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Honeywell and Cambridge Quantum form joint venture to build a new full-stack quantum business

By Frederic Lardinois

Honeywell, which only recently announced its entry into the quantum computing race, and Cambridge Quantum Computing (CQ), which focuses on building software for quantum computers, today announced that they are combining Honeywell’s Quantum Solutions (HQS) business with Cambridge Quantum in the form of a new joint venture.

Honeywell has long partnered with CQ and invested in the company last year, too. The idea here is to combine Honeywell’s hardware expertise with CQ’s software focus to build what the two companies call “the world’s highest-performing quantum computer and a full suite of quantum software, including the first and most advanced quantum operating system.”

The merged companies (or ‘combination,’ as the companies’ press releases calls it) expect the deal to be completed in the third quarter of 2021. Honeywell Chairman and CEO Darius Adamczyk will become the chairman of the new company. CQ founder and CEO Ilyas Khan will become the CEO and current Honeywell Quantum Solutions President Tony Uttley will remain in this role at the new company.

The idea here is for Honeywell to spin off HQS and combine it with CQC to form a new company, while still playing a role in its leadership and finances. Honeywell will own a majority stake in the new company and invest between $270 and $300 million. It will also have a long-term agreement with the new company to build the ion traps at the core of its quantum hardware. CQ’s shareholders will own 45% of the new company.

Image Credits: Honeywell

“The new company will have the best talent in the industry, the world’s highest-performing quantum computer, the first and most advanced quantum operating system, and comprehensive, hardware-agnostic software that will drive the future of the quantum computing industry,” said Adamczyk. “The new company will be extremely well positioned to create value in the near-term within the quantum computing industry by offering the critical global infrastructure needed to support the sector’s explosive growth.”

The companies argue that a successful quantum business will need to be supported by large-scale investments and offer a one-stop shop for customers that combines hardware and software. By combining the two companies now, they note, they’ll be able to build on their respective leadership positions in their areas of expertise and scale their businesses while also accelerate their R&D and product roadmaps.

“Since we first announced Honeywell’s quantum business in 2018, we have heard from many investors who have been eager to invest directly in our leading technologies at the forefront of this exciting and dynamic industry – now, they will be able to do so,” Adamczyk said. “The new company will provide the best avenue for us to onboard new, diverse sources of capital at scale that will help drive rapid growth.”

CQ launched in 2014 and now has about 150 employees. The company raised a total of $72.8 million, including a $45 million round, which it announced last December. Honeywell, IBM Ventures, JSR Corporation, Serendipity Capital, Alvarium Investments and Talipot Holdings invested in this last round — which also means that IBM, which uses a different technology but, in many ways, directly competes with the new company, now owns a (small) part of it.

Apple finally launches a Screen Time API for app developers

By Sarah Perez

Just after the release of iOS 12 in 2018, Apple introduced its own built-in screen time tracking tools and controls. In then began cracking down on third-party apps that had implemented their own screen time systems, saying they had done so through via technologies that risked user privacy. What wasn’t available at the time? A Screen Time API that would have allowed developers to tap into Apple’s own Screen Time system and build their own experiences that augmented its capabilities. That’s now changed.

At Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference on Monday, it introduced a new Screen Time API that offers developer access to frameworks that will allow parental control experience that also maintains user privacy.

Oh there’s a Screen Time API, nice #WWDC21 pic.twitter.com/Et6lfs6g7X

— Guilherme Rambo (@_inside) June 7, 2021

The company added three new Swift frameworks to the iOS SDK that will allow developers to create apps that help parents manage what a child can do across their devices and ensure those restrictions stay in place.

The apps that use this API will be able to set restrictions like locking accounts in place, preventing password changes, filtering web traffic, and limiting access to applications. These sorts of changes are already available through Apple’s Screen Time system, but developers can now build their own experiences where these features are offered under their own branding and where they can then expand on the functionality provided by Apple’s system.

ScreenTime API looks great, I sincerely hope someone provides me a way to bulk change stuff for my kids. If I had known I would have to tweak each kids ScreenTime individually like I do today, I might have had less children. #WWDC21

— Stan Lemon (@stanlemon) June 7, 2021

 

Developers’ apps that take advantage of the API can also be locked in place so it can only be removed from the device with a parent’s approval.

The apps can authenticate the parents and ensure the device they’re managing belongs to a child in the family. Plus, Apple said the way the system will work lets parents choose the apps and websites they want to limit, without compromising user privacy. (The system returns only opaque tokens instead of identifiers for the apps and website URLs, Apple told developers, so the third-parties aren’t gaining access to private user data like app usage and web browsing details. This would prevent a shady company from building a Screen Time app only to collect troves of user data about app usage, for instance.)

The third-party apps can also create unique time windows for different apps or types of activities, and warn the child when time is nearly up. When it registers the time’s up, the app lock down access to websites and apps and perhaps remind the child it’s time to their homework — or whatever other experience the developer has in mind.

And on the flip side, the apps could create incentives for the child to gain screen time access after they complete some other task, like doing homework, reading or chores, or anything else.

Developers could use these features to design new experiences that Apple’s own Screen Time system doesn’t allow for today, by layering their own ideas on top of Apple’s basic set of controls. Parents would likely fork over their cash to make using Screen Time controls easier and more customized to their needs.

Other apps could tie into Screen Time too, outside of the “family” context — like those aimed at mental health and wellbeing, for example.

Oooh – an API for Screen Time! Definitely want to build support for this into Streaks, if possible.https://t.co/keuaJ6WFvo#wwdc21

— Quentin Zervaas (@qzervaas) June 7, 2021

Of course, developers have been asking for a Screen Time API since the launch of Screen Time itself, but Apple didn’t seem to prioritize its development until the matter of Apple’s removal of rival screen time apps was brought up in an antitrust hearing last year. At the time, Apple CEO Tim Cook defended the company’s decision by explaining that apps had been using MDM (mobile device management) technology, which was designed for managing employee devices in the enterprise, not home use. This, he said, was a privacy risk.

Apple has a session during WWDC that will detail how the new API works, so we expect we’ll learn more soon as the developer info becomes more public.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

Apple to introduce A/B testing and in-app events to the App Store

By Sarah Perez

Apple today announced a number of coming changes and improvements to the App Store that will help developers better target their apps to users, get their apps discovered by more people and even highlight what sort of events are taking place inside their apps to entice new users to download the app and encourage existing users to return.

The company said its App Store today sees 600 million weekly users across 175 countries, and has paid out more than $230 billion to developers since the App Store launched, highlighting the business opportunity for app developers.

