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A bug meant Twitter Fleets could still be seen after they disappeared

By Zack Whittaker

Twitter is the latest social media site to allow users to experiment with posting disappearing content. Fleets, as Twitter calls them, allows its mobile users post short stories, like photos or videos with overlaying text, that are set to vanish after 24 hours.

But a bug meant that fleets weren’t deleting properly and could still be accessed long after 24 hours had expired. Details of the bug were posted in a series of tweets on Saturday, less than a week after the feature launched.

full disclosure: scraping fleets from public accounts without triggering the read notification

the endpoint is: https://t.co/332FH7TEmN

— cathode gay tube (@donk_enby) November 20, 2020

The bug effectively allowed anyone to access and download a user’s fleets without triggering a notification that the user’s fleet had been read and by whom. The implication is that this bug could be abused to archive a user’s fleets after they expire.

Using an app that’s designed to interact with Twitter’s back-end systems via its developer API. What returned was a list of fleets from the server. Each fleet had its own direct URL, which when opened in a browser would load the fleet as an image or a video. But even after the 24 hours elapsed, the server would still return links to fleets that had already disappeared from view in the Twitter app.

When reached, a Twitter spokesperson said a fix was on the way. “We’re aware of a bug accessible through a technical workaround where some Fleets media URLs may be accessible after 24 hours. We are working on a fix that should be rolled out shortly.”

Twitter acknowledged that the fix means that fleets should now expire properly, it said it won’t delete the fleet from its servers for up to 30 days — and that it may hold onto fleets for longer if they violate its rules. We checked that we could still load fleets from their direct URLs even after they expire.

Fleet with caution.

Google plans to test end-to-end encryption in Android messages

By Zack Whittaker

For the past year and a half, Google has been rolling out its next-generation messaging to Android users to replace the old, clunky, and insecure SMS text messaging. Now the company says that rollout is complete, and plans to bring end-to-end encryption to Android messages next year.

Google’s Rich Communications Services is Android’s answer to Apple’s iMessage, and brings typing indicators, read receipts, and you’d expect from most messaging apps these days.

In a blog post Thursday, Google said it plans to roll out end-to-end encryption — starting with one-on-one conversations — leaving open the possibility of end-to-end encrypted group chats. It’ll become available to beta testers, who can sign up here, beginning later in November and continue into the new year.

End-to-end encryption prevents anyone — even Google — from reading messages as they travel between sender and the recipient.

Google dipped its toes into the end-to-end encrypted messaging space in 2016 with the launch of Allo, an app that immediately drew criticism from security experts for not enabling the security feature by default. Two years later, Google killed off the project altogether.

This time around, Google learned its lesson. Android messages will default to end-to-end encryption once the feature becomes available, and won’t revert back to SMS unless the users in the conversation loses or disables RCS.

Instagram expands new ‘Guides’ feature to all users, upgrades Search

By Sarah Perez

Earlier this year, Instagram launched a new feature called “Guides,” which allowed creators to share tips, resources and other longer-form content in a dedicated tab on their user profiles. Initially, Instagram limited Guides to a select group of creators who were publishing content focused on mental health and well-being. Today, the company says it’s making the format available to all users, and expanding Guides to include other types of content, as well — including Products, Places, and Posts.

Separately, Instagram also today announced an update to its Search functionality that will better direct users to their interests.

TechCrunch in August noted an expansion of Instagram Guides appeared to be in development, with a focus on allowing users to create travel guides and product recommendation guides, in addition to a more generic “posts” format.

This “Guides” format was designed to give Instagram creators and marketers a way to share long-form content on a social network that had been, until now, focused more on media — like photos and videos. By comparison, an Instagram Guide could look more like a blog post, as it could include text accompanied by photos, galleries and videos to illustrate the subject matter being discussed.

The feature could help increase users’ time in the app, since users wouldn’t have to click through to external websites and blogs to access these posts — for instance, through a link in the creator’s bio or through a link added to one of the creator’s Stories.

With the expansion to Products, Places and Posts, Instagram’s Guides can now cover more areas. Instagram says it made the feature easier to use, too. It may also feature Product Guides inside its new shopping destination on the platform, Instagram Shop, the company noted.

Visitors to Guides can share the Guides across their own Stories and in Direct Messages, expanding their reach even further.

Image Credits: Instagram

Also new today is an update to Instagram Search. Before, users could search for names, usernames, hashtags and locations. With the changes rolling out today, users will also now be able to use keywords that will surface content relevant to their interests. Along with Guides, the larger goal is to help keep Instagram users from leaving the app.

Instagram says the search update is available in English to all users in Canada, the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland starting today. The expansion to Guides is rolling out now to all users.

Google updates Maps with more COVID info and finally launches its Assistant driving mode

By Frederic Lardinois

Google today announced an update to Google Maps that includes a number of new COVID-related features, as well as the ability to see the live status of your takeout or delivery orders, as well as the launch of the long-expected new Assistant driving mode.

In addition, the company shared a few new stats around Google Maps today. The company says that it makes 50 million updates to Maps each day now, for example, though that includes user-generated content like user reviews, photos and ratings. The company also now features “popular times” information for 20 million places around the globe.

Image Credits: Google Maps

As far as COVID is concerned, there are two announcements here. First, Google is updating the COVID layer in Google Maps on Android and iOS with some new information, including the number of all-time detected cases in an area and links to COVID resources from local governments. Second, Google Maps can now tell you, in real time, how busy a given transit line is so you can avoid packed trains or busses, for example. That’s based on real-time feedback from Google Maps users and will feel familiar if you are aware of how Google Maps can already show you how busy a given store or restaurant currently is.

Image Credits: Google Maps

Semi-related — delivery services are booming during the pandemic, after all (even as they continue to struggle to make a profit) — Google Maps on mobile will now be able to show you the live delivery status of your takeout and delivery orders in the U.S., Canada, Germany, Australia, Brazil and India. To do so, you have to book your order from Google Maps on Android or iOS.

For Google Maps users who don’t have an Android Auto-compatible car, the new Google Assistant driving mode in Maps has long been something to look forward to. The company first talked about this set of new features at its I/O developers conference in May 2019, but as is so often the case, features announced at I/O take a while to get to market. Originally, this was supposed to launch last summer.

Image Credits: Google Maps

The idea here is to allow drivers to get alerts about incoming calls, have the Assistant read out text messages and control your music right inside of Google Maps. Using the Assistant ideally reduces driver distractions. For now, this new mode is only coming to Android users in the U.S., though, and the number of features it supports remains limited. Google promises to support more features over time, but it’s not clear which features it plans to add to this mode.

Microsoft reveals Pluton, a custom security chip built into Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm processors

By Zack Whittaker

For the past two years, some of the world’s biggest chip makers have battled a series of hardware flaws, like Meltdown and Spectre, which made it possible — though not easy — to pluck passwords and other sensitive secrets directly from their processors. The chip makers rolled out patches, but required the companies to rethink how they approach chip security.

Now, Microsoft thinks it has the answer with its new security chip, which it calls Pluton. The chip, announced today, is the brainchild of a partnership between Microsoft, and chip makers Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm.

Pluton acts as a hardware root-of-trust, which in simple terms protects a device’s hardware from tampering, such as from hardware implants or by hackers exploiting flaws in the device’s low-level firmware. By integrating the chip inside future Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm central processor units, or CPUs, it makes it far more difficult for hackers with physical access to a computer to launch hardware attacks and extract sensitive data, the companies said.

