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INKR draws in $3.1M to make more comics accessible to worldwide audiences

By Catherine Shu

A photo of digital comics platform INKR's team

Digital comics platform INKR’s team

INKR is a digital comics platform that crosses cultural and language divides, enabling creators to reach global audiences with its proprietary localization technology. Previously bootstrapped, the company announced today that it has raised $3.1 million in pre-Series A funding led by Monk’s Hill Ventures, with participation from manga distributor TokyoPop founder and chief executive Stu Levy and VI Management managing director David Do.

Headquartered in Singapore with an office in Ho Chi Minh City, INKR was founded in 2019 by Ken Luong, Khoa Nguyen and Hieu Tran. The company says that since it launched in October 2020, its monthly average users have grown 200%. It currently partners with more than 70 content creators and publishers, including FanFan, Image Comics, Kodansha USA, Kuaikan, Mr. Blue, SB Creative, TokyoPop and Toons Family, and has more than 800 titles so far, including manga, webtoons and graphic novels.

Luong, INKR’s CEO, told TechCrunch that the platform will focus first on translated comics from top global publishers, but plans to open to small and indie creators in 2022.

At the heart of INKR’s platform is its localization technology, which the company says reduces the time spent on preparing comics for different markets from days to just hours.

“Comics localization is more than just translation. It is a time-consuming process with many steps involving many people—file handling, transcription, translation, typesetting, sound effects, quality control, etc,” Luong said.

A screenshot with some of the titles on digital comics platform INKR

Some of the titles on INKR

In addition to language, publishers also have to take into account the differences between comic styles around the world, including Japanese manga, Chinese manhua, Korean manhwa, American comics. For example, comics can be laid out page-by-page or use vertical scrolling. Some languages read from left to right, while others go from right to left.

Luong says INKR’s proprietary AI engine, called INKR Comics Vision, is able to recognize different formats and elements on a comic page, including text, dialogue, characters, facial expressions, backgrounds and panels. INKR Localize, its tool for human translators, helps them deliver accurate translations more quickly by automating tasks like text transcription, vocabulary suggestions and typesetting.

Since localization is performed by teams, including people in different locations, INKR provides them with browser-based collaboration software. The platform supports Japanese-English, Korean-English and Chinese-English translations, with plans to add more languages. Some publishers, like Kuaikan Manhua and Mr. Blue, have used INKR to translate thousands of comic chapters from Chinese and Korean into English.

INKR provides content creators with a choice of monetization models, including ad-supported, subscription fees or pay-per-chapter. Luong says the platform analyzes content to tell publishers which model will maximize their earnings, and shares a percentage of the revenue generated.

INKR is vying for attention with other digital comics platforms like Amazon-owned Comixology and Webtoon, the publishing portal operated by Naver Corporation.

Luong said INKR’s competitive advantages include the the diversity of comics is offers and the affordability of its pricing. Before launching, it also invested in data and AI-based technology for both readers and publishers. For example, users get personalized recommendation based on their reading activity, while publishers can access analytics to track title performance based on consumption trends.

In a statement, Monk’s Hill Ventures general partner Justin Nguyen said INKR’s “proprietary AI-driven platform is addressing pain points for creators and publishers who need to go digital and global—localizing for many languages quickly and cost-effectively while also helping them improve reach and readership through analytics and intelligent personalized feeds. We look forward to partnering with them to quench the huge demand for translated comics globally.”

Democratic bill would suspend Section 230 protections when social networks boost anti-vax conspiracies

By Taylor Hatmaker

Two Democratic senators introduced a bill Thursday that would strip away the liability shield that social media platforms hold dear when those companies boost anti-vaccine conspiracies and other kinds of health misinformation.

The Health Misinformation Act, introduced by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), would create a new carve-out in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to hold platforms liable for algorithmically-promoted health misinformation and conspiracies. Platforms rely on Section 230 to protect them from legal liability for the vast amount of user-created content they host.

“For far too long, online platforms have not done enough to protect the health of Americans,” Klobuchar said. “These are some of the biggest, richest companies in the world and they must do more to prevent the spread of deadly vaccine misinformation.”

The bill would specifically alter Section 230’s language to revoke liability protections in the case of “health misinformation that is created or developed through the interactive computer service” if that misinformation is amplified through an algorithm. The proposed exception would only kick in during a declared national public health crisis, like the advent of Covid-19, and wouldn’t apply in normal times. The bill would task the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) with defining health misinformation.

“Features that are built into technology platforms have contributed to the spread of misinformation and disinformation, with social media platforms incentivizing individuals to share content to get likes, comments, and other positive signals of engagement, which rewards engagement rather than accuracy,” the bill reads.

The bill also makes mention of the “disinformation dozen” — just twelve people, including anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and a grab bag of other conspiracy theorists, who account for a massive swath of the anti-vax misinformation ecosystem. Many of the individuals on the list still openly spread their messaging through social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms.

Section 230’s defenders generally view the idea of new carve-outs to the law as dangerous. Because Section 230 is such a foundational piece of the modern internet, enabling everything from Yelp and Reddit to the comment section below this post, they argue that the potential for unforeseen second order effects means the law should be left intact.

But some members of Congress — both Democrats and Republicans — see Section 230 as a valuable lever in their quest to regulate major social media companies. While the White House is pursuing its own path to craft consequences for overgrown tech companies through the Justice Department and the FTC, Biden’s office said earlier this week that the president is “reviewing” Section 230 as well. But as Trump also discovered, weakening Section 230 is a task that only Congress is positioned to accomplish — and even that is still a long shot.

While the new Democratic bill is narrowly targeted as far as proposed changes to Section 230 go, it’s also unlikely to attract bipartisan support.

Republicans are also interest in stripping away some of Big Tech’s liability protections, but generally hold the view that platforms remove too much content rather than too little. Republicans are also more likely to sow misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccines themselves, framing vaccination as a partisan issue. Whether the bill goes anywhere or not, it’s clear that an alarming portion of Americans have no intention of getting vaccinated — even with a much more contagious variant on the rise and colder months on the horizon.

“As COVID-19 cases rise among the unvaccinated, so has the amount of misinformation surrounding vaccines on social media,” Luján said of the proposed changes to Section 230. “Lives are at stake.”

End-to-end moving startup Updater buys on-demand moving startup Dolly

By Lucas Matney

Moving services giant Updater is bringing on the team from Dolly as the New York company looks to expand its scope of offerings with the acquisition of the on-demand startup known for helping consumers execute small-scale moves.

Dolly connects users in need of moving a large item like a piece of furniture with a contractor ready to lend a hand. Like competing services such as Lugg, the app has been a popular solution for picking up items from peer-to-peer marketplaces like Craigslist. Dolly boasts a partnership with Facebook Marketplace that has allowed its users to coordinate picking up items with the service, available in 45 major cities across the US, according to their website.

In addition to its user-facing service, Dolly has also built a major business partnering with retailers directly allowing them to tap into their mover network and coordinate same-day delivery for customers. Dolly’s retail partners include companies like Costco, Lowe’s and The Container Store.

A price tag for the deal wasn’t disclosed and couldn’t be learned. Dolly raised $17.2 million over several rounds, including a $7.5 million Series B in May of 2019. The startup’s backers include Maveron, Hyde Park Venture Partners and Version One Ventures.

As part of the acquisition, Dolly will be living on an independent, wholly-owned subsidiary of Updater.

The SoftBank-backed Updater is an “invite-only” service focused on building a more premium end-to-end moving experience. The team has partnered with a number of major brokerage firms whose customers are given the option to use Updater’s services to coordinate their move, pairing them with moving companies who use Updater’s MoveHQ software platform. Today, a quarter of US household moves are facilitated using one of Updater’s products, the company says.

The firm has raised nearly $200 million since its founding in 2010. Dolly’s acquisition will allow Updater to expand their services to customers that are “conducting a small move or don’t want to book a full-service moving company,” CEO David Greenberg tells TechCrunch. “We want to be the go-to place for Americans to conquer their move.”

This Week in Apps: Android ad prices jump, TikTok resumes, Google Play’s antitrust lawsuit

By Sarah Perez

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

This Week in Apps will soon be a newsletter! Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

Android ad prices jump in wake of privacy updates on iOS

The Wall St. Journal reported this week how Apple’s privacy changes are changing the world of mobile advertising — in this case, ad pricing across platforms. The news outlet has been covering the broader impact of Apple’s decision to let users block apps from tracking them, noting how ad sales, including Facebook’s ad business, would be affected. (And how Apple’s own ad business would gain.)