However, as the App Store has grown, it’s become harder for app developers to market their apps to new users or get their apps found. The new features aim to address that.

Image Credits: Apple

One change involves the app’s product page. Starting this year, app developers will be able to create multiple custom product pages to showcase different features of their app for different users. For instance, they’ll be able to try out things like different screenshots, videos, and even different app icons to A/B test what users like the most.

They’ll also be able to advertise the dynamic things that are taking place inside their apps on an ongoing basis. Apple explained that apps and games are constantly rolling out new content and limited time events like film premieres on streaming services, events like Pokémon GO fests, or Nike fitness challenges. But these events were often only discoverable by those who already had the app installed and then opted in to push notifications.

Image Credits: Apple

Apple will now allow developers to better advertise these events, with the launch of in-app events “front and center on the App Store.” The events can be showcased on the app’s product page. Users can learn more about the events, sign up to be notified or quickly join the event, if it’s happening now. They can also discover events with personalized recommendations and through App Store search.

App Store editors will curate the best events and the new App Store widget will feature upcoming events right on users’ home screens, too.

Apple says the feature will be open to all developers, including those who already run events and those who are just getting started.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

Apple Maps upgrade brings more detailed maps, transit features, AR view and more

By Sarah Perez

Among many updates coming to iOS 15, Apple Maps will receive a number of upgrades that will bring more detailed maps, improvements for transit riders, AR experiences and other changes to the platform. The improvements build on the new map Apple began rolling out two years ago, which had focused on offering richer details, and — in response to user feedback and complaints — more accurate navigation.

Since then, Apple Maps has steadily improved.

The new map experience has since launched in the U.S., U.K., Ireland and Canada and will now make its way to Spain and Portugal, starting today. It will then arrive in Italy and Australia later this year, Apple announced during its keynote address during its Worldwide Developer Conference on Monday.

maps driving

Image Credits: Apple

In addition, Apple said iOS 15 Maps will include new details for commercial districts, marinas, buildings and more. Plus, Apple has added things like elevation, new road colors and labels, as well as hundreds of custom designed landmarks — for example, for places like the Golden Gate Bridge.

Apple also built a new nighttime mode for Maps with a “moonlit glow,” it said.

For drivers, Apple added new road details to the map, so it can help drivers as they move throughout a city to better see and understand important things like turn lanes, medians, bus and taxi lanes and other things. The changes are competitive with some of the updates Google has been making to its own Google Maps platform, which brought street-level details in select cities. These allowed people — including those navigating on foot, in a wheelchair, on a bike or on a scooter, for example — to better see things like sidewalks and intersections.

Apple is now catching up, saying it, too, will show features like crosswalks and bike lanes.

It will also render things like overlapping complex interchanges in 3D space, making it easier to see upcoming traffic conditions or what lane to take. These features will come to CarPlay later in the year.

Image Credits: Apple

For transit riders, meanwhile, Maps has made improvements to help users find nearby stations.

Users can now pin their favorite lines to the top, and even keep track on their Apple Watch so they don’t have to pull out their phone. The updated Maps app will automatically follow your transit route and notify you when it’s time to disembark, making the app more competitive to third-party apps often favored by transit takers, like Citymapper, for instance.

maps train stop

Image Credits: Apple

When you exit your station, you can also now hold up your iPhone to scan the buildings in the area and Maps will generate an accurate position, offering direction in augmented reality. This is similar to the Live View AR directions Google announced last year.

This feature is launching in select cities in 2021 with more to come in the year ahead, Apple said.

Image Credits: Apple

 

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

Alibaba is making its cloud OS compatible with multiple chip architectures

By Rita Liao

Alibaba’s cloud computing unit is making its Apsara operating system compatible with processors based on Arm, x86, RISC-V, among other architectures, the company announced at a conference on Friday.

Alibaba Cloud is one of the fastest-growing businesses for the Chinese e-commerce giant and the world’s fourth-largest public cloud service in the second half of 2020, according to market research firm IDC.

The global chip market has mostly been dominated by Intel’s x86 in personal computing and Arm for mobile devices. But RISC-V, an open-source chip architecture competitive with Arm’s technologies, is gaining popularity around the world, especially with Chinese developers. Started by academics at the University of California, Berkeley, RISC-V is open to all to use without licensing or patent fees and is generally not subject to America’s export controls.

The Trump Administration’s bans on Huawei and its rival ZTE over national security concerns have effectively severed ties between the Chinese telecom titans and American tech companies, including major semiconductor suppliers.

Arm was forced to decide its relationships with Huawei and said it could continue licensing to the Chinese firm as it’s of U.K. origin. But Huawei still struggles to find fabs that are both capable and allowed to actually manufacture the chips designed using the architecture.

The U.S. sanctions led to a burst in activity around RISC-V in China’s tech industry as developers prepare for future tech restrictions by the U.S., with Alibaba at the forefront of the movement. Alibaba Cloud, Huawei and ZTE are among the 13 premier members of RISC-V International, which means they get a seat on its Board of Directors and Technical Steering Community.

In 2019, the e-commerce company’s semiconductor division T-Head launched its first core processor Xuantie 910, which is based on RISC-V and used for cloud edge and IoT applications. Having its operating system work with multiple chip systems instead of one mainstream architecture could prepare Alibaba Cloud well for a future of chip independence in China.

“The IT ecosystem was traditionally defined by chips, but cloud computing fundamentally changed that,” Zhang Jianfeng, president of Alibaba Cloud’s Intelligence group, said at the event. “A cloud operating system can standardize the computing power of server chips, special-purpose chips and other hardware, so whether the chip is based on x86, Arm, RISC-V or a hardware accelerator, the cloud computing offerings for customers are standardized and of high-quality.”

Meanwhile, some argue that Chinese companies moving towards alternatives like RISC-V means more polarization of technology and standards, which is not ideal for global collaboration unless RISC-V becomes widely adopted in the rest of the world.

Skiff, an end-to-end encrypted alternative to Google Docs, raises $3.7M seed

By Zack Whittaker

Imagine if Google Docs was end-to-end encrypted so that not even Google could access your documents. That’s Skiff, in a nutshell.

Skiff is a document editor with a similar look and feel to Google Docs, allowing you to write, edit and collaborate in real-time with colleagues with privacy baked in. Because the document editor is built on a foundation of end-to-end encryption, Skiff doesn’t have access to anyone’s documents — only users, and those who are invited to collaborate, do.

It’s an idea that has already attracted the attention of investors. Skiff’s co-founders Andrew Milich (CEO) and Jason Ginsberg (CTO) announced today that the startup has raised $3.7 million in seed funding from venture firm Sequoia Capital, just over a year since Skiff was founded in March 2020. Alphabet chairman John Hennessy, former Yahoo chief executive Jerry Yang, and Eventbrite co-founders Julia and Kevin Hartz also participated in the round.