“The Microsoft Pluton design will create a much tighter integration between the hardware and the Windows operating system at the CPU that will reduce the available attack surface,” said David Weston, director of enterprise and operating system security at Microsoft.

Microsoft said Pluton made its first appearance in the Xbox One back in 2013 to make it far more difficult to hack the console or allow gamers to run pirated games. The chip later graduated to Microsoft’s cloud service Azure Sphere, used to secure low-cost Internet of Things devices.

The idea now is to bring that same technology, with some improvements, to new Windows 10 devices.

The chip comes with immediate benefits, like making hardware attacks against Windows devices far more difficult to succeed. But the chip also solves a major security headache by keeping the device’s firmware up-to-date.

Whether or not the Pluton chip can stand the test of time is another matter. Most of the chip vulnerability research has been done by third-party researchers through extensive, and often tedious work. Microsoft’s Weston said the Pluton chip has undergone a security stress-test by its own internal red team and by external vendors. But that could come back to haunt the company if it got something wrong. Case in point: just last month, security researchers found an “unfixable” security flaw in Apple’s T2 security chip — a custom-built chip in most modern Macs that’s analogous to Microsoft’s Pluton — that could open up Macs to the very security threats that the chip is supposed to prevent.

Microsoft declined to say if it planned to offer the Pluton chip designs to other chip makers or if it planned to make the designs open source for anyone to use, but said it plans to share more details in the future, leaving the door open to the possibility.

L’Oréal rolls out a line of ‘virtual makeup’

By Lucas Matney

Selfie filters have improved immensely over the past several years, but companies on the forefront of the tech see plenty of room to grow.

The cosmetics world has seen some rapid change in the past several years as makeup has proven particularly ripe for up-and-coming direct-to-consumer and influencer-endorsed brands to take hold. Plenty of legacy brands have seen their revenues decimated, while others have proven resilient by leaning into new tech and sales channel trends.

Back in 2018, L’Oréal made the interesting decision to buy an augmented reality filter company called Modiface. Fast forward to 2020 and they’ve opted to roll out a line of “virtual makeup” selfie filters. The “Signature Face” filters show off eye makeup, lipsticks, and hair products from the company. They’ve gone fairly wide with the rollout supporting Instagram, Snapchat, Snap Camera and Google Duo. Snap Camera support in particular enables the selfies to be used across plenty of video chat services like Houseparty and Zoom, L’Oréal is marketing these selfies as a way to spice up your look on video calls specifically. You can check our more details on where you can use the filters on their site.

In terms of the filters themselves, there’s nothing terribly more advanced about them than the makeup-centric selfie filters that have been floating around Snapchat for years, but it is interesting to see such a substantial brand leaning in so heavily and pitching this idea where people use selfie filters during video calls in a non-gimmicky way. It’s not clear whether the technology or consumer habits are there yet but it’s certainly plausible that things could move in that direction, especially as social media apps begin a more-focused drive towards becoming commerce platforms.

With $29M in funding, Isovalent launches its cloud-native networking and security platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Isovalent, a startup that aims to bring networking into the cloud-native era, today announced that it has raised a $29 million Series A round led by Andreesen Horowitz and Google. In addition, the company today officially launched its Cilium platform (which was in stealth until now) to help enterprises connect, observe and secure their applications.

The open-source Cilium project is already seeing growing adoption, with Google choosing it for its new GKE dataplane, for example. Other users include Adobe, Capital One, Datadog and GitLab. Isovalent is following what is now the standard model for commercializing open-source projects by launching an enterprise version.

Image Credits: Cilium

The founding team of CEO Dan Wendlandt and CTO Thomas Graf has deep experience in working on the Linux kernel and building networking products. Graf spent 15 years working on the Linux kernel and created the Cilium open-source project, while Wendlandt worked on Open vSwitch at Nicira (and then VMware).

Image Credits: Isovalent

“We saw that first wave of network intelligence be moved into software, but I think we both shared the view that the first wave was about replicating the traditional network devices in software,” Wendlandt told me. “You had IPs, you still had ports, you created virtual routers, and this and that. We both had that shared vision that the next step was to go beyond what the hardware did in software — and now, in software, you can do so much more. Thomas, with his deep insight in the Linux kernel, really saw this eBPF technology as something that was just obviously going to be groundbreaking technology, in terms of where we could take Linux networking and security.”

As Graf told me, when Docker, Kubernetes and containers, in general, become popular, what he saw was that networking companies at first were simply trying to reapply what they had already done for virtualization. “Let’s just treat containers as many as miniature VMs. That was incredibly wrong,” he said. “So we looked around, and we saw eBPF and said: this is just out there and it is perfect, how can we shape it forward?”

And while Isovalent’s focus is on cloud-native networking, the added benefit of how it uses the eBPF Linux kernel technology is that it also gains deep insights into how data flows between services and hence allows it to add advanced security features as well.

As the team noted, though, users definitely don’t need to understand or program eBPF, which is essentially the next generation of Linux kernel modules, themselves.

Image Credits: Isovalent

“I have spent my entire career in this space, and the North Star has always been to go beyond IPs + ports and build networking visibility and security at a layer that is aligned with how developers, operations and security think about their applications and data,” said Martin Casado, partner at Andreesen Horowitz (and the founder of Nicira). “Until just recently, the technology did not exist. All of that changed with Kubernetes and eBPF.  Dan and Thomas have put together the best team in the industry and given the traction around Cilium, they are well on their way to upending the world of networking yet again.”

As more companies adopt Kubernetes, they are now reaching a stage where they have the basics down but are now facing the next set of problems that come with this transition. Those, almost by default, include figuring out how to isolate workloads and get visibility into their networks — all areas where Isovalent/Cilium can help.

The team tells me its focus, now that the product is out of stealth, is about building out its go-to-market efforts and, of course, continue to build out its platform.

YouTube copies Spotify’s ‘Daily Mixes’ with its new ‘My Mix’ feature

By Sarah Perez

YouTube Music is taking another cue from Spotify with today’s launch of a set of personalized playlists that are essentially YouTube Music’s own take on Spotify’s “Daily Mixes.” Each of these new “My Mix” playlists will feature a different aspect of a user’s tastes and interests, allowing users to dive in to a particular vibe or music genre.

Up to seven of these new “My Mix” playlists will be featured on the Home tab, the company says, and will include a combination of favorite tunes as well as potential new favorites for discovery purposes.

With the launch, YouTube is also rebranding its personalized playlist previously called “Your Mix.” To better clarify its purpose and eliminate possible confusion with the new “My Mix” playlists, this playlist will now be called “My Supermix,” and will combine all of a user’s music tastes into one playlist, like Spotify’s “Discover Weekly.”

YouTube is making other changes to its Home tab and personalized selections, too, it says.

Image Credits: YouTube

Now, the Home tab will feature an activity bar offering easy access to four activity types, including Workout, Focus, Relax and Commute. These will take the user to a dedicated personalized homepage with a variety of playlists suited to the activity in question. The Workout tab, in particular, has been updated to include up to four new personalized mixes that feature music you already like as well as new recommendations. These tabs will also include a “Supermix” of the different playlists.

Personalization has become a key battleground for music streaming services, which aim to use technology to better cater to users by creating unique mixes and delivering more targeted recommendations. YouTube and Apple have both mimicked Spotify’s features on this front, offering their own variations on personalized playlists like Spotify’s flagship playlist, “Discover Weekly,” and others.