This week, The WSJ says most users are declining tracking on iOS (less than 33% opt in), and as a result, mobile ad prices on iOS have fallen. The outlet cites data from ad measurement firm Tenjin which notes that spending on iOS mobile ads has dropped around one-third between June 1 and July 1. Around the same time, Android spending rose 10% — an indication that, for the time being, some portion of the ad market has just shifted platforms. Facebook ad spend also shifted to Android, with year-over-year growth of 46% for Android users in May to 64% in June.

The news follows a story this week from The FT, which noted that Chinese tech giants’ plan to route around the IDFA changes with CAID (the Chinese Advertising ID), had failed. Apple blocked updates to apps using CAID, which led to it losing support and the project’s failure.

For most app users, the ability to block tracking is a welcome change, as far too much user data had been shared behind-the-scenes without users’ informed consent. But the full impacts of how the update will impact app monetization long-term — and ultimately which companies then choose to build on iOS — still remain to be seen.

37 AGs target Google Play in an antitrust lawsuit

A group of 37 attorneys general filed a second major antitrust lawsuit against Google, accusing the company of using its market power to stifle competition. The suit takes aim at Google’s Play Store, which requires users to pay for apps and in-app purchases using Google’s own payments system — which gives Google a percentage of the revenue. In addition, the suit alleges that Google makes misleading security claims about the need for a walled garden app store like Google Play, in order to maintain its dominant position.

Google responded by calling the lawsuit “meritless” and noting that it ignores the openness of the Android platform, which permits other app stores and sideloading.

First Look: Pok Pok’s award-winning kids’ app Pok Pok Playroom shows off its sound design

Image Credits: Pok Pok

Recently launched Pok Pok Playroom from Pok Pok, a spinout from app maker Snowman (Alto’s Adventure, Alto’s Odyssey, Skate City), just took home an Apple Design Award in the “Delight and Fun” category for its app launched just months ago. Unlike other kids’ apps, Pok Pok promises an app that’s more of a digital “toy” that encourages real and imaginative play, not a mobile kids game. Now the company is sharing some of the techniques that helped it build this award-winning experience.

The company says it wanted to make sure there were no annoying sounds or repetitive music in the app that would bother parents or get stuck in kids’ heads. So it worked with its sound designer, Matt Miller, to ensure all the sounds in Pok Pok Playroom were sensory accessible and not overstimulating.

Miller often uses what he calls “found sounds” — that is, sounds he created by finding things to record — like a soup can, a vintage toy sourced from a local thrift shop, birds chirping, a spoon knocking on a pinecone and more. These give Pok Pok Playroom a more natural feel than other toys, which can sometimes feature loud or electronic-sounding noises that are overstimulating for kids and disruptive to those around them.

Weekly News

Platforms

A new Comscore study offers a look at how much people use their preinstalled apps from Apple and Google. Not surprisingly, these built-in utilities and services — like email, notes, messaging, maps, photos, clocks and more — dominate people’s app usage. 75% of the top 20 most-used apps on iPhone were made by Apple, and 60% of the top Android apps were made by Google, but here’s the funny thing: The study was paid for by Facebook, a company that’s looking for any angle to make it seem like it’s not a monopoly. So of course it had to find the only other bigger apps it could — the ones that ship with your smartphone.

Image Credits: comscore

OnePlus confirmed it’s throttling a number of popular apps on the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro in order to improve battery life. Apps such as Chrome, Twitter, Zoom, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Discord, Microsoft’s Office apps, Firefox and Samsung Internet, were affected. The issue was discovered due to inconsistent benchmarks in testing.

Fintech

PayPal was the most downloaded P2P payments app globally during the first half of 2021, according to Apptopia. Rounding out the top 10 were Google Play, Alipay, PhonePe, Cash App, Paytm, Venmo, Zelle, Western Union and Remitly.

Personal finance app Charlie launched a redesign and a new feature called Direct Pay, which allows users to add their credit cards to the app to make extra payments toward their debt at their own pace. Or they can let the app recommend when it’s best to make payments toward their credit card debt. The company notes its users are now saving $66 monthly, which has added up to $30K+ of interest saved over the lifetime of their loans.

Social

✨ TikTok is piloting a new program that will allow U.S. users to apply for jobs using a TikTok video as a resume. Video applicants are asked to showcase their skillsets and experiences on video, then add #TikTokResumes to their caption. Pilot testers include a number of employers — like Chipotle, Target, WWE, Alo Yoga, Shopify, Contra, Movers + Shakers and others. The question is, will TikTokers feature these videos on the same account where they’ve posted personal content, dances and trends, or will this give way to a rise in Rinsta and Finsta-like TikTok accounts, where personal and more public content remains separated?

TikTok is also testing its own version of Cameo. The company was spotted testing a new feature that allows fans to pay for a shout-out video from their favorite creators directly in the app. According to screenshots of the feature, fans can request birthday wishes, pep talks and other messages, then pay using TikTok’s in-app currency.

TikTok launches Shoutouts – fans can request birthday wishes, pep talks and other messages from their favourite creators.

Fans can directly pay in-app, through TikTok’s in-apps currency (also used for live-stream gifting). pic.twitter.com/i5zQJKNfP5

— Fabian (Bern) Ouwehand 法比安 (@iamfabianbern) July 4, 2021

Twitter shared a few more ideas it’s thinking about in terms of new features around conversation health and privacy. This includes a one-stop “privacy check-in” feature that would introduce Twitter’s newer conversation controls options to users, and others that would allow people to be more private on the service, or to more easily navigate between public and private tweets or their various accounts.

TikTok on Tuesday experienced a widespread technical outage that lasted for over five hours before services were restored. U.S. users found that many videos were not loading during this time.

TikTok parent company ByteDance launched a new business arm called BytePlus, which will license the company’s various technologies to other businesses. This includes its AR effects, computer vision and machine translation tools, analytics and testing tools, and its recommendation engine that supports over 1.5 billion users. The company’s tools are being used by GOAT, Wego, Chilibeli, GamesApp, Webuy, Lark, and others, in addition to TikTok.

Trump has now sued Facebook, Twitter and Google for being “censored.” The companies enforced their terms of service in taking down Trump’s account across top social media platforms in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Trump’s lawsuit claims his First Amendment rights are being violated. The First Amendment applies to government censorship, not actions taken by businesses, however. Trump likely knows this but wanted to stir up some headlines.

Photos

Image Credits: Picsart

Popular photo-editing app PicsArt launched a brand refresh that includes a new name (Picsart), new logo, and a fresh new look across web and mobile, and more creator-friendly design flows. The app today has over 150 million monthly active users worldwide.

Everyone has thoughts on Instagram Head Adam Mosseri’s latest comments where he declared Instagram is “no longer” a photo-sharing app. His post was meant to alert users to upcoming tests that will see Instagram doing more experiments around how to better feature video in the app, but some are taking it as a sign that Instagram is more fully pivoting to a video-first experience.

Streaming & Entertainment

Reese Witherspoon’s media company, Hello Sunshine, is looking for an acquirer. The company has reportedly been in talks with multiple suitors, including Apple, The WSJ said. While the larger part of Hello Sunshine is it TV and movie film business, the company also operates the book club app, Reese’s Book Club, which serves as a place where many of the movie/TV deals are initially sourced.

More Spotify Premium users are reporting having gained access to the new feature, announced in May, that will allow them to download music to their Apple Watch so they can listen offline. The feature had been graduating rolling out, but appears to now be reaching a global audience.

Gaming

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Pokémon Go revenue from player spending has topped $5 billion as the game celebrates its five-year anniversary. According to Sensor Tower, the AR game now generates $1 billion on average per year, putting it at the op of the Geolocation AR category globally, ahead of others like Dragon Quest Walk and Square Enix.

The Alto’s Adventure series from Snowman is getting a new installment in the form of an upcoming Apple Arcade release called Alto’s Odyssey: The Lost City. The game is like a special edition of Alto’s Odyssey (the sequel to Alto’s Adventure), as it include extra features and content that’s deeply integrated, not just tacked on, including a new location called the Lost City. The game arrives on Apple Arcade on July 16th.