Milich and Ginsberg told TechCrunch that the company will use the seed funding to grow the team and build out the platform.

Skiff isn’t that much different from WhatsApp or Signal, which are also end-to-end encrypted, underneath its document editor. “Instead of using it to send messages to a bunch of people, we’re using it to send little pieces of documents and then piecing those together into a collaborative workspace,” said Milich.

But the co-founders acknowledged that putting your sensitive documents in the cloud requires users to put a lot of trust into the startup, particularly one that hasn’t been around for long. That’s why Skiff published a whitepaper with technical details of how its technology works, and has begun to open source parts of its code, allowing anyone to see how the platform works. Milich said Skiff has also gone through at least one comprehensive security audit, and the company counts advisors from the Signal Foundation to Trail of Bits.

It seems to be working. In the months since Skiff soft-launched through an invite-only program, thousands of users — including journalists, research scientists and human rights lawyers — use Skiff every day, with another 8,000 users on a waitlist.

“The group of users that we’re most excited about are just regular people that care about privacy,” said Ginsberg. “There are just so many privacy communities and people that are advocates for these types of products that really care about how they’re built and have sort of lost trust in big companies.”

“They’re using us because they’re really excited about the vision and the future of end-to-end encryption,” he said.

Google updates Firebase with new personalization features, security tools and more

By Frederic Lardinois

At its I/O developer conference, Google today announced a slew of updates to its Firebase developer platform, which, as the company also announced, now powers over 3 million apps.

There’s a number of major updates here, most of which center around improving existing tools like Firebase Remote Config and Firebase’s monitoring capabilities, but there are also a number of completely new features here as well, including the ability to create Android App Bundles and a new security tool called App Check.

“Helping developers be successful is what makes Firebase successful,” Firebase product manager Kristen Richards told me ahead of today’s announcements. “So we put helpfulness and helping developers at the center of everything that we do.” She noted that during the pandemic, Google saw a lot of people who started to focus on app development — both as learners and as professional developers. But the team also saw a lot of enterprises move to its platform as those companies looked to quickly bring new apps online.

Maybe the marquee Firebase announcement at I/O is the updated Remote Config. That’s always been a very powerful feature that allows developers to make changes to live production apps on the go without having to release a new version of their app. Developers can use this for anything from A/B testing to providing tailored in-app experience to specific user groups.

With this update, Google is introducing updates to the Remote Config console, to make it easier for developers to see how they are using this tool, as well as an updated publish flow and redesigned test results pages for A/B tests.

Image Credits: Google

What’s most important, though, is that Google is taking Remote Config a step further now by launching a new Personalization feature that helps developers automatically optimize the user experience for individual users. “It’s a new feature of [Remote Config] that uses Google’s machine learning to create unique individual app experiences,” Richards explained. “It’s super simple to set up and it automatically creates these personalized experiences that’s tailored to each individual user. Maybe you have something that you would like, which would be something different for me. In that way, we’re able to get a tailored experience, which is really what customers expect nowadays. I think we’re all expecting things to be more personalized than they have in the past.”

Image Credits: Google

Google is also improving a number of Firebase’s analytics and monitoring capabilities, including its Crashlytics service for figuring out app crashes. For game developers, that means improved support for games written with the help of the Unity platform, for example, but for all developers, the fact that Firebase’s Performance Monitoring service now processes data in real time is a major update to having performance data (especially on launch day) arrive with a delay of almost half a day.

Firebase is also now finally adding support for Android App Bundles, Google’s relatively new format for packaging up all of an app’s code and resources, with Google Play optimizing the actual APK with the right resources for the kind of device the app gets installed on. This typically leads to smaller downloads and faster installs.

On the security side, the Firebase team is launching App Check, now available in beta. App Check helps developers guard their apps against outside threats and is meant to automatically block any traffic to online resources like Cloud Storage, Realtime Database and Cloud Functions for Firebase (with others coming soon) that doesn’t provide valid credentials.

Image Credits: Google

The other update worth mentioning here is to Firebase Extensions, which launched a while ago, but which is getting support for a few more extensions today. These are new extensions from Algolia, Mailchimp and MessageBird, that helps bring new features like Algolia’s search capabilities or MessageBird’s communications features directly to the platform. Google itself is also launching a new extension that helps developers detect comments that could be considered “rude, disrespectful, or unreasonable in a way that will make people leave a conversation.”

Google updates its cross-platform Flutter UI toolkit

By Frederic Lardinois

Flutter, Google’s cross-platform UI toolkit for building mobile and desktop apps, is getting a small but important update at the company’s I/O conference today. Google also announced that Flutter now powers 200,000 apps in the Play Store alone, including popular apps from companies like WeChat, ByteDance, BMW, Grab and DiDi. Indeed, Google notes that 1 in 8 new apps in the Play Store are now Flutter apps.

The launch of Flutter 2.2 follows Google’s rollout of Flutter 2, which first added support for desktop and web apps in March, so it’s no surprise that this is a relatively minor release. In many ways, the update builds on top of the features the company introduced in version 2 and reliability and performance improvements.

Version 2.2 makes null safety the default for new projects, for example, to add protections against null reference exceptions. As for performance, web apps can now use background caching using service workers, for example, while Android apps can use deferred components and iOS apps get support for precompiled shaders to make first runs smoother.

Google also worked on streamlining the overall process of bringing Flutter apps to desktop platforms (Windows, macOS and Linux).

But as Google notes, a lot of the work right now is happening in the ecosystem. Google itself is introducing a new payment plugin for Flutter built in partnership with the Google Pay team and Google’s ads SDK for Flutter is getting support for adaptive banner formats. Meanwhile, Samsung is now porting Flutter to Tizen and Sony is leading an effort to bring it to embedded Linux. Adobe recently announced its XD to Flutter plugin for its design tool and Microsoft today launched the alpha of Flutter support for Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps for Windows 10 in alpha.

Google launches the first beta of Android Studio Arctic Fox

By Frederic Lardinois

At its I/O developer conference, Google today announced the first beta of the next version of its Android Studio IDE, Arctic Fox. For the most part, the idea here is to bring more of the tooling around building Android apps directly into the IDE.

While there is a lot that’s new in Arctic Fox, maybe the marquee feature of this update is the integration of Jetpack Compose, Google’s toolkit for building modern user interfaces for Android. In Android Studio, developers can now use Compose Preview to create previews of different configurations (think themes and devices) or deploy a preview directly to a device, all while the layout inspector makes it easier for developers to understand how (and why) a layout is rendered the way it is. With Live Updates enabled any change is then also directly streamed to the device.