YouTube Music, though, has not had as much success in gaining a following, perhaps due to Google’s confusing and overlapping music strategy over the past several years, where it offered two different music apps.

Google has finally begun to correct his, and has started the transition that will shift users off its older service, Google Play Music, and over to YouTube Music. The latter, to date, has struggled with gaining a sizable share in the competitive music market, where Spotify and Apple dominate.

According to a MIDiA report in June, Google is in fifth place with a 6% share, behind Spotify, Apple, Amazon, and Tencent. However, the report suggested that YouTube Music’s appeal to a younger demographic could help Google turn things around, as its share had grown from just 3% in Q1 2018 to Q1 2019.

YouTube says the new changes to its playlists will arrive today.

Netflix tests a programmed linear TV and movie channel in France

By Darrell Etherington

Netflix is testing out a programmed linear content channel, similar to what you get with standard broadcast and cable TV, for the first time (via Variety). The streaming company will still be streaming said channel — it’ll be accessed via Netflix’s browser-based website — and it will be initially available in France only, having rolled out to select areas on November 5, with plans to expand to more of France through December.

The channel is called Netflix Direct, and is exclusively available to subscribers of the regular Netflix streaming service. It will show TV shows and movies from France, the U.S. and other regions, selected from Netflix’s existing content library. The reasoning behind the launch in France in particular, according to the streaming giant, is that a lot of viewers in the country tend to like watching programming without having to select what it is specifically they’re going to watch next.

Netflix previously launched a test of a tool that provided that — a “Shuffle” button that would play stuff it thinks you’d like at random from its recommendation trove. That was individual per users, however — while the new Netflix Direct approach is a fixed slate of programming that’s the same for everyone who tunes in, much more like traditional TV.

For all its strengths, Netflix definitely doesn’t have the same ability to channel surf or essentially veg out and let the TV take away any decision fatigue, so this could be the answer to that. It’s definitely an interesting experiment for Netflix, but we’ll see if it catches on or expands to more geographies with different viewing preferences.

 

President Trump’s Twitter accessed by security expert who guessed password ‘maga2020!’

By Zack Whittaker

A Dutch security researcher says he accessed President Trump’s @realDonaldTrump Twitter account last week by guessing his password: “maga2020!”.

Victor Gevers, a security researcher at the GDI Foundation and chair of the Dutch Institute for Vulnerability Disclosure, which finds and reports security vulnerabilities, told TechCrunch he guessed the president’s account password and was successful on the fifth attempt.

The account was not protected by two-factor authentication, granting Gevers access to the president’s account.

After logging in, he emailed US-CERT, a division of Homeland Security’s cyber unit Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), to disclose the security lapse, which TechCrunch has seen. Gevers said the president’s Twitter password was changed shortly after.

A screenshot from inside Trump’s Twitter account. (Image: Victor Gevers)

It’s the second time Gevers has gained access to Trump’s Twitter account.

The first time was in 2016, when Gevers and two others extracted and cracked Trump’s password from the 2012 LinkedIn breach. The researchers took his password — “yourefired” — his catchphrase from the television show “The Apprentice” — and found it let them into his Twitter account. Gevers reported the breach to local authorities in the Netherlands, with suggestions on how Trump could improve his password security. One of the passwords he suggested at the time was “maga2020!” he said. Gevers said he “did not expect” the password to work years later.

Dutch news outlet Vrij Nederland first reported the story.

In a statement, Twitter spokesperson Ian Plunkett said: “We’ve seen no evidence to corroborate this claim, including from the article published in the Netherlands today. We proactively implemented account security measures for a designated group of high-profile, election-related Twitter accounts in the United States, including federal branches of government.”

Twitter said last month that it would tighten the security on the accounts of political candidates and government accounts, including encouraging but not mandating the use of two-factor authentication.

Trump’s account is said to be locked down with extra protections after he became president, though Twitter has not said publicly what those protections entail. His account was untouched by hackers who broke into Twitter’s network in July in order to abuse an “admin tool” to hijack high-profile accounts and spread a cryptocurrency scam.

A spokesperson for the White House and the Trump campaign did not immediately comment, but White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere reportedly said the story is “absolutely not true,” but declined to comment on the president’s social media security. A spokesperson for CISA did not immediately confirm the report.

“It’s unbelievable that a man that can cause international incidence and crash stock markets with his Tweets has such a simple password and no two-factor authentication,” said Alan Woodward, a professor at the University of Surrey. “Bearing in mind his account was hacked in 2016 and he was saying only a couple of days ago that no one is hacked the irony is vintage 2020.”

Gevers has previously reported security incidents involving a facial recognition database used to track Uyghur Muslims and a vulnerability in Oman’s stock exchange.

Updated with Twitter comment, and corrected the name of publication which first published the news.

Psykhe secures Seed funding to match consumer personalities to fashion products

By Mike Butcher

In an overcrowded market of online fashion brands, consumers are spoilt for choice on what site to visit. They are generally forced to visit each brand one by one, manually filtering down to what they like. Most of the experience is not that great, and past purchase history and cookies aren’t much to go on to tailor user experience. If someone has bought an army-green military jacket, the e-commerce site is on a hiding to nothing if all it suggests is more army-green military jackets…

Instead, Psycke ( it’s brand name is ‘PSYKHE’) is an e-commerce startup that uses AI and psychology to make product recommendations based both on the user’s personality profile and the ‘personality’ of the products. Admittedly, a number of startups have come and gone claiming this, but it claims to have taken a unique approach to make the process of buying fashion easier by acting as an aggregator that pulls products from all leading fashion retailers. Each user sees a different storefront that, says the company, becomes increasingly personalized.

It has now raised $1.7 million in seed funding from a range of investors and is announcing new plans to scale its technology to other consumer verticals in the future in the B2B space.

The investors are Carmen Busquets – the largest founding investor in Net-a-Porter; SLS Journey – the new investment arm of the MadaLuxe Group, the North American distributor of luxury fashion; John Skipper – DAZN Chairman and former Co-chairman of Disney Media Networks and President of ESPN; and Lara Vanjak – Chief Operating Officer at Aser Ventures, formerly at MP & Silva and FC Inter-Milan.

So what does it do? As a B2C aggregator, it pools inventory from leading retailers. The platform then applies machine learning and personality-trait science, and tailors product recommendations to users based on a personality test taken on sign-up. The company says it has international patents pending and has secured affiliate partnerships with leading retailers that include Moda Operandi, MyTheresa, LVMH’s platform 24S, and 11 Honoré.

The business model is based around an affiliate partnership model, where it makes between 5-25% of each sale. It also plans to expand into B2B for other consumer verticals in the future, providing a plug-in product that allows users to sort items by their personality.

How does this personality test help? Well, Psykhe has assigned an overall psychological profile to the actual products themselves: over 1 million products from commerce partners, using machine learning (based on training data).

So for example, if a leather boot had metal studs on it (thus looking more ‘rebellious’), it would get a moderate-low rating on the trait of ‘Agreeableness’. A pink floral dress would get a higher score on that trait. A conservative tweed blazer would get a lower score tag on the trait of ‘Openness’, as tweed blazers tend to indicate a more conservative style and thus nature.

So far, Psykhe’s retail partnerships include Moda Operandi, MyTheresa, LVMH’s platform 24S, Outdoor Voices, Jimmy Choo, Coach, and size-inclusive platform 11 Honoré.

