, it could force app store operators, to avoid further and deeper regulatory scrutiny, to adopt new and more flexible universal policies.
In the meantime, we are seeing changes happen on a country-by-country basis.
Just yesterday, Apple reached a settlement in Japan that will let publishers of “reader” apps (those for using or consuming media like books and news, music, files in the cloud and more) to redirect users to external sites to provide alternatives to Apple’s proprietary in-app payment provision. Although it’s not as seamless as paying within the app, redirecting previously was typically not allowed, and in doing so the publishers can avoid Apple’s cut.
South Korean legislators earlier this week approved a measure that will make it illegal for Apple and Google to make a commission by forcing developers to use their proprietary payment systems.
And last week, Apple also made some movements in the U.S. around allowing alternative forms of payments, but relatively speaking the concessions were somewhat indirect: app publishers can refer to alternative, direct payment options in apps now, but not actually offer them. (Not yet at least.)
Some developers and consumers have been arguing for years that Apple’s strict policies should open up more. Apple however has long said in its defense that it mandates certain developer policies to build better overall user experiences, and for reasons of security. But, as app technology has evolved, and consumer habits have changed, critics believe that this position needs to be reconsidered.
One factor in Apple’s defense in India specifically might be the company’s position in the market. Android absolutely dominates India when it comes to smartphones and mobile services, with Apple actually a very small part of the ecosystem.
As of the end of 2020, it accounted for just 2% of the 520 million smartphones in use in the country, according to figures from Counterpoint Research quoted by Reuters. That figure had doubled in the last five years, but it’s a long way from a majority, or even significant minority.
The antitrust filing in India has yet to be filed formally, but Reuters notes that the wording leans on the fact that anti-competitive practices in payments systems make it less viable for many publishers to exist at all, since the economics simply do not add up:
“The existence of the 30% commission means that some app developers will never make it to the market,” Reuters noted from the filing. “This could also result in consumer harm.”
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.
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.
— 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.
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.
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.
Facebook is getting into fantasy sports and other types of fantasy games. The company this morning announced the launch of Facebook Fantasy Games in the U.S. and Canada on the Facebook app for iOS and Android. Some games are described as “simpler” versions of the traditional fantasy sports games already on the market, while others allow users to make predictions associated with popular TV series, like “Survivor” or “The Bachelorette.”
The first game to launch is Pick & Play Sports, in partnership with Whistle Sports, where fans get points for correctly predicting the winner of a big game, the points scored by a top player, or other events that unfold during the match. Players can also earn bonus points for building a streak of correct predictions over several days. This game is arriving today.
Image Credits: Facebook
In the months ahead, it will be followed by other games in sports, TV, and pop culture, including Fantasy Survivor, where players choose a set of Castaways from the popular CBS TV show to join their fantasy team and Fantasy “The Bachelorette,” where fans will pick a group of men from the suitors vying for the Bachelorette’s heart and get points based on their actions and events that take place during the show. Other upcoming sports-focused games include MLB Home Run Picks, where players pick the team that they think will hit the most home runs, and LaLiga Winning Streak, where fans predict the team that will win that day.
In addition to top players being featured on leaderboards, games have a social component for those who want to play with friends.
Image Credits: Facebook
Players can create their own fantasy league with friends to compete with one another or against other fans, either publicly or privately. League members can compare scores with each other and will have a place where they can share picks, reactions and comments. This league area resembles a private group on Facebook, as it offers its own compose box for posting only to members and its own dedicated feed. However, the page is designed to support groups with specific buttons to “play” or view the “leaderboard,” among others.
The addition of fantasy games could help Facebook increase the time users spent on its app at a time when the company is facing significant competition in social, namely from TikTok. According to App Annie, the average monthly time spent per user in TikTok grew faster than other top social apps in 2020, including by 70% in the U.S., surpassing Facebook.
Facebook had dabbled in the idea of becoming a second screen companion for live events in the past, but in a different way than fantasy sports and games. Instead, its R&D division tested Venue, which worked as a way for fans to comment on live events which were hosted in the app by well-known personalities.
The new league games will be available from the bookmark menu on the mobile app and in News Feed through notifications.
Apple’s plan to digitize your wallet is slowly taking shape. What started with boarding passes and venue tickets later became credit cards, subway tickets, and student IDs. Next on Apple’s list to digitize are driver’s licenses and state IDs, which it plans to support in its iOS 15 update expected out later this year.