The team also integrated the Android Accessibility Test Framework directly into Android Studio to help developers find accessibility issues like missing content descriptions or a low contrast in their designs.

Image Credits: Google

Just like with some of the updates to Android itself, the team is also looking at making it easier to develop for a wider range of form factors. To build Wear OS apps, developers previously had to physically connect the watch to their development machine or go through a lot of steps to pair the watch. Now, users can simply pair a watch and phone emulator (or physical phone) with the new Wear OS Pairing feature. All this takes now is a few clicks.

Also new on the Wear OS side is a new heart rate sensor for the Wear OS Emulators in Android Studio, while the Android Automotive emulator gains the ability to replay car sensor data to help those developers with their development and testing workflow.

Android Studio users who work on a Mac will be happy to hear that Google is also launching a first preview of Android Studio for the Apple Silicon (arm64) architecture.

Image Credits: Google

Android now powers 3B devices

By Frederic Lardinois

Google’s Android operating system is now running on 3 billion active devices, Google announced at its (virtual) I/O developer conference today. In a briefing before today’s event, the company also noted that there were 250 million active tablets running Android last year, which is likely a larger number than some expected, but which explains Google’s increased focus on these large-screen devices at I/O this year.

Traditionally, Google shares new device stats at I/O, but since it canceled the event last year, we didn’t get an update for 2020. The most recent number Google provided was 2.5 billion active devices in May 2019. That was up from 2 billion devices in 2017, so at least for the time being, this growth rate of about 500 million new devices every two years continues to remain true.

In comparison, Apple in January announced that it has an install base of 1 billion iPhones and that there are now a total of 1.65 billion active devices in its ecosystem, up from 1.5 billion devices a year before (this last number includes all active Apple devices, though).

Chrome now uses Duplex to fix your stolen passwords

By Frederic Lardinois

Google announced a new feature for its Chrome browser today that alerts you when one of your passwords has been compromised and then helps you automatically change your password with the help of… wait for it… Google’s Duplex technology.

This new feature will start to roll out slowly to Chrome users on Android in the U.S. soon (with other countries following later), assuming they use Chrome’s password-syncing feature.

It’s worth noting that this won’t work for every site just yet. As a Google spokesperson told us, “the feature will initially work on a small number of apps and websites, including Twitter, but will expand to additional sites in the future.”

Now you may remember Duplex as the somewhat controversial service that can call businesses for you to make hairdresser appointments or check opening times. Google introduced Duplex at its 2018 I/O developer conference and launched it to a wider audience in 2019. Since then, the team has chipped away at bringing Duplex to more tasks and brought it the web, too. Now it’s coming to Chrome to change your compromised passwords for you.

Image Credits: Google

“Powered by Duplex on the Web, Assistant takes over the tedious parts of web browsing: scrolling, clicking and filling forms, and allows you to focus on what’s important to you. And now we’re expanding these capabilities even further by letting you quickly create a strong password for certain sites and apps when Chrome determines your credentials have been leaked online,” Patrick Nepper, senior product manager for Chrome, explains in today’s announcement.

In practice, once Chrome detects a compromised password, all you have to do is tap the “change password” button and Duplex will walk through the process of changing your password for you. Google says this won’t work for every site just yet, but “even if a site isn’t supported yet, Chrome’s password manager can always help you create strong and unique passwords for your various accounts.”

It’ll be interesting to see how well this works in the real world. Every site manages passwords a little bit differently, so it would be hard to write a set of basic rules that the browser could use to go through this process. And that’s likely why Google is using Duplex here. Since every site is a little bit different, it takes a system that can understand a bit more about the context of a password change page to successfully navigate it.

In addition to adding this feature, Google is also updating its password manager with a new tool for important passwords from third-party password managers, deeper integration between Chrome and Android and automatic password alerts when a password is compromised in a breach.

Pinterest introduces Idea Pins, a video-first feature aimed at creators

By Sarah Perez

Pinterest is expanding further into the creator community with today’s launch of a video-first feature called “Idea Pins,” aimed at creators who want to tell their stories using video, music, creative editing tools and more. The feature feels a lot like Pinterest’s own take on TikTok, mixed with Stories, as the new Pins allow creators to record and edit creative videos with up to 20 pages of content, using tools like voiceover recording, background music, transitions and other interactive elements.

The company says Idea Pins evolved out of its tests with Story Pins, launched into beta in September 2020, after various stages of development beginning the year prior. At the time, Pinterest explained that Story Pins were different from the Stories you’d find on other social networks, like Snapchat or Instagram, because they focused on what people were doing — like trying new ideas or new products, not giving you snapshots of a creator’s personal life.

Another notable differentiator was that Story Pins weren’t ephemeral. That is, they didn’t disappear after a certain amount of time, but rather could be surfaced through search and other discovery mechanisms.

Over the past eight months since their debut, Pinterest has worked with Story Pin creators on the experience. That’s led to the new concept of the Idea Pin — essentially a rebranded Story Pin, which now offers a broader suite of editing tools than what was previously available.

Video is a key element in Idea Pins, as the Pins target the increased consumer demand for short-form video content of a creative nature — like what’s being delivered through TikTok, Instagram Reels, YouTube Shorts and elsewhere. The videos in the Pins can be up to 60 seconds on iOS, Android and web for each page, with up to 20 total pages per Pin.

Image Credits: Pinterest

Creators can edit their videos by adding their own voiceover or using a “ghost mode” transition tool to better showcase their before-and-afters by overlaying one part of a video on another. And they can save drafts of their work in progress.

But Idea Pins still include a number of features common to Stories, like adding stickers or tagging other creators with an @username, for instance. Pinterest says it will start with over 100 stickers featuring hand-drawn illustrations focused on top categories and behaviors it expects to see, like food-themed illustrations, stickers for before-and-afters, seasonal moments, and more.

Pinterest is also working with the royalty-free music database Epidemic Sound to offer a catalog of free tracks for use in Idea Pins.

And because many creators will use Idea Pins to inspire people to try a recipe or project of some sort, they can include “detail pages” where viewers can find the ingredient list or instructions, which is handy.

Image Credits: Pinterest

Pins are shared to Pinterest, where the company says they help the creator build an audience by being distributed in several places across its platform, including in some markets, by locating Pins for creators you follow right at the top of the home page.

Creators can also apply topic tags when publishing to ensure they’re surfaced when people are seeking that sort of content. Each Idea Pin can have up to 10 topic tags, which help to distribute the content in a targeted way to users via the home feed and search, the company says.

