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How a Vungle-owned mobile marketer sent Fontmaker to the top of the App Store

By Sarah Perez

Does this sound familiar? An app goes viral on social media, often including TikTok, then immediately climbs to the top of the App Store where it gains even more new installs thanks to the heightened exposure. That’s what happened with the recent No. 1 on the U.S. App Store, Fontmaker, a subscription-based fonts app which appeared to benefit from word-of-mouth growth thanks to TikTok videos and other social posts. But what we’re actually seeing here is a new form of App Store marketing — and one which now involves one of the oldest players in the space: Vungle.

Fontmaker, at first glance, seems to be just another indie app that hit it big.

The app, published by an entity called Mango Labs, promises users a way to create fonts using their own handwriting which they can then access from a custom keyboard for a fairly steep price of $4.99 per week. The app first launched on July 26. Nearly a month later, it was the No. 2 app on the U.S. App Store, according to Sensor Tower data. By August 26, it climbed up one more position to reach No. 1. before slowly dropping down in the top overall free app rankings in the days that followed.

By Aug. 27, it was No. 15, before briefly surging again to No. 4 the following day, then declining once more. Today, the app is No. 54 overall and No. 4 in the competitive Photo & Video category — still, a solid position for a brand-new and somewhat niche product targeting mainly younger users. To date, it’s generated $68,000 in revenue, Sensor Tower reports.

But Fontmaker may not be a true organic success story, despite its Top Charts success driven by a boost in downloads coming from real users, not bots. Instead, it’s an example of how mobile marketers have figured out how to tap into the influencer community to drive app installs. It’s also an example of how it’s hard to differentiate between apps driven by influencer marketing and those that hit the top of the App Store because of true demand — like walkie-talkie app Zello, whose recent trip to No. 1 can be attributed to Hurricane Ida

As it turns out, Fontmaker is not your typical “indie app.” In fact, it’s unclear who’s really behind it. Its publisher, Mango Labs, LLC, is actually an iTunes developer account owned by the mobile growth company JetFuel, which was recently acquired by the mobile ad and monetization firm Vungle — a longtime and sometimes controversial player in this space, itself acquired by Blackstone in 2019.

Vungle was primarily interested in JetFuel’s main product, an app called The Plug, aimed at influencers.

Through The Plug, mobile app developers and advertisers can connect to JetFuel’s network of over 15,000 verified influencers who have a combined 4 billion Instagram followers, 1.5 billion TikTok followers, and 100 million daily Snapchat views.

While marketers could use the built-in advertising tools on each of these networks to try to reach their target audience, JetFuel’s technology allows marketers to quickly scale their campaigns to reach high-value users in the Gen Z demographic, the company claims. This system can be less labor-intensive than traditional influencer marketing, in some cases. Advertisers pay on a cost-per-action (CPA) basis for app installs. Meanwhile, all influencers have to do is scroll through The Plug to find an app to promote, then post it to their social accounts to start making money.

Image Credits: The Plug’s website, showing influencers how the platform works

So while yes, a lot of influencers may have made TikTok videos about Fontmaker, which prompted consumers to download the app, the influencers were paid to do so. (And often, from what we saw browsing the Fontmaker hashtag, without disclosing that financial relationship in any way — an increasingly common problem on TikTok, and area of concern for the FTC.)

Where things get tricky is in trying to sort out Mango Labs’ relationship with JetFuel/Vungle. As a consumer browsing the App Store, it looks like Mango Labs makes a lot of fun consumer apps of which Fontmaker is simply the latest.

JetFuel’s website helps to promote this image, too.

It had showcased its influencer marketing system using a case study from an “indie developer” called Mango Labs and one of its earlier apps, Caption Pro. Caption Pro launched in Jan. 2018. (App Annie data indicates it was removed from the App Store on Aug. 31, 2021…yes, yesterday).

Image Credits: App Annie

Vungle, however, told TechCrunch “The Caption Pro app no longer exists and has not been live on the App Store or Google Play for a long time.” (We can’t find an App Annie record of the app on Google Play).