It’s competitors include The Yes and Lyst. However, Psykhe’s main point of differentiation is this personality scoring. Furthermore, The Yes is app-only, US-only, and only partners with monobrands, while Lyst is an aggregator with 1,000s of brands, but used as more of a search platform.

Psykhe is in a good position to take advantage of the ongoing effects of COVID-19, which continue to give a major boost to global ecommerce as people flood online amid lockdowns.

The startup is the brainchild of Anabel Maldonado, CEO & founder, (along with founding team CTO Will Palmer and Lead Data Scientist, Rene-Jean Corneille, pictured above), who studied psychology in her hometown of Toronto, but ended up working at in the UK’s NHS in a specialist team that made developmental diagnoses for children under 5.

She made a pivot into fashion after winning a competition for an editorial mentorship at British Marie Claire. She later went to the press department of Christian Louboutin, followed by internships at the Mail on Sunday and Marie Claire, then spending several years in magazine publishing before moving into e-commerce at CoutureLab. Going freelance, she worked with a number of luxury brands and platforms as an editorial consultant. As a fashion journalist, she’s contributed industry op-eds to publications such as The Business of Fashion, T The New York Times Style, and Marie Claire.

As part of the fashion industry for 10 years, she says she became frustrated with the narratives which “made fashion seem more frivolous than it really is. I thought, this is a trillion-dollar industry, we all have such emotional, visceral reactions to an aesthetic based on who we are, but all we keep talking about is the ‘hot new color for fall and so-called blanket “must-haves’.”

But, she says, “there was no inquiry into individual differences. This world was really missing the level of depth it deserved, and I sought to demonstrate that we’re all sensitive to aesthetic in one way or another and that our clothing choices have a great psychological pay-off effect on us, based on our unique internal needs.” So she set about creating a startup to address this ‘fashion psychology’ – or, as she says “why we wear what we wear”.

SoftBank’s $100 million diversity and inclusion fund makes its first bet … in health

By Jonathan Shieber

SoftBank’s Opportunity Growth Fund has made the health insurance startup Vitable Health the first commitment from its $100 million fund dedicated to investing in startups founded by entrepreneurs of color.

The Philadelphia-based company, which recently launched from Y Combinator, is focused on bringing basic health insurance to underserved and low-income communities.

Founded by Joseph Kitonga, a 23 year-old entrepreneur whose parents immigrated to the U.S. a decade ago, Vitable provides affordable acute healthcare coverage to underinsured or un-insured populations and was born out of Kitonga’s experience watching employees of his parents’ home healthcare agency struggle to receive basic coverage.

The $1.5 million commitment was led by the SoftBank Group Corp Opportunity Fund, and included Y Combinator, DNA Capital, Commerce Ventures, MSA Capital, Coughdrop Capital, and angels like Immad Akhund, the chief executive of Mercury Bank; and Allison Pickens, the former chief operating officer of Gainsight, the company said in a blog post.

“Good healthcare is a basic right that every American deserves, whoever they are,” said Paul Judge, the Atlanta-based Early Stage Investing Lead for the fund and the founder of Atlanta’s TechSquare Labs investment fund. “We’ve been inspired by Joseph and his approach to addressing this challenge. Vitable Health is bridging critical gaps in patient care and has emerged as a necessary, essential service for all whether they’re uninsured, underinsured, or simply need a better plan for their lifestyle.”

SoftBank created the opportunity fund while cities around the U.S. were witnessing a wave of public protests against systemic racism and police brutality stemming from the murder of the Black Minneapolis citizen George Floyd at the hands of white police officers.  Floyd’s murder reignited simmering tensions between citizens and police in cities around the country over issues including police brutality, the militarization of civil authorities, and racial profiling.

SoftBank has had its own problems with racism in its portfolio this year. A few months before the firm launched its fund, the CEO and founder of one of its portfolio companies, Banjo, resigned after it was revealed that he once had ties to the KKK.

With the Opportunity Fund, SoftBank is trying to address some of its issues, and notably, will not take a traditional management fee for transactions out of the fund “but instead will seek to put as much capital as possible into the hands of founders and entrepreneurs of color.”

The Opportunity Fund is the third investment vehicle announced by SoftBank in the last several years. The biggest of them all is the $100 billion Vision Fund; then last year it announced the $2 billion Innovation Fund focused on Latin America.

Google announces slew of Chrome OS features to help extend enterprise usage

By Ron Miller

As companies have moved to work from home this year, working on the internet has become the norm, and it turns out that Chrome OS was an operating system built for cloud-based applications. But most enterprise use cases are a bit more complex, and Google introduced some new features today to make it easier for IT to distribute machines running Chrome OS.

While the shift to the cloud has been ongoing over the last few years, the pandemic has definitely pushed companies to move faster, says John Maletis, project manager for engineering and UX for Chrome OS. “With COVID-19, the need for that productive, distributed workforce with some employees in office, but mostly [working from home] is really in the sights of businesses everywhere, and it is rapidly accelerating that move,” Maletis told TechCrunch.

To that end, Cyrus Mistry, group product manager at Google says that they want to make it easier for IT to implement Chrome OS and they’ve added a bunch of features to help. For starters, they have created a free readiness tool that lets IT get the lay of the land of which applications are ready to run on Chrome OS, and which aren’t. The tools issues a report with three colors: green is good to go, yellow is probable and red is definitely not ready.

To help with the latter categories, the company also announced the availability of Parallels for Chrome OS, which will enable companies with Windows applications that can’t run on Chrome OS to run them natively in Windows in a virtual machine. Mistry acknowledges that companies running Windows this way will need to issue higher end Chromebooks with the resources to handle this approach, but for companies with critical Windows applications, this is a good way to extend the usage of Chromebooks to a broader population of users.

To make it easier to issue machines ready to use of the box, Google is also introducing zero touch distribution, which allows manufacturers to set up machines for a domain ready to use out of the box. All the user has to do is turn it on and it’s ready to use.

“We can do what’s called zero touch, which is the devices can be already enrolled by the manufacturers, which means they will know the domain and they can now drop ship directly,” Mistry explained. That means these machines are equipped with the right settings, policies, applications, certificates and so forth, as though IT had set up the machine for the user.

In another nod to making life easier for IT, Google  is offering a new set of certified applications like Salesforce, Zoom and Palo Alto Networks which have been certified to work well on Chrome OS. Finally, the company announced that it will be enabling multiple virtual work areas with the ability to drag and drop between them, along with the ability to group tabs and search for tabs in the Chrome browser, which should be ready in the next couple of months.

As Maletis pointed out, the company may have been ahead of the market when it released Chrome OS almost a decade ago, but this year has shown that companies need the cloud to stay in operation and Chrome OS is an operating system built from the ground up for the cloud.

Google calls DOJ’s antitrust lawsuit ‘deeply flawed’ in GIF-laden blog response

By Darrell Etherington

Google was clearly anticipating today’s U.S. Department of Justice antitrust complaint filing – the company posted an extensive rebuttal of the lawsuit to its Keyword company blog. The post, penned by SVP of Global Affairs and Google Chief Legal Officer Kent Walker, suggests that the DOJ’s case is “deeply flawed” and “would do nothing to help consumers,” before going into a platform-by-platform description of why it thinks its position in the market isn’t representative of unfair market dominance that would amount to antitrust.