While Pins can help creators build an audience on Pinterest, they can use Idea Pins to grow their audience on other platforms, too. The company says it will offer export options that let people share their Pins across the web and social media. To do so, they download their Pin as a video which includes a Pinterest watermark and profile name — a trick learned from TikTok. This can then be reshared elsewhere.

Image Credits: Pinterest

Pinterest users, meanwhile, can save Idea Pins like any other Pin on the platform.

“We believe the best inspiration comes from people who are fueled by their passions and want to bring positivity and creativity into the world,” said Pinterest co-founder and Chief Design and Creative Officer Evan Sharp, in a statement about the launch. “On Pinterest, anyone can inspire. From creators to hobbyists to publishers, Pinterest is a place where anyone can publish great ideas and discover inspiring content. We have creators with extraordinary ideas on Pinterest, and with Idea Pins, creators are empowered to share their passions and inspire their audiences,” he added.

The new Idea Pin format is rolling out today to all creators (users with a business account) in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Image Credits: Pinterest

Pinterest says, during tests, it found that Idea Pins were more engaging than standard Pins, with 9x the average comment rate. The number of Idea Pins (previously known as Story Pins) has also grown by 4x since January, as more creators adopted the format.

To help creators track how well Pins are performing, Pinterest is expanding its Analytics feature to include a new Followers and Profile Visits-driven metric to show creators how their Idea Pins have driven deeper engagement with their account.

The company says the next step is to make Idea Pins more shoppable, which it’s doing now with tests of product tagging underway.

Pinterest has been increasing its investment in the creator community in recent months, with the launch of its first-ever Creator Fund last month, and this month’s test of livestreamed events with 21 creators. It’s also now testing creator and brand collaborations with a select number of creators, including Domonique PantonPeter Som and GrossyPelosi, it says.

Image Credits: Pinterest

While Idea Pins seem like a natural pivot from Pinterest’s founding as an inspiration and idea board, it will face serious competition when it comes to wooing the professional creator community to its platform. Other big tech companies are outspending Pinterest, whose new Creator Fund of $500K falls short of the $1 million per day Snap paid creators or the $100 million fund for YouTube Shorts creators, TikTok’s $200 million fund or the deals Instagram has been making to lure Reels creators. These platforms, as well as a host of startups, are also giving creators a way to directly monetize their efforts through features like tips, donations, subscriptions and more.

What Pinterest may have in its favor, though, is its reach. The company claims 475 million users, which makes it a destination some creators may not want to overlook in their bid for growth, and later, e-commerce.

Google Analytics prepares for life after cookies

By Frederic Lardinois

As consumer behavior and expectations around privacy have shifted — and operating systems and browsers have adapted to this — the age of cookies as a means of tracking user behavior is coming to an end. Few people will bemoan this, but advertisers and marketers rely on having insights into how their efforts translate into sales (and publishers like to know how their content performs, as well). Google is obviously aware of this, and it is now looking to machine learning to ready its tools like Google Analytics for this post-cookie future.

headshot of Vidhya Srinivasan, VP/GM, Advertising at Google

Vidhya Srinivasan, VP/GM, Advertising at Google. Image Credits: Google

Last year, the company brought several machine learning tools to Google Analytics. At the time, the focus was on alerting users to significant changes in their campaign performance, for example. Now, it is taking this a step further by using its machine learning systems to model user behavior when cookies are not available.

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of this shift, but according to Vidhya Srinivasan, Google’s VP and GM for Ads Buying, Analytics and Measurement who joined the company after a long stint at Amazon two years ago (and IBM before that), it’s also the only way to go.

“The principles we outlined to drive our measurement roadmap are based on shifting consumer expectations and ecosystem paradigms. Bottom line: The future is consented. It’s modeled. It’s first-party. So that’s what we’re using as our guide for the next gen of our products and solutions,” she said in her first media interview after joining Google.

It’s still early days and a lot of users may yet consent and opt in to tracking and sharing their data in some form or another. But the early indications are that this will be a minority of users. Unsurprisingly, first-party data and the data Google can gather from users who consent becomes increasingly valuable in this context.

Because of this, Google is now also making it easier to work with this so-called “consented data” and create better first-party data through improved integrations with tools like the Google Tag Manager.

Last year, Google launched Consent Mode, which helps advertisers manage cookie behavior based on local data-protection laws and user preferences. For advertisers in the EU and in the U.K., Consent Mode allows them to adjust their Google tags based on a user’s choices and soon, Google will launch a direct integration with Tag Manager to make it easier to modify and customize these tags.

How Consent Mode works today. Image Credits: Google

What’s maybe more important, though, is that Consent Mode will now use conversion modeling for users who don’t consent to cookies. Google says this can recover about 70% of ad-click-to-conversion journeys that would otherwise be lost to advertisers.

In addition, Google is also making it easier for bring in first-party data (in a privacy-forward way) to Google Analytics to improve measurements and its models.

“Revamping a popular product with a long history is something people are going to have opinions about — we know that. But we felt strongly that we needed Google Analytics to be relevant to changing consumer behavior and ready for a cookie-less world — so that’s what we’re building,” Srinivasan said. “The machine learning that Google has invested in for years — that experience is what we’re putting in action to drive the modeling underlying this tech. We take having credible insights and reporting in the market seriously. We know that doing the work on measurement is critical to market trust. We don’t take the progress we’ve made for granted and we’re looking to continue iterating to ensure scale, but above all we’re prioritizing user trust.”

 

 

Gatheround raises millions from Homebrew, Bloomberg and Stripe’s COO to help remote workers connect

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Remote work is no longer a new topic, as much of the world has now been doing it for a year or more because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Companies — big and small — have had to react in myriad ways. Many of the initial challenges have focused on workflow, productivity and the like. But one aspect of the whole remote work shift that is not getting as much attention is the culture angle.

A 100% remote startup that was tackling the issue way before COVID-19 was even around is now seeing a big surge in demand for its offering that aims to help companies address the “people” challenge of remote work. It started its life with the name Icebreaker to reflect the aim of “breaking the ice” with people with whom you work.

“We designed the initial version of our product as a way to connect people who’d never met, kind of virtual speed dating,” says co-founder and CEO Perry Rosenstein. “But we realized that people were using it for far more than that.” 

So over time, its offering has evolved to include a bigger goal of helping people get together beyond an initial encounter –– hence its new name: Gatheround.

“For remote companies, a big challenge or problem that is now bordering on a crisis is how to build connection, trust and empathy between people that aren’t sharing a physical space,” says co-founder and COO Lisa Conn. “There’s no five-minute conversations after meetings, no shared meals, no cafeterias — this is where connection organically builds.”