But to get there it needs help from state governments, since it’s the states that issue driver’s licenses and other forms of state identification, and every state issues IDs differently. Apple said today it has so far secured two states, Arizona and Georgia, to bring digital driver’s license and state IDs.
Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Utah are expected to follow, but a timeline for rolling out wasn’t given.
Apple said in June that it would begin supporting digital licenses and IDs, and that the TSA would be the first agency to begin accepting a digital license from an iPhone at several airports, since only a state ID is required for traveling by air domestically within the United States. The TSA will allow you to present your digital wallet by tapping it on an identity reader. Apple says the feature is secure and doesn’t require handing over or unlocking your phone.
The digital license and ID data is stored on your iPhone but a driver’s license must be verified by the participating state. That has to happen at scale and speed to support millions of drivers and travelers while preventing fake IDs from making it through.
The goal of digitizing licenses and IDs is convenience, rather than fixing a problem. But the move hasn’t exactly drawn confidence from privacy experts, who bemoan Apple’s lack of transparency about how it built this technology and what it ultimately gets out of it.
Apple still has not said much about how the digital ID technology works, or what data the state obtains as part of the process to enroll a digital license. Apple is working on a new security verification feature that takes selfies to validate the user. It’s not to say these systems aren’t inherently problematic, but there are privacy questions that Apple will have to address down the line.
But the fragmented picture of digital licenses and IDs across the U.S. isn’t likely to get less murky overnight, even after Apple enters the picture. A recent public records request by MuckRock showed Apple was in contact with some states as early as 2019 about bringing digital licenses and IDs to iPhones, including California and Illinois, yet neither state has been announced by Apple today.
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.”
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.
Changes to the App Store ecosystem dominated the headlines this week. In South Korea, legislators are set to vote on a landmark bill that could end Apple and Google’s payment exclusivity on their app stores. Meanwhile, Apple dropped commissions to 15% for news publishers’ apps, if they agree to participate in the Apple News ecosystem. Apple also agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit from U.S. app developers that, pending court approval, will introduce a few changes to App Store rules — the most notable being that it allows developers to communicate with their users outside of their iOS apps to tell them about other purchase options.
Image Credits: TechCrunch
As it turns out, this App Store settlement agreement isn’t really as earth-shattering as some headlines may have made it seem. For starters, Apple had already slightly adjusted its App Store policies in June when it clarified developers were allowed to communicate through email and text with their customers about other purchasing methods besides Apple’s own in-app purchases. But this was only permitted if developers weren’t using contact information obtained from within the app. With the new settlement, that changes a bit.
Developers can now take the smallest of steps forward as they are allowed to inform users — well, users who have consented to receive offers via email or other communications — about alternative methods of payment besides in-app purchases. That means developers will also have to collect users’ contact information from their app where users may already be logging in using third-party credentials like Facebook’s, Google’s or even Apple’s own sign-on systems. (Apple’s system, of course, has an option to hide your email address from developers. Wow, someone was thinking ahead there!)
But this change wasn’t what developers want. They actually want to point users from inside their app to their website where they could market their own payment and subscription options — possibly even at a reduced rate since they wouldn’t have to share a commission with Apple. Even if Apple allowed this more permissive action, it’s likely many consumers would continue to use in-app purchases for the sake of convenience. The real concern on Apple’s part is that such a change could redirect significant income from the App Store’s biggest moneymakers, like games, to payment systems outside the App Store.
The settlement agreement proposes other changes as well, such as the expansion of price points from fewer than 100 to more than 500. Apple also agreed to publish a transparency report on the App Review process. (This could potentially be an even bigger deal than the App Store rule changes, as it could push Apple to address some of the outstanding issues with erroneous rejections, app scams and delays.) And Apple said it would establish a $100 million fund for U.S. developers less than $1 million per calendar year, which will pay out in a range of $250 to $30,000, depending on the size of the developers’ app business.
Image Credits: Apple
Apple put out the news of the settlement in its usual style of a polished press release, albeit one buried late on a Thursday night with reporter briefings scheduled for hours where they could easily get missed. Apple, in its release, touted the “even better business opportunity” this represented for developers whose feedback it “appreciates” and whose “ideas… helped inform the agreement.”