Health & Fitness

Amazon launched a new, employee-only app called Amazon WorkingWell for its health and wellness program that includes Associate-facing support, education and safety-prevention information across text content, videos, podcasts, and more.

Vaccine passport apps have hit 10 million global downloads, according to data from Apptopia. The firm analyzed the downloads for top apps including NHS, VeriFLY, NYS Excelsior, and CommonPass.

Image Credits: Apptopia

Government & Policy

Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi was pulled from several apps stores in China, including Apple’s App Store. According to Chinese regulators, the app was illegally collecting users’ personal info. Didi said it was making “corrections” and is halting new user sign-ups, but the app for existing users remained operational. China’s cybersecurity watchdog also suggested the company delay its IPO, and the app was removed from China’s WeChat and Alipay apps for new users.

Security & Privacy

9 Android apps with 5.8 million combined downloads were caught stealing users’ Facebook passwords. A security firm found apps offering photo editing, exercise, horoscopes and utilities that were tricking users into entering their Facebook credentials with the promise of removing ads from the app after signing into Facebook. Google has banned all the apps and their developers from the Play Store.

10 opioid addiction treatment apps were found sharing sensitive data with third parties, including a unique identifier on Android, unique device identifiers, phone numbers, and lists of installed apps. The apps have 180K combined downloads.

Google released its July 2021 security update for Pixel which patches a few “high”-priority (but not critical) vulnerabilities. The update is rolling out to a range of Pixel devices.

Funding and M&A (and a SPAC)

💰 Publishing platform Hiber raised $15 million for its web platform that allows people to create user-generated games, similar to Roblox. The company also offers a creation app for Android devices and allows players to use Safari to create games on iOS.

💰 Juni, a neobanking app for e-commerce and online marketing companies, raised $21.5 million in Series A funding. The round was co-led by DST Global and Felix Capital. The banking app has signed up 3,000 businesses on its waitlists, of which 200 have now joined.

📈 Neighborhood social networking app Nextdoor said it’s going public via a SPAC. The company plans to merge with Khosla Ventures Acquisition Co. II, taking itself public at the same time. The transaction will value the business at approximately $4.3 billion, up from its 2019 valuation of $2.17 billion. The app has 27 million weekly active users across the U.S.

💰 Pleo, a startup offering smart company cards for SMBs that automate expense reports, raised $150 million at a $1.7 billion valuation for its service that works across web and mobile.

💰 Popshop Live raised $20 million in Series A funding at a $100 million valuation for its livestream shopping service, available on web and mobile. The round was led by Benchmark, and comes after 500% growth of the number of sellers on the platform in the last 3 months.

💰 Live video shopping startup Talkshoplive raised $6 million in a seed extension round led by Raine Ventures. The company publishes an app that sellers can use with its live stream shopping platform.

💰Indian social commerce startup DealShare, which began as an e-commerce platform on WhatsApp, raised $144 million in Series D funding led by Tiger Global. The round values the company at $455 million post-money and will be used to help fund international expansion.

💰 Indian edtech Teachmint raised $20 million in a “pre-Series B” round led by Learn Capital for its mobile-first, video-first tech platform.

💰 European neobank Bunq, which offers a bank account you control from a mobile app, raised $228 million in Series A funding that values the business at $1.9 billion. The round was led by Pollen Street Capital and is the largest round for a European fintech.

Downloads

Rec Room (Android launch)

Image Credits: Rec Room

Social gaming platform Rec Room, which recently became the first VR unicorn, has launched on the Google Play Store. The platform originally targeted only the VR market but expanded to other platforms as VR headset sales remained slow. Similar to Roblox and others, Rec Room allows players to dress up their avatars and play games built by other creators. To date, the app had been available on iOS, PlayStation 4 and 5; Xbox Series X and Xbox One, PC (via Steam), Oculus Quests and other VR headsets. It’s now live on Android to serve the larger global market.

OnMail (Android launch)

Image Credits: OnMail

Email service OnMail, which has previously been available on iOS, launched its app on the Google Play Store. The app aims to solve users’ biggest problems with email, including those with unwanted mail, email trackers, and more. As on iOS, OnMail lets you accept or reject senders before they hit your mailbox, blocks spy pixels, nudges you to follow up on emails, automatically organizes mail into smart folders (shopping, travel, packages, events), offers easy unsubscribe, monitors for refunds, checks grammar, makes it easier to send large attachments, and a lot more.

SwoonMe

Image Credits: SwoonMe

A new startup called SwoonMe aims to fix the problem with superficial dating apps, where users primarily make decisions based on how someone looks in their photos. Instead, on SwoonMe, you take a selfie which the app converts into an avatar. This is what others will see when they come to your profile. You then record a voice clip to tell others about yourself and what you’re looking for in a partner. The result is that when people scroll through SwoonMe, they’re not making snap decisions based on what they’re seeing, but are rather making more thoughtful decisions based what they hear. When two people match, the app encourages them to continue to get to know each other using voice messages and soon, icebreaker games — not texting and photo-sharing. As they communicate, their avatar will slowly unveil their real photo.

Slide

Image Credits: Raise.com

A new app from gift card marketplace Raise.com, Slide, offers users 4% cash back on their purchases online and at over 150 popular stores, including Lowe’s, Petco, ULTA, Office Depot, Bed Bath & Beyond, Chipotle, Panera Bread, Chili’s, DoorDash, Domino’s, Aeropostale, Express, H&M, Foot Locker, Loft, REI, GameStop, AMC, Groupon, Southwest Airlines, Uber, AutoZone, and others. To use Slide and get 4% back, users open the app at checkout, choose their store, and enter their exact purchase amount. They’ll then show the barcode to the cashier, or if paying online, enter the code. The cash back can be transferred to Venmo or PayPal or saved for a future purchase.

Users should be aware the additional cash comes at a price: the data Slide collects from users will allow companies to retarget them with ads and offers across devices, according to the app’s Privacy Policy. The app is free on iOS and Android.

LinkedIn formally joins EU Code on hate speech takedowns

By Natasha Lomas

Microsoft-owned LinkedIn has committed to doing more to quickly purge illegal hate speech from its platform in the European Union by formally signing up to a self-regulatory initiative that seeks to tackle the issue through a voluntary Code of Conduct.

In statement today, the European Commission announced that the professional social network has joined the EU’s Code of Conduct on Countering Illegal Hate Speech Online, with justice commissioner, Didier Reynders, welcoming LinkedIn’s (albeit tardy) participation, and adding in a statement that the code “is and will remain an important tool in the fight against hate speech, including within the framework established by digital services legislation”.

“I invite more businesses to join, so that the online world is free from hate,” Reynders added.

While LinkedIn’s name wasn’t formally associated with the voluntary Code before now it said it has “supported” the effort via parent company Microsoft, which was already signed up.

In a statement on its decision to formally join now, it also said:

“LinkedIn is a place for professional conversations where people come to connect, learn and find new opportunities. Given the current economic climate and the increased reliance jobseekers and professionals everywhere are placing on LinkedIn, our responsibility is to help create safe experiences for our members. We couldn’t be clearer that hate speech is not tolerated on our platform. LinkedIn is a strong part of our members’ professional identities for the entirety of their career — it can be seen by their employer, colleagues and potential business partners.”

In the EU ‘illegal hate speech’ can mean content that espouses racist or xenophobic views, or which seeks to incite violence or hatred against groups of people because of their race, skin color, religion or ethnic origin etc.

A number of Member States have national laws on the issue — and some have passed their own legislation specifically targeted at the digital sphere. So the EU Code is supplementary to any actual hate speech legislation. It is also non-legally binding.

The initiative kicked off back in 2016 — when a handful of tech giants (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft) agreed to accelerate takedowns of illegal speech (or well, attach their brand names to the PR opportunity associated with saying they would).

Since the Code became operational, a handful of other tech platforms have joined — with video sharing platform TikTok signing up last October, for example.

But plenty of digital services (notably messaging platforms) still aren’t participating. Hence the Commission’s call for more digital services companies to get on board.

At the same time, the EU is in the process of firming up hard rules in the area of illegal content.

Last year the Commission proposed broad updates (aka the Digital Services Act) to existing ecommerce rules to set operational ground rules that they said are intended to bring online laws in line with offline legal requirements — in areas such as illegal content, and indeed illegal goods. So, in the coming years, the bloc will get a legal framework that tackles — at least at a high level — the hate speech issue, not merely a voluntary Code. 