They also told us that “Caption Pro was developed by Mango Labs before the entity became JetFuel,” and that the case study was used to highlight JetFuel’s advertising capabilities. (But without clearly disclosing their connection.)

“Prior to JetFuel becoming the influencer marketing platform that it is today, the company developed apps for the App Store. After the company pivoted to become a marketing platform, in February 2018, it stopped creating apps but continued to use the Mango Labs account on occasion to publish apps that it had third-party monetization partnerships with,” the Vungle spokesperson explained.

In other words, the claim being made here is that while Mango Labs, originally, were the same folks who have long since pivoted to become JetFuel, and the makers of Caption Pro, all the newer apps published under “Mango Labs, LLC” were not created by JetFuel’s team itself.

“Any apps that appear under the Mango Labs LLC name on the App Store or Google Play were in fact developed by other companies, and Mango Labs has only acted as a publisher,” the spokesperson said.

Image Credits: JetFuel’s website describing Mango Labs as an “indie developer”

There are reasons why this statement doesn’t quite sit right — and not only because JetFuel’s partners seem happy to hide themselves behind Mango Labs’ name, nor because Mango Labs was a project from the JetFuel team in the past. It’s also odd that Mango Labs and another entity, Takeoff Labs, claim the same set of apps. And like Mango Labs, Takeoff Labs is associated with JetFuel too.

Breaking this down, as of the time of writing, Mango Labs has published several consumer apps on both the App Store and Google Play.

On iOS, this includes the recent No. 1 app Fontmaker, as well as FontKey, Color Meme, Litstick, Vibe, Celebs, FITme Fitness, CopyPaste, and Part 2. On Google Play, it has two more: Stickered and Mango.

Image Credits: Mango Labs

Most of Mango Labs’ App Store listings point to JetFuel’s website as the app’s “developer website,” which would be in line with what Vungle says about JetFuel acting as the apps’ publisher.

What’s odd, however, is that the Mango Labs’ app Part2, links to Takeoff Labs’ website from its App Store listing.

The Vungle spokesperson initially told us that Takeoff Labs is “an independent app developer.”

And yet, the Takeoff Labs’ website shows a team which consists of JetFuel’s leadership, including JetFuel co-founder and CEO Tim Lenardo and JetFuel co-founder and CRO JJ Maxwell. Takeoff Labs’ LLC application was also signed by Lenardo.

Meanwhile, Takeoff Labs’ co-founder and CEO Rhai Goburdhun, per his LinkedIn and the Takeoff Labs website, still works there. Asked about this connection, Vungle told us they did not realize the website had not been updated, and neither JetFuel nor Vungle have an ownership stake in Takeoff Labs with this acquisition.

Image Credits: Takeoff Labs’ website showing its team, including JetFuel’s co-founders.

Takeoff Labs’ website also shows off its “portfolio” of apps, which includes Celeb, Litstick, and FontKey — three apps that are published by Mango Labs on the App Store.

On Google Play, Takeoff Labs is the developer credited with Celebs, as well as two other apps, Vibe and Teal, a neobank. But on the App Store, Vibe is published by Mango Labs.

Image Credits: Takeoff Labs’ website, showing its app portfolio.

(Not to complicate things further, but there’s also an entity called RealLabs which hosts JetFuel, The Plug and other consumer apps, including Mango — the app published by Mango Labs on Google Play. Someone sure likes naming things “Labs!”)

Vungle claims the confusion here has to do with how it now uses the Mango Labs iTunes account to publish apps for its partners, which is a “common practice” on the App Store. It says it intends to transfer the apps published under Mango Labs to the developers’ accounts, because it agrees this is confusing.

Vungle also claims that JetFuel “does not make nor own any consumer apps that are currently live on the app stores. Any of the apps made by the entity when it was known as Mango Labs have long since been taken down from the app stores.”

JetFuel’s system is messy and confusing, but so far successful in its goals. Fontmaker did make it to No. 1, essentially growth hacked to the top by influencer marketing.