We wanted to hear what developers thought about this change. Here’s a sampling of feedback from the community:
“I just keep praying Apple will wake up and change the rules themselves but today wasn’t that day. Its not a great idea to let 70-year-old bureaucrats who get tech support from their grandkids write technology ecosystem law. I just have to believe Apple is realizing this is a ticking time bomb – they have to change it themselves, or we’ll all pay the consequences for years to come. There’s real resentment building the way Apple PR keeps basically gaslighting us. Anyone who can read critically can immediately tell there’s zero substance to this announcement. They need to step up and make changes before courts do it for them.”
“On the face of it, it doesn’t seem like the announcements are particularly significant for us. It’s mainly clarification on existing rules that were already in place. It’s still not permitted to link within your app to an alternative payment mechanism, but you can at least email the customer to tell them about it, if they have opted-in. It’s not 100% clear to me that wasn’t allowed in the first place. The developer fund is also U.S. only, so that doesn’t help us. Overall, I don’t see this doing very much to change the opinion of those calling for antitrust legislation.”
“Apple has made zero concessions in this settlement. App Store search and discovery are still terrible, developers still can’t reference outside payment methods within their apps, and App Review is still a needlessly draconian process that discourages innovation and punishes good actors while letting scams run rampant. The ‘Small Developer Assistance Fund’ is nothing more than payouts to class members as a form of self-punishment. Nothing about this is good for developers, or consumers.”
“…The trophy of this settlement, as presented in the press, is supposedly that developers can now tell their customers where to buy services outside the app. Except no, that’s not actually what’s happening! Apple is simply ‘clarifying’ that companies can send an email to their customers, if they’ve gotten permission to do so, on an opt-in basis. That email may include information about how to buy outside the app. So the steering provisions of the App Store, that developers are not allowed to tell users inside their app or on the signup screen about other purchasing choices than IAP – the only places that actually matter! – is being cemented with this ‘clarification.’ It draws a thicker line, asserts Apple’s right to steer in the first place, and offers the meaningless concession of opt-in email, which was something developers had already been doing.”
Kosta Eleftheriou, FlickType developer who’s also suing Apple over lost revenues due to App Store scams:
“Apple’s draconian anti-steering provisions remain in place just as before. This settlement is a meaningless concession for developers who all see what PR game Apple is playing. And Apple labelling the restitution they’ve agreed to pay as an ‘assistance’ fund is deceitful and shameful: Developers aren’t asking for help, they are asking for fairness.”
“The changes proposed in the settlement are largely a repackaging of existing work Apple has done, a much smaller change than it seemed from Apple’s press release. They are rolling back one recently enacted anti-steering rule, but leaving all other anti-steering rules in place. The settlement also puts into place commitments to programs that most likely weren’t going anywhere anyway. They’ve also agreed to pay out $100M to small developers as a settlement, acting as if it’s some magnanimous gesture. However, it’s in exchange for developers waiving any claims of unfairness in Apple’s fees for the last 6 years. Seeing how good Apple has gotten at patting themselves on the back, this will likely be dragged out any time Apple needs evidence of developer friendliness for years to come.”
“To me, there weren’t any real changes that matter. These are mostly clarifications of existing rules or statements. The pledge to keep the Small Business program is nice, but no one expected that to go away. Keeping App Store search the same was a near guarantee previously. The only real change is introducing more pricing points that I cannot see helping developers in a huge way in the immediate future. The $100 million fund is a lawsuit settlement, not Apple being generous to help developers. I find the PR spin on these ‘changes’ to be disingenuous. They aren’t fixing the core problems with the App Store that small or large developers face when they are simply trying to ship products to their customers.”
CAF, a nonprofit representing developers including Epic Games, Spotify, Tile and dozens of others pushing for regulation of app stores:
“Apple’s sham settlement offer is nothing more than a desperate attempt to avoid the judgment of courts, regulators, and legislators worldwide. This offer does nothing to address the structural, foundational problems facing all developers, large and small, undermining innovation and competition in the app ecosystem. Allowing developers to communicate with their customers about lower prices outside of their apps is not a concession and further highlights Apple’s total control over the app marketplace. If this settlement is approved, app makers will still be barred from communicating about lower prices or offering competing payment options within their apps. We will not be appeased by empty gestures and will continue our fight for fair and open digital platforms.”