The EU also recently adopted legislation on terrorist content takedowns (this April) — which is set to start applying to online platforms from next year.

But it’s interesting to note that, on the perhaps more controversial issue of hate speech (which can deeply intersect with freedom of expression), the Commission wants to maintain a self-regulatory channel alongside incoming legislation — as Reynders’ remarks underline.

Brussels evidently sees value in having a mixture of ‘carrots and sticks’ where hot button digital regulation issues are concerned. Especially in the controversial ‘danger zone’ of speech regulation.

So, while the DSA is set to bake in standardized ‘notice and response’ procedures to help digital players swiftly respond to illegal content, by keeping the hate speech Code around it means there’s a parallel conduit where key platforms could be encouraged by the Commission to commit to going further than the letter of the law (and thereby enable lawmakers to sidestep any controversy if they were to try to push more expansive speech moderation measures into legislation).

The EU has — for several years — had a voluntary a Code of Practice on Online Disinformation too. (And a spokeswoman for LinkedIn confirmed it has been signed up to that since its inception, also through its parent company Microsoft.)

And while lawmakers recently announced a plan to beef that Code up — to make it “more binding”, as they oxymoronically put it — it certainly isn’t planning to legislate on that (even fuzzier) speech issue.

In further public remarks today on the hate speech Code, the Commission said that a fifth monitoring exercise in June 2020 showed that on average companies reviewed 90% of reported content within 24 hours and removed 71% of content that was considered to be illegal hate speech.

It added that it welcomed the results — but also called for signatories to redouble their efforts, especially around providing feedback to users and in how they approach transparency around reporting and removals.

The Commission has also repeatedly calls for platforms signed up to the disinformation Code to do more to tackle the tsunami of ‘fake news’ being fenced on their platforms, including — on the public health front — what they last year dubbed a coronavirus infodemic.

The COVID-19 crisis has undoubtedly contributed to concentrating lawmakers’ minds on the complex issue of how to effectively regulate the digital sphere and likely accelerated a number of EU efforts.

 

Amazon and Google face UK CMA probe over fake reviews

By Natasha Lomas

The UK’s competition watchdog, the CMA, has opened another investigation into Big Tech — this one targeted at Amazon and Google over how they handle (or, well, don’t) fake reviews.

The Competition and Markets Authority has taken an interest in online reviews for several years, as far back as 2015.

It also went after eBay and Facebook back in 2019 to try to squeeze the trade in fake reviews it found thriving on their marketplaces. After continuing to pressure those platforms the watchdog was given pledges they’d do more. Albeit, in the case of Facebook, it took until April 2021 for it to take down 16,000 groups that had been trading fake reviews — and the CMA expressed disappointment that it had taken Facebook over a year to take meaningful action.

Now the CMA has Amazon and Google in its sites, both of which control platforms hosting user reviews — saying it will be gathering evidence to determine whether they may have broken UK law by taking insufficient action to protect shoppers from fake reviews.

Businesses that mislead consumers or don’t take action to prevent consumers being misled may be in breach of UK laws intended to protect consumers from unfair trading.

The CMA says its investigation into Amazon and Google follows an initial probe, which it started in May 2020, which was focused on assessing several platforms’ internal systems and processes for identifying and dealing with fake reviews.

That work raised specific concerns about whether the two tech giants have been doing enough to:

  • Detect fake and misleading reviews or suspicious patterns of behaviour. For example, where the same users have reviewed the same range of products or businesses at similar times to each other and there is no connection between those products or businesses – or where the review suggests that the reviewer has received a payment or other incentive to write a positive review.
  • Investigate and, where necessary, remove promptly fake and misleading reviews from their platforms.
  • Impose adequate sanctions on reviewers or businesses to deter them and others from posting fake or misleading reviews on their platforms – including those who have published these types of reviews many times.

The regulator also said it’s concerned that Amazon’s systems have been “failing adequately to prevent and deter some sellers from manipulating product listings” — such as, for example, by co-opting positive reviews from other products.

And, well, who hasn’t been browsing product reviews on Amazon, only to be drawn up short by a reviewer earnestly referring to product attributes that clearly bear no relation to the sale item in question?

While the user reviews that pop up on, for example, Google Maps after a search for a local business can also display unusual patterns of 5-starring (or 1-starring) behaviour.

Commenting on its investigation into concerns that Amazon and Google are not doing enough to combat the problem of fake reviews the CMA’s CEO Andrea Coscelli had this to say, in a statement:

“Our worry is that millions of online shoppers could be misled by reading fake reviews and then spending their money based on those recommendations. Equally, it’s simply not fair if some businesses can fake 5-star reviews to give their products or services the most prominence, while law-abiding businesses lose out.

“We are investigating concerns that Amazon and Google have not been doing enough to prevent or remove fake reviews to protect customers and honest businesses. It’s important that these tech platforms take responsibility and we stand ready to take action if we find that they are not doing enough.”

Amazon and Google were contacted for comment.

A Google Spokesperson sent us this statement:

“Our strict policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences, and when we find policy violations, we take action — from removing abusive content to disabling user accounts. We look forward to continuing our work with the CMA to share more on how our industry-leading technology and review teams work to help users find relevant and useful information on Google.”

An Amazon spokesperson also said:

“To help earn the trust of customers, we devote significant resources to preventing fake or incentivized reviews from appearing in our store. We work hard to ensure that reviews accurately reflect the experience that customers have had with a product.  We will continue to assist the CMA with its enquiries and we note its confirmation that no findings have been made against our business. We are relentless in protecting our store and will take action to stop fake reviews regardless of the size or location of those who attempt this abuse.”

In a blog post earlier this month, Amazon — likely aware of the CMA’s attention on the issue — discussed the problem of bogus online reviews, claiming it “relentlessly innovates to allow only genuine product reviews in our store”; and offering up some illustrative stats (such as that, in 2020 alone, it stopped more than 200M “suspected fake reviews” before they were seen by any customers, mostly via the use of “proactive detection”).

However the blog post was also heavily on the defensive — with the ecommerce giant seeking to spread the blame for the fake reviews problem — saying, for example, that there’s an “increasing trend of bad actors attempting to solicit fake reviews outside Amazon, particularly via social media services”. 

It sought to frame fake reviews as an industry-wide problem, needing a coordinated, industry-wide solution — while reserving its heaviest fire for (unnamed) “social media companies” (cough Facebook cough) — and suggesting, for example, that they are the weak link in the chain:

We need social media companies whose services are being used to facilitate fake reviews to proactively invest in fraud and fake review controls, partner with us to stop these bad actors, and help consumers shop with confidence. It will take constant innovation and partnership across industries and law enforcement to fully protect consumers and our honest selling partners.”

Amazon’s blog post also called for coordinated assistance from consumer protection regulators “around the world” to support its existing efforts to litigate against “bad actors”, aka “those who have purchased reviews and the service providers who provided them”.

The company also told us it has won “dozens” of injunctions against providers of fake reviews across Europe — adding that it won’t shy away from taking legal action. (It noted, for example, a lawsuit it filed on June 9 with the London Commercial Court against the owners of the websites, AMZ Tigers and TesterJob — seeking a prohibitory injunction and damages.)

In light of the CMA’s investigation being opened now, Amazon’s blog post calling for regulatory assistance to support litigation against purveyors of fake reviews looks like a pre-emptive plea to the CMA to swivel its gaze back onto Facebook’s marketplace — and check back in on how the trade in fake reviews is looking over there.

We reached out to the CMA to ask whether its investigation into Amazon and Google will dig into the role that review trading groups hosted elsewhere, such as on social media platforms, may play in exacerbating the issue and will update this port with any response.

The CMA has been increasingly active in regulating Big Tech as it dials up attention on digital markets to prepare for planned UK reforms to competition law that look set to usher in an ex ante regime for dealing with competition-denting platform power.

The watchdog has a number of other open investigations into Big Tech — including into Google’s planned deprecation of tracking cookies. It also recently initiated a market study into Apple and Google’s dominance of the mobile ecosystem.

Given the watchdog’s focus on major platforms — as well as its long standing interest in fake reviews — it’s interesting to speculate whether iOS maker Apple may not face some UK scrutiny on this issue.

Concerns have also been raised over fake ratings and reviews on its App Store.