Organizations should be concerned, Gatheround maintains, that as we move more remote, that work will become more transactional and people will become more isolated. They can’t ignore that humans are largely social creatures, Conn said.

The startup aims to bring people together online through real-time events such as a range of chats, videos and one-on-one and group conversations. The startup also provides templates to facilitate cultural rituals and learning & development (L&D) activities, such as all-hands meetings and workshops on diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Gatheround’s video conversations aim to be a refreshing complement to Slack conversations, which despite serving the function of communication, still don’t bring users face-to-face.

Image Credits: Gatheround

Since its inception, Gatheround has quietly built up an impressive customer base, including 28 Fortune 500s, 11 of the 15 biggest U.S. tech companies, 26 of the top 30 universities and more than 700 educational institutions. Specifically, those users include Asana, Coinbase, Fiverr, Westfield and DigitalOcean. Universities, academic centers and nonprofits, including Georgetown’s Institute of Politics and Public Service and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, are also customers. To date, Gatheround has had about 260,000 users hold 570,000 conversations on its SaaS-based, video platform.

All its growth so far has been organic, mostly referrals and word of mouth. Now, armed with $3.5 million in seed funding that builds upon a previous $500,000 raised, Gatheround is ready to aggressively go to market and build upon the momentum it’s seeing.

Venture firms Homebrew and Bloomberg Beta co-led the company’s latest raise, which included participation from angel investors such as Stripe COO Claire Hughes Johnson, Meetup co-founder Scott Heiferman, Li Jin and Lenny Rachitsky. 

Co-founders Rosenstein, Conn and Alexander McCormmach describe themselves as “experienced community builders,” having previously worked on President Obama’s campaigns as well as at companies like Facebook, Change.org and Hustle. 

The trio emphasize that Gatheround is also very different from Zoom and video conferencing apps in that its platform gives people prompts and organized ways to get to know and learn about each other as well as the flexibility to customize events.

“We’re fundamentally a connection platform, here to help organizations connect their people via real-time events that are not just really fun, but meaningful,” Conn said.

Homebrew Partner Hunter Walk says his firm was attracted to the company’s founder-market fit.

“They’re a really interesting combination of founders with all this experience community building on the political activism side, combined with really great product, design and operational skills,” he told TechCrunch. “It was kind of unique that they didn’t come out of an enterprise product background or pure social background.”

He was also drawn to the personalized nature of Gatheround’s platform, considering that it has become clear over the past year that the software powering the future of work “needs emotional intelligence.”

“Many companies in 2020 have focused on making remote work more productive. But what people desire more than ever is a way to deeply and meaningfully connect with their colleagues,” Walk said. “Gatheround does that better than any platform out there. I’ve never seen people come together virtually like they do on Gatheround, asking questions, sharing stories and learning as a group.” 

James Cham, partner at Bloomberg Beta, agrees with Walk that the founding team’s knowledge of behavioral psychology, group dynamics and community building gives them an edge.

“More than anything, though, they care about helping the world unite and feel connected, and have spent their entire careers building organizations to make that happen,” he said in a written statement. “So it was a no-brainer to back Gatheround, and I can’t wait to see the impact they have on society.”

The 14-person team will likely expand with the new capital, which will also go toward helping adding more functionality and details to the Gatheround product.

“Even before the pandemic, remote work was accelerating faster than other forms of work,” Conn said. “Now that’s intensified even more.”

Gatheround is not the only company attempting to tackle this space. Ireland-based Workvivo last year raised $16 million and earlier this year, Microsoft  launched Viva, its new “employee experience platform.”

What3Words sends legal threat to a security researcher for sharing an open-source alternative

By Zack Whittaker

A U.K. company behind digital addressing system What3Words has sent a legal threat to a security researcher for offering to share an open-source software project with other researchers, which What3Words claims violate its copyright.

Aaron Toponce, a systems administrator at XMission, received a letter on Thursday from a law firm representing What3Words, requesting that he delete tweets related to the open source alternative, WhatFreeWords. The letter also demands that he disclose to the law firm the identity of the person or people with whom he had shared a copy of the software, agree that he would not make any further copies of the software, and to delete any copies of the software he had in his possession.

The letter gave him until May 7 to agree, after which What3Words would “waive any entitlement it may have to pursue related claims against you,” a thinly-veiled threat of legal action.

“This is not a battle worth fighting,” he said in a tweet. Toponce told TechCrunch that he has complied with the demands, fearing legal repercussions if he didn’t. He has also asked the law firm twice for links to the tweets they want deleting but has not heard back. “Depending on the tweet, I may or may not comply. Depends on its content,” he said.

The legal threat sent to Aaron Toponce. (Image: supplied)

U.K.-based What3Words divides the entire world into three-meter squares and labels each with a unique three-word phrase. The idea is that sharing three words is easier to share on the phone in an emergency than having to find and read out their precise geographic coordinates.

But security researcher Andrew Tierney recently discovered that What3Words would sometimes have two similarly-named squares less than a mile apart, potentially causing confusion about a person’s true whereabouts. In a later write-up, Tierney said What3Words was not adequate for use in safety-critical cases.

It’s not the only downside. Critics have long argued that What3Words’ proprietary geocoding technology, which it bills as “life-saving,” makes it harder to examine it for problems or security vulnerabilities.

Concerns about its lack of openness in part led to the creation of the WhatFreeWords. A copy of the project’s website, which does not contain the code itself, said the open-source alternative was developed by reverse-engineering What3Words. “Once we found out how it worked, we coded implementations for it for JavaScript and Go,” the website said. “To ensure that we did not violate the What3Words company’s copyright, we did not include any of their code, and we only included the bare minimum data required for interoperability.”

But the project’s website was nevertheless subjected to a copyright takedown request filed by What3Words’ counsel. Even tweets that pointed to cached or backup copies of the code were removed by Twitter at the lawyers’ requests.

Toponce — a security researcher on the side — contributed to Tierney’s research, who was tweeting out his findings as he went. Toponce said that he offered to share a copy of the WhatFreeWord code with other researchers to help Tierney with his ongoing research into What3Words. Toponce told TechCrunch that receiving the legal threat may have been a combination of offering to share the code and also finding problems with What3Words.

In its letter to Toponce, What3Words argues that WhatFreeWords contains its intellectual property and that the company “cannot permit the dissemination” of the software.

Regardless, several websites still retain copies of the code and are easily searchable through Google, and TechCrunch has seen several tweets linking to the WhatFreeWords code since Toponce went public with the legal threat. Tierney, who did not use WhatFreeWords as part of his research, said in a tweet that What3Words’ reaction was “totally unreasonable given the ease with which you can find versions online.”