“Nothing changed. You were always able to write whatever you wanted in your emails or website. They still are not letting you link to or mention an alternate payment processor inside your app. It’s a weird news story because it made me hopeful when I saw the headlines but nothing had actually happened.”
Overall, it’s seems developers aren’t impressed with this minor concession and it doesn’t seem this settlement will do anything to stop the push for increased App Store legislations.
Image Credits: App Store screenshot
Shopify and TikTok for business with TikTok image of Kylie Jenner. Image Credits: Shopify
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Design and editing app Picsart raised $130 million Series C led by Softbank with participation from Sequoia, GSquared, Tribe Capital, Graph Ventures and Siguler Guff & Company. The round values Picsart at a near $1.5 billion valuation. The app has over 1 billion installs across 180 countries and more than 150 million MAUs.
Mexican fintech Flink raised a $57 million Series B round of funding led by Lightspeed Venture Partners. The app allows consumers to participate in the stock market, and has grown to 1.6 million users, 85% of whom are first-time investors.
African mobile payments platform OPay raised $400 million in funding led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2, with participation from existing investors Sequoia Capital China, Redpoint China, Source Code Capital and Softbank Ventures Asia. The round values the business at $2 billion.
Meditation app Headspace announced plans to merge with on-demand mental health service Ginger, valuing the combined business of $3 billion with a headcount of more than 800.
London-based EV charging platform Bonnet raised $1.3 million (£920,000 total in new funding, including £850,000 in an equity financing round led by Ascension Ventures, with investors from Imperial College London and APX. It also won an additional £70,000 grant from Innovate UK and OZEV. The app gives drivers real-time data on charger availability and functionality and seller bundles of cheaper charging, which can be used across the network.
European stock trading app Shares raised $10 million in a pre-product seed round led by Singular for its app that would allow users to trade 1,500 stocks without paying fees, as well as start conversations with friends and learn from experts.
Tencent has entered advanced stages of talks to lead a new $20-35 million investment round in Gurgaon-headquartered podcasts and audiobooks app Pocket FM. The terms being discussed would value the three-year-old company around $75-$100 million.
Estonia-based grocery delivery app Membo, which serves a European audience, snagged Y Combinator backing and will present during the incubator’s Summer 2021 Demo Day next week.
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. With Popcorn, you can instead create a short video and then send a URL to that video anywhere you would want to add a personal touch to your message — like for outreach on LinkedIn or a quick check-in with a colleague, for example. The app is currently a free download on iPhone, iPad and Mac. (Read the full review here on TechCrunch.)
A new iPad drawing app called Luma connects the screen with real-world play by allowing kids (or anyone) to attach paper to their iPad then trace the lit-up drawing using a pen or pencil. Each drawing will connect to the previous one and can be colored in however the user sees fit. As kids draw, they’ll bring an audio story to life for a more immersive and creative experience. The app was built by Jonathan Wegener (Timehop co-founder, Snapchat designer), Bernardo Nunez (YouTube), Jeffrey Neafsey (Microsoft, Apple), Britt Hatzius and Ant Hampton. It’s backed by the founders of YouTube, Oculus, Eventbrite, Tumblr, HQ Trivia, Google Photos, Venmo, Tinder and more.
Image Credits: LOVE
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. (Read the full review here on TechCrunch.)
Since 2017, Microsoft has offered its Office suite to Chromebook users via the Google Play store, but that is set to come to an end in a few short weeks.
As of Sept. 18, Microsoft is discontinuing support for Office, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Outlook, on Chromebook. Microsoft is not, however, abandoning the popular mobile device altogether. Instead of an app that is downloaded, Microsoft is encouraging users to go to the web instead.
“In an effort to provide the most optimized experience for Chromebook customers, Microsoft apps (Office and Outlook) will be transitioned to web experiences (Office.com and Outlook.com) on September 18, 2021,” Microsoft wrote in a statement emailed to TechCrunch.
Microsoft’s statement also noted that “this transition brings Chromebook customers access to additional and premium features.”
The Microsoft web experience will serve to transition its base of Chromebook users to the Microsoft 365 service, which provides more Office templates and generally more functionality than what the app-based approach provides. The web approach is also more optimized for larger screens than the app.