Earlier this year, for example, iOS app developer, Kosta Eleftheriou, filed suit against Apple — alleging it enticed developers to build apps by claiming the App Store is a safe and trustworthy place but that it doesn’t protect legitimate developers against scammers profiting from their hard work.

The CMA already has an open investigation into Apple’s App Store. So it will be paying close attention to aspects of the store, saying back in March that it would be investigating whether Apple imposes unfair or anti-competitive terms on developers — which then ultimately result in users having less choice or paying higher prices for apps and add-ons.

For now, though, the watchdog’s attention toward the fake reviews issue has been publicly focused elsewhere.

Psychedelic VR meditation startup Tripp raises $11 million Series A

By Lucas Matney

As an increasing number of startups sell investors on mobile apps that help consumers prioritize well-being and mindfulness, other startups are looking for a more immersive take that allow users to fully disconnect from the world around them.

Tripp has been building immersive relaxation exercises that seek to blend some of the experiences users may find in guided meditation apps with more free-form experiences that allow users to unplug from their day and explore their thoughts inside a virtual reality headset while watching fractal shapes, glowing trees and planets whir past them. As the name implies, there have been some efforts by the startup to create visuals and audio experiences that mimic the feelings people may have during a psychedelic trip — though doing so sans hallucinogens.

“Many people that will never feel comfortable taking a psychedelic, this is a low friction alternative that can deliver some of that experience in a more benign way,” CEO Nanea Reeves tells TechCrunch. “The idea is to take mindfulness structures and video game mechanics together to see if we can actually hack the way that you feel.”

The startup tells TechCrunch they’ve closed a $11 Million in funding led by Vine Ventures and Mayfield with participation from Integrated, among others. Tripp has raised some $15 million in total funding to date.

Image via Tripp

VR startups have largely struggled to earn investor fervor in recent years as major tech platforms have sunsetted their virtual reality efforts one-by-one leaving Facebook and Sony as the sole benefactors of a space that they are still struggling to monetize at times. While plenty of VR startups are continuing to see engagement, many investors which backed companies in the space five years ago have turned their attention to gaming and computer vision startups with more broad applications.

Reeves says that the pandemic has helped consumers dial into the importance of mindfulness and mental health awareness, something that has also pushed investors to get bolder in what projects in the space that they’re backing.

Tripp has apps on both the Oculus and PlayStation VR stores and subscription experiences that can be accessed for a $4.99 per month subscription.

The company provides a variety of guided experiences, but users can also use the company’s “Tripp composer” to build their own visual flows. Beyond customization, one of Tripp’s major sells is giving consumers deeper, quicker meditative experiences, claiming that users can get alleviate stress with sessions as short as 8 minutes inside their headset. Tripp is currently in the midst of clinical trials to study the software platform’s effectiveness as a therapeutic device.

The company says that users have gone through over 2 million sessions inside the app so far.

Google and India’s Jio Platforms announce budget Android smartphone JioPhone Next

By Manish Singh

Jio Platforms, run by India’s richest man (Mukesh Ambani), and Google on Thursday unveiled the JioPhone Next, an affordable Android smartphone, as the top Indian telecom operator makes further push to expand its reach in the world’s second largest internet market.

The Indian firm, which secured $4.5 billion investment from Google (and another $15.5 billion from Facebook and others) last year and shared plans to work on low-cost smartphones, said the JioPhone Next is aimed at helping roughly 300 million users in India who are still on 2G network upgrade their gadget to access faster networks.

The phone, which is “powered by extremely optimized Android” mobile operating system, will first launch in India on September 10 ahead of the festive season in the country, and will eventually be made available outside of India, said Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries, at its annual general meeting Thursday.

The JioPhone Next will be an “ultra-affordable 4G smartphone,” claimed Ambani, though he didn’t reveal the price or the hardware specifications of the handset.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai said Thursday the company has also entered into a 5G cloud partnership with Jio Platforms. “It will help more than a billion Indians connect to a faster and better internet, support businesses in their digital transformation, and help Jio build new services in sectors like health, education and more — laying a foundation for the next phase of India’s digitization,” said the chief executive of Google, which last year committed to invest $10 billion in India.

As part of the 5G cloud partnership, Google is also winning a major Google Cloud customer in Reliance, said Pichai.

“They will be able take advantage of Google’s AI and machine learning, e-commerce, and demand forecasting offerings. Harnessing the reliability and performance of Google Cloud will enable these businesses to scale up as needed to respond to customer demand,” he added.

Ambani unveils the JioPhone Next at Reliance’s Annual General Meeting on Thursday.

The JioPhone Next will ship with a range of features, including Read Aloud and Translate Now that will work with any text on the phone screen, including web pages, apps, messages, and even photos. It also features a “fast, high-quality camera” which will support HDR, and the JioPhone Next will be protected by latest Android releases and security updates, Google said, though it didn’t share the precise duration when this coverage will be offered. (Most smartphone vendors offer security and new Android software support for about two years after the launch.)

“We have worked closely with the Jio team on engineering and product development on useful voice-first features that enable these users to consume content and navigate the phone in their own language, deliver a great camera experience, and get the latest Android feature and security updates,” Google said in a statement.

Even as most smartphones that ship in India, the second largest market, are priced at $150 or less, customers looking for a smartphone priced under $100 are left with little choice. And that choice has further shrunk in recent years.

Research firm Counterpoint told TechCrunch that the sub-$100 smartphones accounted for just 12% of the Indian smartphone market, down from 18% in 2019 and 24% in 2018. Sub-$50 smartphones represented just 0.3% of the entire market in 2020, down from 4.3% in 2018.

Smartphone makers are aware of this whitespace in the market, but have found it incredibly challenging to meet this demand. Some, including Jio Platforms earlier explored a range of feature phones to reach small cities and towns of India. Jio Platforms’ KaiOS-powered feature phone, called JioPhone, had amassed 100 million customers as of late February this year.

In a recent report to clients, analysts at UBS said that after accounting the recent price surge of memory component, any smartphone priced at or under $50 is likely selling at cost.

“While this move by Jio will accelerate 2G to 4G migration, we evaluated how interesting this space would be for other smartphone manufacturers, especially key players like Xiaomi. Xiaomi, the unit market leader in smartphones in India, is unlikely to follow up with a $50 smartphone, in our view,” they wrote in the report, obtained by TechCrunch.

Google, too, has previously made several efforts — $100 Android One smartphones program in 2014 and low-resource intensive Android Go operating system in 2017 — to expand the reach of its handsets. The company has also backed KaiOS, which powers popular feature phones.

The JioPhone Next is a “momentous step in our Android mission for India, and is the first of many that our Android product and engineering teams will embark on in India,” Google said in a statement. “We are also actively expanding our engineering teams in India, as we continue to work on finding ways to answer the unique needs of India’s smartphone users.”

Biden admin will share more info with online platforms on ‘front lines’ of domestic terror fight

By Taylor Hatmaker

The Biden administration is outlining new plans to combat domestic terrorism in light of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and social media companies have their own part to play.

The White House released on Tuesday a new national strategy on countering domestic terrorism. The plan acknowledges the key role that online platforms play in bringing violent ideas into the mainstream, going as far as calling social media sites the “front lines” of the war on domestic terrorism.

“The widespread availability of domestic terrorist recruitment material online is a national security threat whose front lines are overwhelmingly private-sector online platforms, and we are committed to informing more effectively the escalating efforts by those platforms to secure those front lines,” the White House plan states.

The Biden administration committed to more information sharing with the tech sector to fight the tide of online extremism, part of a push to intervene well before extremists can organize violence. According to a fact sheet on the new domestic terror plan, the U.S. government will prioritize “increased information sharing with the technology sector,” specifically online platforms where extremism is incubated and organized.

“Continuing to enhance the domestic terrorism-related information offered to the private sector, especially the technology sector, will facilitate more robust efforts outside the government to counter terrorists’ abuse of Internet-based communications platforms to recruit others to engage in violence,” the White House plan states.

In remarks timed with the release of the domestic terror strategy, Attorney General Merrick Garland asserted that coordinating with the tech sector is “particularly important” for interrupting extremists who organize and recruit on online platforms and emphasized plans to share enhanced information on potential domestic terror threats.

In spite of the new initiatives, the Biden administration admits that domestic terrorism recruitment material will inevitably remain available online, particularly on platforms that don’t prioritize its removal — like most social media platforms, prior to January 2021 — and on end-to-end encrypted apps, many of which saw an influx of users when social media companies cracked down on extremism in the U.S. earlier this year.