We asked What3Words if the company could point to a case where a judicial court has asserted that WhatFreeWords has violated its copyright. What3Words spokesperson Miriam Frank did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Europe charges Apple with antitrust breach, citing Spotify App Store complaint

By Natasha Lomas

The European Commission has announced that it’s issued formal antitrust charges against Apple, saying today that its preliminary view is Apple’s app store rules distort competition in the market for music streaming services by raising the costs of competing music streaming app developers.

The Commission begun investigating competition concerns related to iOS App Store (and also Apple Pay) last summer.

“The Commission takes issue with the mandatory use of Apple’s own in-app purchase mechanism imposed on music streaming app developers to distribute their apps via Apple’s App Store,” it wrote today. “The Commission is also concerned that Apple applies certain restrictions on app developers preventing them from informing iPhone and iPad users of alternative, cheaper purchasing possibilities.”

Commenting in a statement, EVP and competition chief Margrethe Vestager, said: “App stores play a central role in today’s digital economy. We can now do our shopping, access news, music or movies via apps instead of visiting websites. Our preliminary finding is that Apple is a gatekeeper to users of iPhones and iPads via the App Store. With Apple Music, Apple also competes with music streaming providers. By setting strict rules on the App store that disadvantage competing music streaming services, Apple deprives users of cheaper music streaming choices and distorts competition. This is done by charging high commission fees on each transaction in the App store for rivals and by forbidding them from informing their customers of alternative subscription options.”

Apple sent us this statement in response:

“Spotify has become the largest music subscription service in the world, and we’re proud for the role we played in that. Spotify does not pay Apple any commission on over 99% of their subscribers, and only pays a 15% commission on those remaining subscribers that they acquired through the App Store. At the core of this case is Spotify’s demand they should be able to advertise alternative deals on their iOS app, a practice that no store in the world allows. Once again, they want all the benefits of the App Store but don’t think they should have to pay anything for that. The Commission’s argument on Spotify’s behalf is the opposite of fair competition.”

Vestager is due to hold a press conference shortly — so stay tuned for updates.

This story is developing… 

A number of complaints against Apple’s practices have been lodged with the EU’s competition division in recent years — including by music streaming service Spotify; video games maker Epic Games; and messaging platform Telegram, to name a few of the complainants who have gone public (and been among the most vocal).

The main objection is over the (up to 30%) cut Apple takes on sales made through third parties’ apps — which critics rail against as an ‘Apple tax’ — as well as how it can mandate that developers do not inform users how to circumvent its in-app payment infrastructure, i.e. by signing up for subscriptions via their own website instead of through the App Store. Other complaints include that Apple does not allow third party app stores on iOS.

Apple, meanwhile, has argued that its App Store does not constitute a monopoly. iOS’ global market share of mobile devices is a little over 10% vs Google’s rival Android OS — which is running on the lion’s share of the world’s mobile hardware. But monopoly status depends on how a market is defined by regulators (and if you’re looking at the market for iOS apps then Apple has no competitors).

The iPhone maker also likes to point out that the vast majority of third party apps pay it no commission (as they don’t monetize via in-app payments). While it argues that restrictions on native apps are necessary to protect iOS users from threats to their security and privacy.

Last summer the European Commission said its App Store probe was focused on Apple’s mandatory requirement that app developers use its proprietary in-app purchase system, as well as restrictions applied on the ability of developers to inform iPhone and iPad users of alternative cheaper purchasing possibilities outside of apps.

It also said it was investigating Apple Pay: Looking at the T&Cs and other conditions Apple imposes for integrating its payment solution into others’ apps and websites on iPhones and iPads, and also on limitations it imposes on others’ access to the NFC (contactless payment) functionality on iPhones for payments in stores.

The EU’s antitrust regulator also said then that it was probing allegations of “refusals of access” to Apple Pay.

In March this year the UK also joined the Apple App Store antitrust investigation fray — announcing a formal investigation into whether it has a dominant position and if it imposes unfair or anti-competitive terms on developers using its app store.

US lawmakers have, meanwhile, also been dialling up attention on app stores, plural — and on competition in digital markets more generally — calling in both Apple and Google for questioning over how they operate their respective mobile app marketplaces in recent years.

Last month, for example, the two tech giants’ representatives were pressed on whether their app stores share data with their product development teams — with lawmakers digging into complaints against Apple especially that Cupertino frequently copies others’ apps, ‘sherlocking’ their businesses by releasing native copycats (as the practice has been nicknamed).

Back in July 2020 the House Antitrust Subcommittee took testimony from Apple CEO Tim Cook himself — and went on, in a hefty report on competition in digital markets, to accuse Apple of leveraging its control of iOS and the App Store to “create and enforce barriers to competition and discriminate against and exclude rivals while preferencing its own offerings”.

“Apple also uses its power to exploit app developers through misappropriation of competitively sensitive information and to charge app developers supra-competitive prices within the App Store,” the report went on. “Apple has maintained its dominance due to the presence of network effects, high barriers to entry, and high switching costs in the mobile operating system market.”

The report did not single Apple out — also blasting Google-owner Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook for abusing their market power. And the Justice Department went on to file suit against Google later the same month. So, over in the U.S., the stage is being set for further actions against big tech. Although what, if any, federal charges Apple could face remains to be seen.

At the same time, a number of state-level tech regulation efforts are brewing around big tech and antitrust — including a push in Arizona to relieve developers from Apple and Google’s hefty cut of app store profits.

While an antitrust bill introduced by Republican Josh Hawley earlier this month takes aim at acquisitions, proposing an outright block on big tech’s ability to carry out mergers and acquisitions.

Although that bill looks unlikely to succeed, a flurry of antitrust reform bills are set to introduced as U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle grapple with how to cut big tech down to a competition-friendly size.

In Europe lawmakers are already putting down draft laws with the same overarching goal.

In the EU the Commission has proposed an ex ante regime to prevent big tech from abusing its market power, with the Digital Markets Act set to impose conditions on intermediating platforms who are considered ‘gatekeepers’ to others’ market access.

In the UK, which now sits outside the bloc, the government is also drafting new laws in response to tech giants’ market power — saying it will create a ‘pro-competition’ regime that will apply to platforms with so-called  ‘strategic market status’ — but instead of a set list of requirements it wants to target specific measures per platform.

Gardening startups like Neverland want to make every day Earth Day for the home gardener

By Jonathan Shieber

Vera Kutsenko and Hayley Leibson have incredible tech pedigrees, but their latest venture involves as much digging in dirt as it does digging through lines of code.