Congrats to @Rhai_Gb & the @Takeoff_Labs team- it's great to be back at #1 overall 🙌

Also a huge accomplishment for @jetfuel_it as the only user acquisition source. The first time we've single-handedly moved an app to #1 Top Free! https://t.co/Cl8ahj8Owo

— Tim L (@telenardo) August 25, 2021

But as a consumer, what this all means is that you’ll never know who actually built the app you’re downloading or whether you were “influenced” to try it through what were, essentially, undisclosed ads.

Fontmaker isn’t the first to growth hack its way to the top through influencer promotions. Summertime hit Poparrazzi also hyped itself to the top of the App Store in a similar way, as have many others. But Poparazzi has since sunk to No. 89 in Photo & Video, which shows influence can only take you so far.

As for Fontmaker, paid influence got it to No. 1, but its Top Chart moment was brief.

Facebook enters the fantasy gaming market

By Sarah Perez

Facebook is getting into fantasy sports and other types of fantasy games. The company this morning announced the launch of Facebook Fantasy Games in the U.S. and Canada on the Facebook app for iOS and Android. Some games are described as “simpler” versions of the traditional fantasy sports games already on the market, while others allow users to make predictions associated with popular TV series, like “Survivor” or “The Bachelorette.”

The first game to launch is Pick & Play Sports, in partnership with Whistle Sports, where fans get points for correctly predicting the winner of a big game, the points scored by a top player, or other events that unfold during the match. Players can also earn bonus points for building a streak of correct predictions over several days. This game is arriving today.

Image Credits: Facebook

In the months ahead, it will be followed by other games in sports, TV, and pop culture, including Fantasy Survivor, where players choose a set of Castaways from the popular CBS TV show to join their fantasy team and Fantasy “The Bachelorette,” where fans will pick a group of men from the suitors vying for the Bachelorette’s heart and get points based on their actions and events that take place during the show. Other upcoming sports-focused games include MLB Home Run Picks, where players pick the team that they think will hit the most home runs, and LaLiga Winning Streak, where fans predict the team that will win that day.

In addition to top players being featured on leaderboards, games have a social component for those who want to play with friends.

Image Credits: Facebook

Players can create their own fantasy league with friends to compete with one another or against other fans, either publicly or privately. League members can compare scores with each other and will have a place where they can share picks, reactions and comments. This league area resembles a private group on Facebook, as it offers its own compose box for posting only to members and its own dedicated feed. However, the page is designed to support groups with specific buttons to “play” or view the “leaderboard,” among others.

The addition of fantasy games could help Facebook increase the time users spent on its app at a time when the company is facing significant competition in social, namely from TikTok. According to App Annie, the average monthly time spent per user in TikTok grew faster than other top social apps in 2020, including by 70% in the U.S., surpassing Facebook.

Facebook had dabbled in the idea of becoming a second screen companion for live events in the past, but in a different way than fantasy sports and games. Instead, its R&D division tested Venue, which worked as a way for fans to comment on live events which were hosted in the app by well-known personalities.

The new league games will be available from the bookmark menu on the mobile app and in News Feed through notifications.

Reframe your Metaphors, and other lessons from Y Combinator S21 Day 1

By Natasha Mascarenhas

After a 17-hour marathon through nearly 200 startup pitches, the Equity team was fired up to get back on Twitter and chat through some early trends and favorites from the first day of Y Combinator’s demo party. We’ll be back on the air tomorrow, so make sure you’re following the show on Twitter so you don’t miss out.

What did Natasha and Alex chat about? The following:

  • First impressions: We started by going through top-line numbers, geographic breakdown, and how the accelerator is doing when it comes to the representation of diverse founders. The last bit had a tiny bit of progress, but diversity continues to be an issue in YC’s batches — even as cohort size grows. We also chatted about what startups pitching can work on: like better mics, which are cheap and good.
  • Our early favorites: Metaphor, Lumify, Alex’s favorite duo Indian real estate plays, Akudo, Reframe and Playhouse.
  • And some hmmm moments, including our thoughts on Writesonic, which Natasha has a potentially paranoid theory on.