“Dealing with the supply is therefore necessary but not sufficient: we must address the demand too,” the White House plan states. “Today’s digital age requires an American population that can utilize essential aspects of Internet-based communications platforms while avoiding vulnerability to domestic terrorist recruitment and other harmful content.”

The Biden administration will also address vulnerability to online extremism through digital literacy programs, including “educational materials” and “skills-enhancing online games” designed to inoculate Americans against domestic extremism recruitment efforts, and presumably disinformation and misinformation more broadly.

The plan stops short of naming domestic terror elements like QAnon and the “Stop the Steal” movement specifically, though it acknowledges the range of ways domestic terror can manifest, from small informal groups to organized militias.

A report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in March observed the elevated threat to the U.S. that domestic terrorism poses in 2021, noting that domestic extremists leverage mainstream social media sites to recruit new members, organize in-person events and share materials that can lead to violence.

Croatia’s Gideon Brothers raises $31M for its 3D vision-enabled autonomous warehouse robots

By Mike Butcher

Proving that Central and Eastern Europe remains a powerhouse of hardware engineering matched with software, Gideon Brothers (GB), a Zagreb, Croatia-based robotics and AI startup, has raised a $31 million Series A round led by Koch Disruptive Technologies (KDT), the venture and growth arm of Koch Industries Inc., with participation from DB Schenker, Prologis Ventures and Rite-Hite.

The round also includes participation from several of Gideon Brothers’ existing backers: Taavet Hinrikus (co-founder of TransferWise), Pentland Ventures, Peaksjah, HCVC (Hardware Club), Ivan Topčić, Nenad Bakić and Luca Ascani.

The investment will be used to accelerate the development and commercialization of GB’s AI and 3D vision-based “autonomous mobile robots” or “AMRs”. These perform simple tasks such as transporting, picking up and dropping off products in order to free up humans to perform more valuable tasks.

The company will also expand its operations in the EU and U.S. by opening offices in Munich, Germany and Boston, Massachusetts, respectively.

Gideon Brothers founders

Gideon Brothers founders. Image Credits: Gideon Brothers

Gideon Brothers make robots and the accompanying software platform that specializes in horizontal and vertical handling processes for logistics, warehousing, manufacturing and retail businesses. For obvious reasons, the need to roboticize supply chains has exploded during the pandemic.

Matija Kopić, CEO of Gideon Brothers, said: “The pandemic has greatly accelerated the adoption of smart automation, and we are ready to meet the unprecedented market demand. The best way to do it is by marrying our proprietary solutions with the largest, most demanding customers out there. Our strategic partners have real challenges that our robots are already solving, and, with us, they’re seizing the incredible opportunity right now to effect robotic-powered change to some of the world’s most innovative organizations.”

He added: “Partnering with these forward-thinking industry leaders will help us expand our global footprint, but we will always stay true to our Croatian roots. That is our superpower. The Croatian startup scene is growing exponentially and we want to unlock further opportunities for our country to become a robotics & AI powerhouse.”

Annant Patel, director at Koch Disruptive Technologies, said: “With more than 300 Koch operations and production units globally, KDT recognizes the unique capabilities of and potential for Gideon Brothers’ technology to substantially transform how businesses can approach warehouse and manufacturing processes through cutting edge AI and 3D AMR technology.”

Xavier Garijo, member of the Board of Management for Contract Logistics, DB Schenker, added: “Our partnership with Gideon Brothers secures our access to best in class robotics and intelligent material handling solutions to serve our customers in the most efficient way.”

GB’s competitors include Seegrid, Teradyne (MiR), Vecna Robotics, Fetch Robotics, AutoGuide Mobile Robots, Geek+ and Otto Motors.

Whatfix nabs $90M to help workers onboard and get the most out of their IT stacks

By Ingrid Lunden

“Digital transformation” has been on the mind of many an organization in the last year: the pandemic and the shift it’s brought to how we work are speeding up investments in new apps, infrastructure and work practices to improve productivity regardless of where we sit all day. Now, it looks like we’re on to the next stage of that journey: actually figuring out how to adopt and run with all that new tech.

In a sign of the times, today a startup called Whatfix — which has built a platform that helps make better use of tech investments by giving chatbot-style guidance to users on how to use apps, with the option also to apply AI to understand what a person is doing to suggest what actions to take next — is announcing $90 million in funding. It will use the money to continue expanding its tech platform and hiring more talent to meet demand, said CEO Khadim Batti, who co-founded the company with Vara Kumar (CTO), in an interview this week.

Sources close to the company — co-headquartered in San Jose and Bangalore — confirmed that the Series D round was made at a valuation of around $600 million, triple Whatfix’s value in its Series C round last year.

That sharp rise is due in part to the state of the market today, but also the company’s growth within that bigger trend. Whatfix today has some 500 global customers on its books, The Netherlands Red Cross, Experian, Sentry Financial Services, Cardinal Health Canada, BMC Software Inc., and Bausch & Lomb among them. Some 75% of its business is coming out of the U.S., with another 18% from Europe. Revenues in the last six months have been growing at a rate of 100% quarter-on-quarter.

“This pandemic has proven an inflection point for adoption,” said Batti (pictured above, left with Kumar, right).

This latest tranche of equity funding is coming from a mix of financial and strategic investors.

SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2 is leading the round, with Eight Roads Ventures, Sequoia Capital India, Dragoneer Investment Group, F-Prime Capital and Cisco Investments also investing. The company has raised just under $140 million in total.

“Digital adoption solutions” — the general term describing what Whatfix has built — have become a popular solution for enterprises that have found themselves in an IT pickle, Batti said.

“We’ve seen more than $500 billion spent on enterprise software, with areas like SaaS growing very fast. There is so much there, and every employee has access to do better work. But most are not adopting or using that software. This means a lot [of inefficiency] in ‘digital transformation,'” said Batti. “We are focusing on fixing this problem.”

Digital adoption and digital experience overall can come in many forms these days.

They include assistants that are embedded directly into apps themselves (with some versions of this — such as Clippy on Word — nearly as old as software itself). The category also includes separate platforms that integrate at the back end with the apps that you use, providing not just a single ingestion point for data but intelligence on how best to use it, and what to use. (Dooly for sales teams is an example of that, although I don’t know if it would describe itself as a “digital adoption solution” per se.)

Others like Pendo are geared more at observing how your sites and apps are being adopted and used by others. And there are a number of others out there specifically looking at digital adoption by enterprises and competing directly with Whatfix: they include Apty, Userlane, Applearn.

One of the biggest — WalkMe — yesterday announced an IPO at an estimated $2.5 billion valuation.

Overall digital adoption and digital experience are big businesses: one analyst estimates that the market is growing currently at a rate of just under 11% annually and will be worth $15.8 billion by 2025.

Whatfix is built around the premise that it sits on top of whatever apps a company may choose to use, and will work with just about any piece of modern software, Batti said. That includes Whatfix being able to provide assistance on apps even when they have been customised for a particular workplace. It most commonly appears like a little chatbot on the user’s screen, like the one in this paragraph, which can expand with more details and information as needed, like this:

The company works with the most popular software packages — including Salesforce, MS Dynamics, Oracle’s CRM platform, ServiceNow, SuccessFactors, SharePoint, Workday — but, since it is used in the form of a browser extension or an overlay integrated by a company’s IT department, it can be used to help guide people with any application that’s available over the web. Batti said that one priority the startup has is to build deeper integrations with specific apps so that Whatfix can be used better across mobile and with local apps in future, not just via the web.

Many might think of “digital adoption” as training someone to use a particular software package, and while Whatfix is used for that, the company has also found a lot of traction as a tool beyond it, providing support on a more regular basis and across a wider variety of use cases, whether it’s to help guide people through app usage, or to monitor what they are doing in order to help suggest what to do next, and even populate relevant fields if “next” means using a different app.

The platform can be used to create usage guides, multilingual support, multi-device support, user tracking and more, and it comes with low-code options (it can be intergrated into an app with a single line of code, the company says).

The company claims its assistants can increase employee productivity by 35%, reduce training time and costs by 60%, reduce employee case tickets by 50% and increase application data accuracy by 20%.

While the field for digital adoption is very crowded today, it’s numbers like these, Whatfix’s own growth, and the fact that software is continuing to get more capable, but also more complex, that have interested investors.