Google’s blog post is even sprinkled with GIFs – something that’s pretty common for the search giant when it comes to its consumer product launches. These GIFs include step-by-step screen recordings of setting search engines other than Google as your default in Chrome on both mobile and desktop. These processes are both described as “trivially easy” by Walker in the post, but they do look like a bit of an own-goal when you notice just how many steps it takes to get the job done on desktop in particular, including what looks like a momentary hesitation in where to click to drill down further for the “Make Default” command.

Image Credits: Google

Google also reportedly makes reference to companies choosing their search engine as default because of the quality of their service, including both Apple and Mozilla (with a link drop for our own Frederic Lardinois). Ultimately, Google is making the argument that its search engine isn’t dominant because of a lack of viable options fostered by anti-competitive practices, but that instead it’s a result of building a quality product that consumers then opt in to using from among a field of choices.

The DOJ’s full suit dropped this morning, and an initial analysis suggests that this scrutiny is perhaps inopportunely timed in terms of its proximity to the election to actually have any significant teeth. There is some indication that a more broad, bipartisan investigation with support from state level attorney generals on both sides of the aisle could follow later, however, so it’s not necessarily all just going to go away regardless of election outcome.

Gowalla is being resurrected as an augmented reality social app

By Lucas Matney

Gowalla is coming back.

The startup, which longtime TechCrunch readers will likely recall, was an ambitious consumer social app that excited Silicon Valley investors but ultimately floundered in its quest to take on Foursquare before an eventual $3 million acquihire in 2011 brought the company’s talent to Facebook.

The story certainly seemed destined to end there, but founder Josh Williams tells TechCrunch that he has decided to revive the Gowalla name and build on its ultimate vision by leaning on augmented reality tech.

“I really don’t think [Gowalla’s vision] has been fully realized at all, which is why I still want to scratch this itch,” Williams tells TechCrunch. “It was frankly really difficult to see it shut down.”

After a stint at Facebook, another venture-backed startup and a few other gigs, Williams has reacquired the Gowalla name, and is resurrecting the company with the guidance of co-founder Patrick Piemonte, a former Apple interface designer who previously founded an AR startup called Mirage. The new company was incubated inside Form Capital, a small design-centric VC fund operated by Williams and Bobby Goodlatte .

Founders Patrick Piemonte (left) and Josh Williams (right). Image credit: Josh Williams.

Williams hopes that AR can bring the Gowalla brand new life.

Despite significant investment from Facebook, Apple and Google, augmented reality is still seen as a bit of a gamble with many proponents estimating mass adoption to be several years out. Apple’s ARKit developer platform has yielded few wins despite hefty investment and Pokémon Go — the space’s sole consumer smash hit — is growing old.

“The biggest AR experience out there is Pokémon Go, and it’s now over six years old,” Williams says. “It’s moved the space forward a lot but is still very early in terms of what we’re going to see.”

Williams was cryptic when it came to details for what exactly the new augmented reality platform would look like when it launches. He did specify that it will feel more like a gamified social app than a social game, though he also lists the Nintendo franchise Animal Crossing as one of the platform’s foundational inspirations.

A glimpse of the branding for the new Gowalla. Image credit: Josh Williams

“It’s not a game with bosses or missions or levels, but rather something that you can experience,” Williams says. “How do you blend augmented reality and location? How do you see the world through somebody else’s eyes?”

A location-based social platform will likely rely on users actually going places, and the pandemic has largely dictated the app’s launch timing. Today, Gowalla is launching a waitlist, Williams says the app itself will launch in beta “in a number of cities” sometime in the first-half of next year. The team is also trying something unique with a smaller paid beta group called the “Street Team,” which will give users paying a flat $49 fee early access to Gowalla as well as “VIP membership,” membership to a private Discord group and some branded swag. A dedicated Street Team app will also launch in December.

The Justice Department has filed its antitrust lawsuit against Google

By Jonathan Shieber

The Justice Department said it has filed its long-awaited antitrust lawsuit against Google, confirming an earlier report from The Wall Street Journal.

In the suit, the Justice Department is expected to argue that Google used anticompetitive practices to safeguard its monopoly position as the dominant force in search and search-advertising, which sit at the foundation of the company’s extensive advertising, data mining, video distribution, and information services conglomerate.

It would be the first significant legal challenge that Google has faced from U.S. regulators despite years of investigations into the company’s practices.

A 2012 attempt to bring the company to the courts to answer for anti-competitive practices was ultimately scuttled because regulators at the time weren’t sure they could make the case stick. Since that time Alphabet’s value has skyrocketed to reach over $1 trillion (as of today’s share price).

Alphabet, Google’s parent company, holds a commanding lead in both search and video. The company dominates the search market — with roughly 90% of the world’s internet searches conducted on its platform — and roughly three quarters of American adults turn to YouTube for video, as the Journal reported.

In the lawsuit, the Department of Justice will say that Alphabet’s Google subsidiary uses a web of exclusionary business agreements to shut out competitors. The billions of dollars that the search giant collects wind up paying mobile phone companies, carriers and browsers to make the Google search engine a preset default. That blocks competitors from being able to access the kinds of queries and traffic they’d need to refine their own search engine.

It will be those relationships — alongside Google’s insistence that its search engine come pre-loaded (and un-deletable) on phones using the Android operating system and that other search engines specifically not be pre-loaded — that form part of the government’s case, according to Justice Department officials cited by the Journal.

The antitrust suit comes on the heels of a number of other regulatory actions involving Google, which is not only the dominant online search provider, but also a leader in online advertising and in mobile technology by way of Android, as well as a strong player in a web of other interconnected services like mapping, online productivity software, cloud computing and more.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, UNITED STATES – 2020/02/23: American multinational technology company Google logo seen at Google campus. (Photo by Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A report last Friday in Politico noted that Democrat Attorneys General would not be signing the suit. That report said those AGs have instead been working on a bipartisan, state-led approach covering a wider number of issues beyond search — the idea being also that more suits gives government potentially a stronger bargaining position against the tech giant.

A third suit is being put together by the state of Texas, although that has faced its own issues.

While a number of tech leviathans are facing increasing scrutiny from Washington, with the US now just two weeks from Election Day, it’s unlikely that we are going to see many developments around this and other cases before then. And in the case of this specific Google suit, in the event that Trump doesn’t get re-elected, there will also be a larger personnel shift at the DoJ that could also change the profile and timescale of the case.

In any event, fighting these regulatory cases is always a long, drawn-out process. In Europe, Google has faced a series of fines over antitrust violations stretching back several years, including a $2.7 billion fine over Google shopping; a $5 billion fine over Android dominance; and a $1.7 billion fine over search ad brokering. While Goolge slowly works through appeals, there are also more cases ongoing against the company in Europe and elsewhere.

Google is not the only one catching the attention of Washington. Earlier in October, the House Judiciary Committee released a report of more than 400 pages in which it outlined how tech giants Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and Facebook were abusing their power, covering everything from the areas in which they dominate, through to suggestions for how to fix the situation (including curtailing their acquisitions strategy).

That seemed mainly to be an exercise in laying out the state of things, which could in turn be used to inform further actions, although in itself, unlike the DoJ suit, the House report lacks teeth in terms of enforcement or remedies.