The two women have founded Neverland, a startup for the home gardener that aims to be a marketplace connecting mom and pop gardening shops with the explosion of amateur horticulturalists that have sprung up since the pandemic began and everyone needed someone (or something) to talk to.

Gardening businesses were among the big winners during the pandemic, with sales at home and lawncare and gardening businesses shooting up 9% in 2020, according to data from the 200 year-old flower retailer, Breck’s.

It’s that surge in business, and the two co-founders own passion for home plants, that led to the launch of Neverland, the two founders said.

For both, it’s a change of pace. Kutsenko studied computer science at Cornell, worked at Facebook on the Internet.org initiative and led teams working on the mobile app at Uber. Meanwhile, Leibson founded LunchClub and served as that company’s chief operating officer.

Kutsenko and Leibson first connected through a women’s tech networking group in San Francisco and bonded over a shared love of plants. Leibson has roughly 24 plants in her apartment while Kutsenko had a plant nursery that she tended to herself.

“We really view the opportunity for Neverland to be the sustainability focused marketplace,” said Leibson. “The power of what we’re doing is we’re able to create a really consistent support network for the consumer.”

It’s a huge market. Kutsenko said that globally plant and gardening spending is roughly $52 billion and $28 billion of that market is indoor and outdoor gardening.

Using customer data, Neverland prompts users on how to optimize their gardens and horticulture activities based on their geography and what plants customers would want to grow. The company also looks to connect would-be green thumbed growers with companies in their region.

“The educational piece we’re pulling from is the USDA agricultural APIs,” said Kutsenko. “We take and translate the super science-y terms into language that [customers] would understand. We’re pulling this from existing government resources and aggregating it and making it accessible to folks.”

It was both the CVs of the founders and the overall size of the market that convinced investors to throw their financial weight behind the company — and it’s an impressive roster of consumer-focused and sustainability minded investors including: Obvious Ventures, Maveron, Kimbal Musk, and Y Combinator, which had Neverland in its most recent cohort. In all, Neverland managed to bring in $3 million for its marketplace and gardening community. 

And since everything starts with community, the company has managed to amass a healthy following on Instagram even before its scheduled launch this summer. Already 140,000 people follow Neverland’s posts. And the company has signed on 50 sellers in the Bay Area and beyond.

 

Building customer-first relationships in a privacy-first world is critical

By Ram Iyer
Travis Clinger Contributor
Travis Clinger is SVP, head of addressability and ecosystem at LiveRamp, a data connectivity platform safely moving data through the pipes connecting most every brand, tech platform, publisher and advertiser on the open internet.
Jeff Nienaber Contributor
Jeff Nienaber is senior director, global audience ads at Microsoft Advertising, which provides intelligent solutions that empower advertisers to deliver engaging, personalized experiences to over half a billion people worldwide.

In business today, many believe that consumer privacy and business results are mutually exclusive — to excel in one area is to lack in the other. Consumer privacy is seen by many in the technology industry as an area to be managed.

But the truth is, the companies who champion privacy will be better positioned to win in all areas. This is especially true as the digital industry continues to undergo tectonic shifts in privacy — both in government regulation and browser updates.

By the end of 2022, all major browsers will have phased out third-party cookies — the tracking codes placed on a visitor’s computer generated by another website other than your own. Additionally, mobile device makers are limiting identifiers allowed on their devices and applications. Across industry verticals, the global enterprise ecosystem now faces a critical moment in which digital advertising will be forever changed.

Up until now, consumers have enjoyed a mostly free internet experience, but as publishers adjust to a cookie-less world, they could see more paywalls and less free content.

They may also see a decrease in the creation of new free apps, mobile gaming, and other ad-supported content unless businesses find new ways to authenticate users and maintain a value exchange of free content for personalized advertising.

When consumers authenticate themselves to brands and sites, they create revenue streams for publishers as well as the opportunity to receive discounts, first-looks, and other specially tailored experiences from brands.

To protect consumer data, companies need to architect internal systems around data custodianship versus acting from a sense of data entitlement. While this is a challenging and massive ongoing evolution, the benefits of starting now are enormous.

Putting privacy front and center creates a sustainable digital ecosystem that enables better advertising and drives business results. There are four steps to consider when building for tomorrow’s privacy-centric world:

Transparency is key

As we collectively look to redesign how companies interact with and think about consumers, we should first recognize that putting people first means putting transparency first. When people trust a brand or publishers’ intentions, they are more willing to share their data and identity.

This process, where consumers authenticate themselves — or actively share their phone number, email or other form of identity — in exchange for free content or another form of value, allows brands and publishers to get closer to them.

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.

Twitter said to have held acquisition talks with Clubhouse on potential $4B deal

By Darrell Etherington

Twitter held talks with Clubhouse around a potential acquisition of the live drop-in audio networking platform, with a deal value somewhere around $4 billion, according to a report from Bloomberg. TechCrunch has also confirmed the discussions took place from a source familiar with the conversations.

While the talks occurred over the past several months, they’re no longer taking place, though the reason they ended isn’t known according to the report. It’s also worth noting that just a few days ago, Bloomberg reported that Clubhouse was seeking to raise a new round of funding at a valuation of around $4 billion, but the report detailing the potential acquisition talks indicate that the discussions with Twitter collapsed first, leading to a change in strategy to pursue securing additional capital in exchange for equity investment.

Twitter has its own product very similar to Clubhouse — Spaces, a drop-in audio chatroom feature that it has been rolling out gradually to its user base over the past few months. Clubhouse, meanwhile, just launched the first of its monetization efforts, Clubhouse Payments, which lets users send direct payments to other creators on the platform, provided that person has enabled receipt of said payments.

Interestingly, the monetization effort from Clubhouse actually doesn’t provide them with any money; instead, it’s monetization for recipient users who get 100% of the funds directed their way, minus a small cut for processing that goes directly to Stripe, the payment provider Clubhouse is using to enable the virtual tips.

While we aren’t privy to the specifics of these talks between Twitter and Clubhouse, it does seem like an awfully high price tag for the social network to pay for the audio app, especially given its own progress with Spaces. Clubhouse’s early traction has been undeniable, but there are a lot of questions still remaining about its longevity, and it’s also being cloned left and right by other platforms, begging the age-old startup question of whether it’s a feature or a product on its own.

Whatever went down, the timing of this revelation seems likely to prime the pump for Clubhouse’s conversation with potential investors at its target valuation for the round it’s looking to raise. Regardless, it’s exciting to have this kind of activity, buzz and attention paid to a consumer software play after many years of what one could argue has been a relatively lacklustre period for the category.

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