“Digital Adoption Solutions are enhancing the growth and importance of SaaS products for enterprises globally,” said Munish Varma, Managing Partner, SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement. “Whatfix makes it easier for companies to use SaaS products, which increases productivity. Whatfix, with its roster of global clients, is well placed to become a DAS leader, and we are excited to be part of their journey.” Sumer Juneja, Partner, SoftBank Investment Advisers, added: “Enterprises spend billions on applications across multiple functions and yet employee adoption is low. Quick adoption ensures payback on software investments. Whatfix’s solutions will be a key driver for enterprises to achieve this goal, which is reflected in their growth.”

What will be interesting to watch is how platforms like Whatfix’s will evolve over time, and what further functions they might take on. For example, in enterprises, one of the biggest vulnerabilities in security has been how people mistakenly click on dodgy links in emails or otherwise inadvertently pass on information to malicious hackers. Could there be a role for digital adoption assistants to identify when this might happen and alert people before they click the wrong way? Regardless, the question and very existence of loopholes like that are signals for why we’ll probably why we’ll continue to see tools like Whatfix’s around for some time to come.

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

Google’s Gradient Ventures leads $8.2M Series A for Vault Platform’s misconduct reporting SaaS

By Natasha Lomas

Fixing workplace misconduct reporting is a mission that’s snagged London-based Vault Platform backing from Google’s AI focused fund, Gradient Ventures, which is the lead investor in an $8.2 million Series A that’s being announced today.

Other investors joining the round are Illuminate Financial, along with existing investors including Kindred Capital and Angular Ventures. Its $4.2M seed round was closed back in 2019.

Vault sells a suite of SaaS tools to enterprise-sized or large/scale-up companies to support them to pro-actively manage internal ethics and integrity issues. As well as tools for staff to report issues, data and analytics is baked into the platform — so it can support with customers’ wider audit and compliance requirements.

In an interview with TechCrunch, co-founder and CEO Neta Meidav said that as well as being wholly on board with the overarching mission to upgrade legacy reporting tools like hotlines provided to staff to try to surface conduct-related workplace risks (be that bullying and harassment; racism and sexism; or bribery, corruption and fraud), as you might expect Gradient Ventures was interested in the potential for applying AI to further enhance Vault’s SaaS-based reporting tool.

A feature of its current platform, called ‘GoTogether’, consists of an escrow system that allows users to submit misconduct reports to the relevant internal bodies but only if they are not the first or only person to have made a report about the same person — the idea being that can help encourage staff (or outsiders, where open reporting is enabled) to report concerns they may otherwise hesitate to, for various reasons.

Vault now wants to expand the feature’s capabilities so it can be used to proactively surface problematic conduct that may not just relate to a particular individual but may even affect a whole team or division — by using natural language processing to help spot patterns and potential linkages in the kind of activity being reported.

“Our algorithms today match on an alleged perpetrator’s identity. However many events that people might report on are not related to a specific person — they can be more descriptive,” explains Meidav. “For example if you are experiencing some irregularities in accounting in your department, for example, and you’re suspecting that there is some sort of corruption or fraudulent activity happening.”

“If you think about the greatest [workplace misconduct] disasters and crises that happened in recent years — the Dieselgate story at Volkswagen, what happened in Boeing — the common denominator in all these cases is that there’s been some sort of a serious ethical breach or failure which was observed by several people within the organization in remote parts of the organization. And the dots weren’t connected,” she goes on. “So the capacity we’re currently building and increasing — building upon what we already have with GoTogether — is the ability to connect on these repeated events and be able to connect and understand and read the human input. And connect the dots when repeated events are happening — alerting companies’ boards that there is a certain ‘hot pocket’ that they need to go and investigate.

“That would save companies from great risk, great cost, and essentially could prevent huge loss. Not only financial but reputational, sometimes it’s even loss to human lives… That’s where we’re getting to and what we’re aiming to achieve.”

There is the question of how defensible Vault’s GoTogether feature is — how easily it could be copied — given you can’t patent an idea. So baking in AI smarts may be a way to layer added sophistication to try to maintain a competitive edge.

“There’s some very sophisticated, unique technology there in the backend so we are continuing to invest in this side of our technology. And Gradient’s investment and the specific we’re receiving from Google now will only increase that element and that side of our business,” says Meidav when we ask about defensibility.

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Gradient Ventures founder and managing partner, Anna Patterson, added: “Vault tackles an important space with an innovative and timely solution. Vault’s application provides organizations with a data-driven approach to tackling challenges like occupational fraud, bribery or corruption incidents, safety failures and misconduct. Given their impressive team, technology, and customer traction, they are poised to improve the modern workplace.”

The London-based startup was only founded in 2018 — and while it’s most keen to talk about disrupting legacy hotline systems, which offer only a linear and passive conduit for misconduct reporting, there are a number of other startups playing in the same space. Examples include the likes of LA-based AllVoices, YC-backed WhispliHootsworth and Spot to name a few.

Competition seems likely to continue to increase as regulatory requirements around workplace reporting keep stepping up.

The incoming EU Whistleblower Protection Directive is one piece of regulation Vault expects will increase demand for smarter compliance solutions — aka “TrustTech”, as it seeks to badge it — as it will require companies of more than 250 employees to have a reporting solution in place by the end of December 2021, encouraging European businesses to cast around for tools to help shrink their misconduct-related risk.

She also suggests a platform solution can help bridge gaps between different internal teams that may need to be involved in addressing complaints, as well as helping to speed up internal investigations by offering the ability to chat anonymously with the original reporter.

Meidav also flags the rising attention US regulators are giving to workplace misconduct reporting — noting some recent massive awards by the SEC to external whistleblowers, such as the $28M paid out to a single whistleblower earlier this year (in relation to the Panasonic Avionics consultant corruption case).

She also argues that growing numbers of companies going public (such as via the SPAC trend, where there will have been reduced regulatory scrutiny ahead of the ‘blank check’ IPO) raises reporting requirements generally — meaning, again, more companies will need to have in place a system operated by a third party which allows anonymous and non-anonymous reporting. (And, well, we can only speculate whether companies going public by SPAC may be in greater need of misconduct reporting services vs companies that choose to take a more traditional and scrutinized route to market… )

“Just a few years back I had to convince investors that this category it really is a category — and fast forward to 2021, congratulations! We have a market here. It’s a growing category and there is competition in this space,” says Meidav.

“What truly differentiates Vault is that we did not just focus on digitizing an old legacy process. We focused on leveraging technology to truly empower more misconduct to surface internally and for employees to speak up in ways that weren’t available for them before. GoTogether is truly unique as well as the things that we’re doing on the operational side for a company — such as collaboration.”

She gives an example of how a customer in the oil and gas sector configured the platform to make use of an anonymous chat feature in Vault’s app so they could provide employees with a secure direct-line to company leadership.

“They’ve utilizing the anonymous chat that the app enables for people to have a direct line to leadership,” she says. “That’s incredible. That is such a progress, forward looking way to be utilizing this tool.”

Vault Platform’s suite of tools include an employee app and a Resolution Hub for compliance, HR, risk and legal teams (Image credits: Vault Platform)

Meidav says Vault has around 30 customers at this stage, split between the US and EU — its core regions of focus.

And while its platform is geared towards enterprises, its early customer base includes a fair number of scale-ups — with familiar names like Lemonade, Airbnb, Kavak, G2 and OVO Energy on the list.

Scale ups may be natural customers for this sort of product given the huge pressures that can be brought to bear upon company culture as a startup switches to expanding headcount very rapidly, per Meidav.

“They are the early adopters and they are also very much sensitive to events such as these kind of [workplace] scandals as it can impact them greatly… as well as the fact that when a company goes through a hyper growth — and usually you see hyper growth happening in tech companies more than in any other type of sector — hyper growth is at time when you really, as management, as leadership, it’s really important to safeguard your culture,” she suggests.

“Because it changes very, very quickly and these changes can lead to all sorts of things — and it’s really important that leadership is on top of it. So when a company goes through hyper growth it’s an excellent time for them to incorporate a tool such as Vault. As well as the fact that every company that even thinks of an IPO in the coming months or years will do very well to put a tool like Vault in place.”

Expanding Vault’s own team is also on the cards after this Series A close, as it guns for the next phase of growth for its own business. Presumably, though, it’s not short of a misconduct reporting solution.