Adobe Lightroom gets a new color grading tool, auto versions, graphical watermarking and more

By Frederic Lardinois

At its MAX conference, Adobe today announced the launch of the latest version of Lightroom, its popular photo management and editing tool. The highlights of today’s release are the introduction of a new color grading tool that’s more akin to what you’d find in a video editor like Adobe Premiere or DaVinci Resolve, auto versioning that’s saved in the cloud (and hence not available in Lightroom Classic) and graphical watermarks, in addition to a number of other small feature updates across the application.

Adobe had already teased the launch of the new color grading feature last month, which was probably a good idea given how much of a change this is for photographers who have used Lightroom before. Adjusting color is, after all, one of the main features of Lightroom and this is a major change.

Image Credits: Adobe

At its core, the new color wheels replace the existing ‘split toning’ controls in Lightroom.

“Color Grading is an extension of Split Toning — it can do everything Split Toning did, plus much more,” Adobe’s Max Wendt explains in today’s announcement. “Your existing images with Split Toning settings will look exactly the same as they did before, your old Split Toning presets will also still look the same when you apply them, and you can still get the same results if you had a familiar starting point when doing Split Toning manually.”

My guess is that it’ll take a while for many Lightroom users to get a hang of these new color wheels. Overall, though, I think this new system is more intuitive than the current split toning feature that a lot of users regularly ignored.

The new color grading feature will be available across platforms and in Lightroom Classic, as well as Camera Raw.

The other new feature Adobe is highlighting with this release is graphical watermarks (available on Windows, Mac, iOS, iPadOS, Android and Chrome OS), that augments the existing text-based watermarking in Lightroom. This does exactly what the name implies and the watermarks are automatically applied when you share or export and image.

Image Credits: Adobe

The most important overall quality of life feature the team is adding is auto versions (also available on Windows, Mac, iOS, iPadOS, Android and Chrome OS). This makes it far easier to save different versions of an image — and these versions are synced across platforms. That way, you can easily go back and forth between different edits and revert those as necessary, too.

Image Credits: Adobe

With its new ‘best photos’ feature, Adobe is now also using its Ai smarts to find the best photos you’ve taken, but only on iOS, iPadOS, and Android, Chrome OS and the web. It’ll look at the technical aspects of your photo, as well as whether your subjects have their eyes open and face forward, for example, and the overall framing of the image. Users can decide how many of their images make the cut by toggling a threshold slider.

Another nifty new feature for Canon shooters who use Lightroom Classic is the addition of a tethered live view for Canon – with support for other cameras coming soon. With this, you get a real-time feed from your camera, making it easier to collaborate with others in real time.

 

Daily Crunch: Pakistan un-bans TikTok

By Anthony Ha

TikTok returns to Pakistan, Apple launches a music-focused streaming station and SpaceX launches more Starlink satellites. This is your Daily Crunch for October 19, 2020.

The big story: Pakistan un-bans TikTok

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority blocked the video app 11 days ago, over what it described as “immoral,” “obscene” and “vulgar” videos. The authority said today that it’s lifting the ban after negotiating with TikTok management.

“The restoration of TikTok is strictly subject to the condition that the platform will not be used for the spread of vulgarity/indecent content & societal values will not be abused,” it continued.

This isn’t the first time this year the country tried to crack down on digital content. Pakistan announced new internet censorship rules this year, but rescinded them after Facebook, Google and Twitter threatened to leave the country.

The tech giants

Apple launches a US-only music video station, Apple Music TV —  The new music video station offers a free, 24-hour live stream of popular music videos and other music content.

Google Cloud launches Lending DocAI, its first dedicated mortgage industry tool — The tool is meant to help mortgage companies speed up the process of evaluating a borrower’s income and asset documents.

Facebook introduces a new Messenger API with support for Instagram — The update means businesses will be able to integrate Instagram messaging into the applications and workflows they’re already using in-house to manage their Facebook conversations.

Startups, funding and venture capital

SpaceX successfully launches 60 more Starlink satellites, bringing total delivered to orbit to more than 800 — That makes 835 Starlink satellites launched thus far, though not all of those are operational.

Singapore tech-based real estate agency Propseller raises $1.2M seed round — Propseller combines a tech platform with in-house agents to close transactions more quickly.

Ready Set Raise, an accelerator for women built by women, announces third class — Ready Set Raise has changed its programming to be more focused on a “realistic fundraising process” vetted by hundreds of women.

Advice and analysis for Extra Crunch

Are VCs cutting checks in the closing days of the 2020 election? — Several investors told TechCrunch they were split about how they’re making these decisions.

Disney+ UX teardown: Wins, fails and fixes — With the help of Built for Mars founder and UX expert Peter Ramsey, we highlight some of the things Disney+ gets right and things that should be fixed.

Late-stage deals made Q3 2020 a standout VC quarter for US-based startups — Investors backed a record 88 megarounds of $100 million or more.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

US charges Russian hackers blamed for Ukraine power outages and the NotPetya ransomware attack — Prosecutors said the group of hackers, who work for the Russian GRU, are behind the “most disruptive and destructive series of computer attacks ever attributed to a single group.”

Stitcher’s podcasts arrive on Pandora with acquisition’s completion — SiriusXM today completed its previously announced $325 million acquisition of podcast platform Stitcher from E.W. Scripps, and has now launched Stitcher’s podcasts on Pandora.

Original Content podcast: It’s hard to resist the silliness of ‘Emily in Paris’ — The show’s Paris is a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that we’re happy to visit.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

This Week in Apps: Apple’s big event, lidar comes to iPhone, Android gets a new IDE

By Sarah Perez

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

Top Story

Apple introduces four new iPhones (and more)

Apple hosted its iPhone event this week, where it introduced the new iPhone 12… and the iPhone 12 mini, the iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro Max — effectively plugging all the holes in the market. With the release of the four new iPhones, app developers will have a range of devices to build for, from small to very large — the 12 Pro Max, for example, introduces the iPhone’s biggest-ever screen and the highest resolution, at nearly 3.5M pixels.

It also, of course, includes serious camera improvements, from a redesign of the three-lens system to including a new deeper telephoto camera, now a 65 mm-equivalent instead of 52 mm, as on previous models. There’s also an improved wide-angle lens, larger sensor, the addition of sensor-level image stabilization and a revamped Night Mode. Photographers will appreciate the new Apple ProRAW format, as well. (More on that here).

The iPhone 12 mini, meanwhile, aims to serve the customer base that prefers a smaller phone, like the iPhone SE, but without sacrificing functionality.

All the devices share some key features, including 5G connectivity, the new MagSafe connector for wireless charging and snap-on magnetic accessories, OLED displays and the A14 chip. They also have a more classic look, with straight edges that allow for additional antennas, providing next-gen wireless connectivity.

One of the bigger differences, however, between the Pro models and the regular iPhone 12 is the addition of the LiDAR Scanner, which is also found in the latest iPad Pro. The scanner measures how long it takes for light to reach an object and reflect back. The new depth-sensing technology has big implications for AR, as it allows augmented reality objects to interact with objects in the real world. AR apps will be more user-friendly, too, as they won’t need to first scan the room to place the AR object in the real world. It can be placed instantly.

Apple is leveraging the sensor for the iPhone 12 Pro camera to offer up to 6x faster focus in low-light conditions. Developers, meanwhile, can leverage lidar for use cases like AR-enabled games that work in the real world, social media (like Snapchat’s new lidar-powered Lens), home design and improvement apps involving room scans, spatial layout planning (like JigSpace), better AR shopping experiences and more.