In terms of how Microsoft wants Chromebook users to get access to Office and Outlook, the plan is for customers to, “..sign in with their personal Microsoft Account or account associated with their Microsoft 365 subscription,” according to the statement. Microsoft has also provided online documentation to show users how to run Office on a Chromebook.
Chromebooks run on Google’s Chrome OS, which is a Linux-based operating system. Chromebooks also enable Android apps to run, as Android is also Linux based, with apps downloaded from Google Play. It’s important to note that while support for Chromebooks is going away, Microsoft is not abandoning other Android-based mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones.
For those Chromebook users that have already downloaded the Microsoft Office apps, the apps will continue to function after September 18, though they will not receive any support or future updates.
Pokémon GO announced yesterday that it will permanently keep an in-game feature that made the game easier to play while social distancing. Introduced at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the feature doubled the interaction radius around key augmented reality landmarks that are essential to gameplay. Though Niantic — parent company to Pokémon GO — removed the feature earlier this month, it chose to permanently reinstate it after weeks of community- and creator-led backlash.
Trainers – we’re looking forward to sharing our plans as a result of the task force on September 1, but one thing does not have to wait! From now on, 80 meters will be the base interaction radius for PokéStops and Gyms globally. (1/2)
— Pokémon GO (@PokemonGoApp) August 25, 2021
Pre-pandemic, Pokémon GO players needed to be within 40 meters of a PokéStop or Gym to interact with it, but with the now-permanent change, the radius is expanded to 80 meters. Incidentally, disabled players found that this feature made the game more accessible to people with limited mobility. As one of the first mainstream AR mobile games, Pokémon GO is virtually unplayable if you’re unable to travel to real-world landmarks like PokéStops and Gyms — so allowing users to interact with these landmarks from farther away (for example, if a wheelchair-user can’t journey off of a paved sidewalk) opened the game up to new players.
Because Pokémon GO has long positioned itself as a game that encourages real-world exploration, worldwide lockdowns posed a unique challenge for Niantic. But by making some small changes — like expanding the interaction radius by just 40 meters, increasing Pokémon spawns and making it easier to obtain more PokéBalls — the game became easier to play from home.
These changes didn’t break the game or contradict its adventurous spirit, which made the rollback of a well-loved upgrade confusing for players, especially in light of the spreading Delta variant. From a financial standpoint, the app thrived during the pandemic. In 2020, Pokémon GO had its best-earning year since its launch in 2016, earning over $1 billion. According to app analytics firm Sensor Tower, this upward trend continued for Pokémon GO in the first half of 2021, with $642 million. This marked a 34% increase in consumer spending compared to the first half of 2020, when it made $479 million.
Dear @NianticLabs your community needs you to address the recent in-game changes to #PokemonGO. #HearUsNiantic we love this game and the communities we've built together. This game thrives on inclusivity and diversity. Show us you understand that. pic.twitter.com/1N6EAaM5m2
— ZoëTwoDots (@_ZoeTwoDots) August 5, 2021
After Niantic reduced the interaction radius, Pokémon GO content creators and community members worked together to write an open letter to Niantic, which caused the hashtag #HearUsNiantic to trend on Twitter. The letter expressed that the increased radius made the game safer, more accessible and less intrusive.
“Encouraging people to explore, exercise and safely play together in person remains Niantic’s mission. The health and wellbeing of players is our top priority,” Niantic’s statement read. The company formed an “inter cross-functional team” to address these concerns and invited prominent Pokémon GO content creators to share community feedback. While expanding the interaction radius is the first result of the task force, Pokémon GO tweeted that it will share more findings on September 1.
TechCrunch asked Niantic why it initially chose to rebuke these gameplay updates despite positive community feedback, increased revenue and an ongoing pandemic, but Niantic declined to comment.
Despite players’ visible negative response on social media, Sensor Tower told TechCrunch that it didn’t see any change in consumer spending or active users for Pokémon GO around the time of the in-game strike. However, there was a significant uptick in negative App Store reviews.
Though the wider interaction radius is now reinstated, some players remain frustrated, since community leaders had previously provided this feedback in June after Niantic announced its plans to roll back these changes.
“Why did it have to take this giant community movement for any of our feedback to be heard?” said creator ZoëTwoDots in a YouTube video.