SaaS needs to take a page out of the crypto playbook

By John Chen
John Chen Contributor
John is a principal at Fika Ventures in Los Angeles.

By the time I joined Box in late 2012, the “consumerization of the enterprise” movement was well underway. The playbook was clear: The lessons and tactics from the rise of consumer apps — viral loops, social referrals, frictionless onboarding — could be distilled, packaged and ported over to enterprise.

And the promise was subversive — great products could galvanize a loyal user base and wrest free the fates of multimillion-dollar contracts from suited salespeople peddling unusable software behind closed doors.

While the consumerization of SaaS has taught us how to more effectively get in front of users, this next decade will be about how to properly incentivize them to do the necessary work to have the right product experience.

A decade later, this promise has largely proven true. The consumer playbook contributed to the meteoric rise of Slack, Zoom, Airtable and others, specifically around user acquisition and onboarding. They are beautiful products that are discovered from the bottom up, self-serve, free to start and pay as you grow.

But while this might seem like one of the best times to build a SaaS company, one look at Product Hunt might paint a different story. For every success story like Airtable, there are a dozen lookalikes employing the same consumer-inspired playbook that are getting drowned out.

And for any first-mover startup in a new category thinking they’re reaching escape velocity, there are a dozen copycats in YC waiting around the corner, complete with their beautifully designed apps, and the promise of being “blazingly fast and delightfully simple.”

Image Credits: Fika Ventures

Conventional wisdom suggests that many of these newcomer apps will fall short because they don’t clearly communicate their differentiation, or their signup process isn’t streamlined enough, or they have poor documentation and tutorial videos, or they haven’t courted the right influencers on Twitter, or just plain poor execution.

While some (or all) of these might be true on the individual app level, there is something bigger happening on the aggregate level, and it comes back to one insidious assumption carried over from the consumer playbook: the myth of frictionless onboarding.

The reality is that onboarding is never frictionless. In fact, it’s quite the opposite — it demands that the user uproot their old habits and switch to this new way of being or doing. Just like with a new fitness program, participants feel good after completing the workout, but it takes a lot of activation energy to start and hard work to get there. Similarly, it takes work on the user’s part to get results, and most apps expect users to do this work for free.

But in a crowded marketplace with infinite alternatives, the only way to capture and hold a user’s attention is to directly incentivize them to experience the product, not just be exposed to it. Today’s growth playbook overindexes on spending ad dollars (with diminishing returns) to get premium placement and eyeballs on Google, Facebook or Product Hunt, but very few have tried putting those dollars to work toward ensuring users are actually having the experience they are supposed to.

2019 subscription customer acquisition cost study. Image Credits: Profitwell

To do this, SaaS needs to take a page out of the crypto playbook. So while the past decade of the consumerization of SaaS has taught us how to more effectively get in front of users, this next decade will be about the cryptofication of SaaS and how to properly incentivize users to do the necessary work to have the right experience with your product.

Google Cloud launches Vertex AI, a new managed machine learning platform

By Frederic Lardinois

At Google I/O today Google Cloud announced Vertex AI, a new managed machine learning platform that is meant to make it easier for developers to deploy and maintain their AI models. It’s a bit of an odd announcement at I/O, which tends to focus on mobile and web developers and doesn’t traditionally feature a lot of Google Cloud news, but the fact that Google decided to announce Vertex today goes to show how important it thinks this new service is for a wide range of developers.

The launch of Vertex is the result of quite a bit of introspection by the Google Cloud team. “Machine learning in the enterprise is in crisis, in my view,” Craig Wiley, the director of product management for Google Cloud’s AI Platform, told me. “As someone who has worked in that space for a number of years, if you look at the Harvard Business Review or analyst reviews, or what have you — every single one of them comes out saying that the vast majority of companies are either investing or are interested in investing in machine learning and are not getting value from it. That has to change. It has to change.”

Image Credits: Google

Wiley, who was also the general manager of AWS’s SageMaker AI service from 2016 to 2018 before coming to Google in 2019, noted that Google and others who were able to make machine learning work for themselves saw how it can have a transformational impact, but he also noted that the way the big clouds started offering these services was by launching dozens of services, “many of which were dead ends,” according to him (including some of Google’s own). “Ultimately, our goal with Vertex is to reduce the time to ROI for these enterprises, to make sure that they can not just build a model but get real value from the models they’re building.”

Vertex then is meant to be a very flexible platform that allows developers and data scientist across skill levels to quickly train models. Google says it takes about 80% fewer lines of code to train a model versus some of its competitors, for example, and then help them manage the entire lifecycle of these models.

Image Credits: Google

The service is also integrated with Vizier, Google’s AI optimizer that can automatically tune hyperparameters in machine learning models. This greatly reduces the time it takes to tune a model and allows engineers to run more experiments and do so faster.

Vertex also offers a “Feature Store” that helps its users serve, share and reuse the machine learning features and Vertex Experiments to help them accelerate the deployment of their models into producing with faster model selection.

Deployment is backed by a continuous monitoring service and Vertex Pipelines, a rebrand of Google Cloud’s AI Platform Pipelines that helps teams manage the workflows involved in preparing and analyzing data for the models, train them, evaluate them and deploy them to production.

To give a wide variety of developers the right entry points, the service provides three interfaces: a drag-and-drop tool, notebooks for advanced users and — and this may be a bit of a surprise — BigQuery ML, Google’s tool for using standard SQL queries to create and execute machine learning models in its BigQuery data warehouse.

We had two guiding lights while building Vertex AI: get data scientists and engineers out of the orchestration weeds, and create an industry-wide shift that would make everyone get serious about moving AI out of pilot purgatory and into full-scale production,” said Andrew Moore, vice president and general manager of Cloud AI and Industry Solutions at Google Cloud. “We are very proud of what we came up with in this platform, as it enables serious deployments for a new generation of AI that will empower data scientists and engineers to do fulfilling and creative work.”

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.

Software subscriptions are eating the world: Solving billing and cash flow woes simultaneously

By Annie Siebert
Krish Subramanian Contributor
Krish Subramanian is co-founder and CEO of Chargebee, a global leader in subscription billing and revenue management. He began his career as a software engineer at a startup before going on to specialize in indirect purchasing implementations for Fortune 500 customers.

Although recurring revenue businesses have been around for a long time, the trend toward a subscription economy has escalated rapidly in the last few years. IDC expects that by 2022, 53% of all software revenue will be purchased with a subscription model. Even the car subscription market is set to grow by 71% by 2022.

Many types of businesses are looking for ways to earn recurring revenue — and it has gone beyond business-to-consumer companies like Netflix and Dollar Shave Club. Business-to-business companies are also joining in, even those with products that last a long time. For instance, elevator-maker Otis offers Otis ONE, a subscription-connected elevator solution that offers predictive maintenance insights.

Subscription billing options should make it easy to manage all types of subscriptions, including integrating analytics to provide a more complete picture of the subscriptions landscape.

Promising, but there are pitfalls

Subscription business models are attractive, but there are two major pitfalls. At the top of the list is payment. Regardless of company size, there’s an ongoing need to convince customers to sign up long term.

Companies also need to accommodate new payment methods and ensure ongoing compliance with interstate and international tax laws. As a result, the payment process can quickly become painful.

As any company with recurring revenue scales, it becomes increasingly challenging to manage subscriptions, especially with homegrown systems, changing subscription offers and the complexities of converting customers from free trials to paid subscriptions. Subscription billing options should make it easy to manage all types of subscriptions, including integrating analytics to provide a more complete picture of the subscriptions landscape.

Businesses also have to keep in mind that every time they add more product categories or expand into new geographies, they need to tack on extra software code to change their operations and stay sales-tax-compliant. As they expand globally, this can become an obstacle to rapid growth and flexibility.

To keep the company focused and maintain growth without having to expend resources, subscription businesses need a specialized billing system so they can focus on customer acquisition and revenue growth rather than staying on top of billing complexity.

The CAC payback gap constrains growth

The second issue: How do businesses cover the funding gap between when customers sign up and when they pay? In the subscription economy, companies that would previously receive a customer’s payments all at once now earn revenue spread across a monthly or quarterly subscription fee.

PC Gaming Doesn't Have to Be More Expensive Than Consoles

By Whitson Gordon
Don't buy into the myth: If you consider your options carefully, upgrading your desktop doesn't have to empty your wallet.
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