The company also announced an affordable version of its HomePod smart speaker, the $99 HomePod Mini. The item works best for those fully locked inside the Apple universe, as it will stream a handful of music services, but not one of the most popular — Spotify. However, Apple also introduced a nifty feature for the HomePod devices, Intercom, which lets you send announcements across the speakers. While Apple and Google have offered a similar feature for their smart speakers, Intercom also works across other Apple devices, including iPhone, iPod, AirPods and even CarPlay. (What, no Mac?)

If Apple isn’t too late to capture smart speaker market share, the new speaker could see more users adopting smart home devices they can voice control through the HomePod Mini.

During the event, Apple also subtly snubbed its nose at Epic’s Fortnite with the announcement that
League of Legends: Wild Rift would be coming to iPhone 12 to take advantage of its new 5G capabilities and A14 Bionic chip.

Weekly News Round-Up

Platforms

  • Lidar comes to iPhone 12 Pro. Developers can now build AR experiences that interact with real-world objects, and AR apps can now instantly place AR objects in the real world without scanning the room. The update will mean a huge increase in the usability of AR apps but is limited to the Pro model of iPhone for now. Snapchat is already using it.
  • Apple developers can now make their apps available for pre-order even earlier — up to 180 days before release on the App Store.
  • Android Studio 4.1 launches. The new, stable version of the IDE for building Android apps introduces better TensorFlow Lite support and a new database inspector. The team also fixed a whopping 2,370 bugs during this release cycle and closed 275 public issues.
  • Google introduces the Android for Cars library. The library, now in open beta, gives developers tools to design, develop and test new navigation, parking or charging apps for Android Auto. The Google Play Store will be enabled for publishing beta apps in the “coming months.”
  • Google stops selling music. The company no longer sells tracks and albums on its Play Store, shifting all its focus to YouTube Music. The latter also just launched on Apple Watch this week.

Trends

  • Shopping apps forecast. U.S. consumers were expected to spend 60M hours in Android shopping apps during Prime Day week, (which just wrapped) according to one forecast from App Annie.
  • Prime Day downloads grow. Sensor Tower estimates global installs of the Amazon app grew 23% year-over-year, to 684K, as Prime Day neared. Installs on Wednesday were up 33% to 750K. However, U.S. installs were down by 22% 10/13-10/14. Apptopia noted that app sessions, however, were up 27% year-over-year.
  • Shopping, Food & Drink app launches up more than 50% year-over-year. Shopping apps grew 52% while Food & Drink apps grew 60%, due to COVID-19 impacts, according to Sensor Tower.
  • Subscriptions. U.S. consumers spend $20.78 per month on app subscriptions, Adjust study says.
  • TikTok sale impact on ad industry. 73% of marketers said a TikTok sale in the U.S. would impact their 2021 advertising plans. 41% also believed the deal could allow Walmart to overtake Amazon in e-commerce.
  • Amazon expands AR experimentation to its boxes. The retailer launched a new AR application that works with QR codes on the company’s shipping boxes to create “interactive, shareable” AR experiences, like a pumpkin that comes to life.

Security

  • Robinhood said a “limited number” of its users’ accounts were hacked. The service itself was not hacked, but around 2,000 customers had accounts compromised by cybercriminals who first compromised users’ personal emails outside the trading app.

Other News

  • Zoom’s new events platform brings apps to video conferencing calls.
  • Messenger update brings new features, including cross-app communication with Instagram. The app gets fun features like chat themes, custom reactions and, soon, selfie stickers and vanish mode. But the bigger news is the (potentially anti-competitive) merging of Facebook’s chat platforms.
  • Life360 leverages TikTok teens’ complaints to start a dialogue and invent a new feature, “Bubbles,” which allows teens (or anyone) to share a generalized location instead of an exact one. The feature gives teens a bit more freedom to roam and make choices without so much parental oversight. Parents, meanwhile, can still be sure their teen is OK, as features like emergency SOS and crash alerts remain functional.
  • Must-read: The MacStories iOS and iPadOS 14 Review. Federico Viticci offers a 23-page deep dive into the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system.

Funding and M&A

    • Future raises $24M Series B for its $150/mo workout coaching app amid at-home fitness boom. The app pairs users with real-life fitness coaching for personal training at home. The round was led by Trustbridge Partners with Caffeinated Capital and Series A investors Kleiner Perkins participating.
    • River raises $10.4M for its app offering news, events and other happenings from around the web, ranging from news stories from top publishers to sports to even notable tweets. The app presents the information in a real-time stream, browsed vertically. There’s also a “For You” page, similar to TikTok.
    • Roblox confidentially filed with the SEC to go public. This cross-platform gaming platform has boomed during coronavirus lockdowns. According to reports, the listing could double Robox’s $4B valuation.
    • Robo Adviser Wealthsimple raises $87M. The funding for the investing app with comparisons to Robinhood was led by Menlo Park-based Technology Crossover Ventures (TCV), valuing the business at $1B.
    • Fitness platform Playbook raises $9.3M. The company offers tools for personal trainers who want to make their own videos, which consumers then browse in Playbook’s mobile app. Backers include E.ventures, Michael Ovitz, Abstract, Algae Ventures, Porsche Ventures and FJ Labs.
    • Live streaming app Moment House raises $1.5M seed. The startup aims to recreate live events in a digital format. LA area investors invested, including Scooter Braun, Troy Carter, Kygo’s Palm Tree Crew and Jared Leto. Patreon chief executive Jack Conte and Sequoia Capital partner Jess Lee also participated.
    • Twilio acquires Segment for $3.2B to help developers build data-fueled apps.
    • E-learning platform Kahoot raises $215M from SoftBank. The Norwegian startup claims to have hosted 1.3 billion “participating players” in the last 12 months. The company’s gamified e-learning platform is used both in schools and in enterprise environments.

Downloads

Mycons

Mycons is a new app that makes it easier for users, including non-designers, to create and buy custom icons for their iOS home screen makeovers. In the app’s “Icon Studio,” users can create icons by swapping out the background, choosing a symbol and placing it on the icon accordingly. You can also create a whole set of icons in a batch export. If you don’t feel like designing your own, you can opt to purchase premade packs instead.

The app is a free download with a one-time, in-app purchase to unlock the fully functionality of the icon designer. The icon packs, which include different variations and matching wallpaper, range from $7.99-$9.99.

Spotify’s new iOS 14 widget

Image Credits: TechCrunch screenshot of Spotify widget

It’s here! The widget a number of people have waited for since the launch of the new version of iOS has arrived. 

The widget, which arrives in the latest version of the Spotify iOS app, comes in two sizes. The smaller widget will display just your most recently listened to item, while the medium-sized widget will instead show the five most recent items — four in a horizontal row and the most recent at the top. In that case, you can actually tap on the small thumbnail for which of the five you want to now stream to be taken directly to that page in the Spotify app. The widget also automatically updates its background color to match the thumbnail photo.

Crypto-driven marketplace Zora raises $2M to build a sustainable creator economy

By Matthew Panzarino

Dee Goens and Jacob Horne have both the exact and precisely opposite background that you’d expect to see from two people building a way for creators to build a sustainable economy for their followers to participate in. Coinbase, crypto-hack projects at university, KPMG, Merrill Lynch. But where’s the art?

“Believe it or not, I used to have dreams of being a rapper,” laughs Goens. “There’s a SoundcCloud out there somewhere. With that passion you explore the inner workings of the music industry. I would excitedly ask industry friends about the advance and 360 deal models only to realize they were completely broken.”

And, while many may be well-intentioned, these deal structures often exploit artistry. In many cases taking the majority of an artist’s ownership. “I grew curious why artists were unable to resource themselves from their community in an impactful way — but instead, were forced to seek out potentially predatory relationships. To me, this was bullshit.”

Horne says that he’d always wanted to create a fashion brand. 

“I always thought a fashion brand would be something I’d do after crypto,” he tells me. “I love crypto but it felt overly focused on just finance and felt like it was missing something. Then I started to play with the idea of combining these two passions and starting Saint Fame.”

While at Coinbase, Horne hacked on Saint Fame, a side project that leveraged some of the ideas on display in Zora. It was a marketplace that allowed people to sell and trade items with cryptocurrency, buying intermediate variable-value tokens redeemable for future goods. 

“I realized that culture itself was shaped and built upon an old financial system that is systemically skewed against artists and communities,” says Horne. “The operating system of ownership was built in the 1600s with the Dutch East India Trading Company and early Nation States. Like what the fuck is up with that?” 

We have the internet now, we can literally create and share information to billions of people all at once, and the ownership system is the same as when people had to get on a boat for six months to send a letter. It’s time for an upgrade. Any community on the internet should be able to come together, with capital, and work towards any shared vision. That starts with empowering creators and artists to create and own the culture they’re creating. In the long term this moves to internet communities taking on societal endeavors.”

The answer that they’re working on is called Zora. It’s a marketplace with two main components but one philosophy: sustainable economics for creators. 

All too often creators are involved in reaping the rewards for their work only once, but the secondary economy continues to generate value out of their reach. Think of an artist, as an example, that creates a piece and sells it for market value. That’s great, but thereafter, every ounce of work that the artist puts into future work, into building a name and a brand and a community for themselves puts additional value into that piece. The artist never sees a dime from that, relying instead on the value of future releases to pay dividends on the work. 

Image Credits: Zora

That’s basically the way it has always worked. I have a little background in this as I used to exhibit and was involved in running a gallery and my father is a fine artist. If he sells a painting today for $300, gets a lot better, more popular and more valued over time, the owner of that painting may re-sell it for hundreds or thousands more. He will never see a dime of that. And God forbid that an artist like him gets too locked into the gallery system, which slices off enormous chunks of the value of a piece for a square of wall space and the marketing cachet of a curator or storefront. 

The same story can be told across the recording industry, fashion, sports and even social media. Lots of middle-people and lots of vigs to pay. And, unsurprisingly, the same creators of color that drive so much of The Culture are the biggest losers, hands down. 

The primary Zora product is a market that allows creators or artists to launch products and then continue to participate in their second market value. 

Here’s how the Zora team explains it:

On Zora, creators have the ability to set two prices: start price and max price. As community members buy and sell a token, it moves the price up or down. This makes the price dynamic as it opens price discovery on the items by the market. When people buy the token it moves the price closer to its maximum. When they sell, it moves closer to its minimum. 

For an excited community like Jeff [Staple’s], this new dynamic price can cause a quick increase in the value of his sneakers. As a creator, they capture the value from selling on a price curve as well as getting a take on trading fees from the market which they now own. What used to trade on StockX is now about to trade on a creator owned market.

There have been some early successes. Designer and marketer Jeff Staple launched a run of 30 Coca-Cola x Staple SB Dunk customs by Reverseland and their value is trending up around 234% since release. A Benji Taylor x Kevin Doan vinyl figure is up 210%

I have seen some other stabs at this. When he was still at StockX, founder Josh Luber launched their Initial Product Offerings, a Blind Dutch Auction system that allowed the market to set a price for an item, with some of the cut of pricing above market going back to the manufacturer or brand making the offering. The focus there was brands versus individual creators (though they did launch with a Ben Baller slide). Allowing brands to tap into second market value for limited goods is a lot less of a revolution play, but the thesis is similar. I thought that was a good idea then, and I like it even better when it’s being used to democratize rather than maximize returns. 

Side note: I love that this team is messing around with interesting ideas like dogfooding their own marketplace with the value of being in their own TestFlight group. I’m sort of like, is that allowed, but at the same time it’s dope and I’ve never seen anything like it. 

Zora was founded in May of 2020 (right in the middle of this current panny-palooza). The team is Goens (Creators and Community), Horne (Product), Slava Kim (Design), Dai Hovey (Engineering), Ethan Daya (Engineering) and Tyson Battistella (Engineering). 

Zora has raised a $2 million seed round led by Kindred Ventures, with participation from Trevor McFedries of Brud, Alice Lloyd George, Jeff Staple, Coinbase Ventures and others.

Tokenized community

But this idea that physical goods or even digitally packaged works have to exist as finite containers of value is not a given either. Goens and Horne are pushing to challenge that too with the first big new product for Zora: community tokens. Built on Ethereum, the $RAC token is the first of its kind from Zora. André Allen Anjos, stage name RAC, is a Portuguese-American musician and producer who makes remixes that stream on the web, original music and has had commercial work featured in major brand ads. 

Though he is popular and has a following in the tens of thousands, RAC is not a social media superpower. The token distribution and subsequent activity in trades and sales is purely driven by the buy-in that his fans feel. This is a key learning for a lot of players in this new economy: raw numbers are the social media equivalent of a billboard that people drive by. It may get you eyeballs, but it doesn’t guarantee action. The modern creator is living in a house with their fans, offering them access and interacting via Discord and Snap and comments. 

Image Credits: Zora

But those houses are all other people’s houses, which leads into the reason that Zora is launching a token.

The token drop serves multiple purposes: 

  • It unites fans across multiple silos. Whether they’re on Intsa, TikTok, Spotify or Snapchat, they can all earn tokens. That token serves as a unifying community unit of value that they all understand and pivot around. It’s a way to own a finite binary “atom” of an artist’s digital being.
  • It creates a pool of value that an artist can own and distribute themselves. Currently you cannot buy $RAC directly. You can only earn it. Some of that is retroactive for loyal supporters. If, for instance, you followed RAC on Bandcamp dating back to 2009, you’ll get some of a pool of 25,000 RAC. Bought a bit of RAC merch? You get some credit in tokens too. Future RAC distributions will be given to Patron supporters, merch purchasers, etc.
  • The value stays in the artist’s universe, rather than being spun out into currency. It serves as a way for the artist to incentivize, reward and energize their followers. RAC fans who buy his mixtape get tokens, and they can redeem them for purchases of further merch. 
  • It allows more flexibility for creators whose work doesn’t fall so neatly into package-able categories. Performance art, activism, bite-sized entertainment. These are not easy to “drop” for money. But if you have a circulating token that grows in value as you grow your audience, there is definitely something there. 

The future of Zora most immediately involves spinning up a self-service version of the marketplace, allowing creators and entrepreneurs to launch their products without a direct partnership and onboarding. There are many, many uncertainties here and the team has a lot of challenges ahead on the traction and messaging front. But as mentioned, some early releases have shown promise, and the philosophy is sound and much needed. As the creator universe/passion economy/whatever you call it depends on how old you are/fandom merchant wave rises, there is definitely an opportunity to rethink how the value of their contributions are assigned and whether there is a way to turn the long-term labor of building a community into long-term value. 

The last traded price of RAC’s tape, BOY, by the way? $3,713, up 18,465%. 

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