TechCrunch has extensive coverage of the day on the site, so there’s lots to dig into if you are in the mood. More tomorrow!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PDT, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 a.m. PDT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts!

Our favorite startups from YC’s Summer 21 Demo Day, Part 1

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Y Combinator kicked off its fourth-ever virtual Demo Day today, revealing the first-half of its nearly 400 company batch. The presentation, YC’s biggest yet, offers a snapshot into where innovation is heading, from not-so-simple seaweed to a Clearco for creators.

The TechCrunch team stuck to its tradition of covering every single company live (but, you know, from home,) so you’ll find all of the Day 1 companies here. For those who want a sampling of standouts, however, we’re also bringing you a host of our favorites from today’s 1-minute pitch off extravaganza.

As reporters, we’re constantly inundated with hundreds of pitches on a daily basis. The startups below caught our picky attention for a whole host of reasons, but that doesn’t mean other startups weren’t compelling or potential unicorns as well. Instead, consider below as a data point on which startups made us do a double take, be it due to the size of the market opportunity, the ambition exhibited by the founding team, or an idea that was just too clever to pass up.

Genei

Genei is, dare I say, a refreshing mix up between robots and writers. The startup has a simple goal: automatically summarize background reading so content creators can grab the top facts, attribute, and move onto the next graf. Writing is innately an art, so I find Genei’s positioning as a tool for writers instead of a replacement out to take their jobs as smart. Better yet, it’s launching by targeting some of the hardest workers in our industry: freelance writers. These folks often have to balance consistent pitches, diverse assignments and tight deadlines for their livelihood, so I’d presume a sidekick doesn’t hurt. Down the road, I could totally see this startup playing the same role as a Grammarly: a helpful extension of workflows that optimizes the way people who write for a living, write. — Natasha

UK-based Heroes raises $200M to buy up more Amazon merchants for its roll-up play

By Ingrid Lunden

Heroes, one of the new wave of startups aiming to build big e-commerce businesses by buying up smaller third-party merchants on Amazon’s Marketplace, has raised another big round of funding to double down on that strategy. The London startup has picked up $200 million, money that it will mainly be using to snap up more merchants. Existing brands in its portfolio cover categories like babies, pets, sports, personal health and home and garden categories — some of them, like PremiumCare dog chews, the Onco baby car mirror, gardening tool brand Davaon and wooden foot massager roller Theraflow, category best-sellers — and the plan is to continue building up all of these verticals.

Crayhill Capital Management, a fund based out of New York, is providing the funding, and Riccardo Bruni — who co-founded the company with twin brother Alessio and third brother Giancarlo — said that the bulk of it will be going toward making acquisitions, and is therefore coming in the form of debt.

Raising debt rather than equity at this point is pretty standard for companies like Heroes. Heroes itself is pretty young: it launched less than a year ago, in November 2020, with $65 million in funding, a round comprised of both equity and debt. Other investors in the startup include 360 Capital, Fuel Ventures and Upper 90.

Heroes is playing in what is rapidly becoming a very crowded field. Not only are there tens of thousands of businesses leveraging Amazon’s extensive fulfillment network to sell goods on the e-commerce giant’s marketplace, but some days it seems we are also rapidly approaching a state of nearly as many startups launching to consolidate these third-party sellers.

Many a roll-up play follows a similar playbook, which goes like this: Amazon provides the marketplace to sell goods to consumers, and the infrastructure to fulfill those orders, by way of Fulfillment By Amazon and its Prime service. Meanwhile, the roll-up business — in this case Heroes — buys up a number of the stronger companies leveraging FBA and the marketplace. Then, by consolidating them into a single tech platform that they have built, Heroes creates better economies of scale around better and more efficient supply chains, sharper machine learning and marketing and data analytics technology, and new growth strategies. 

What is notable about Heroes, though — apart from the fact that it’s the first roll-up player to come out of the U.K., and continues to be one of the bigger players in Europe — is that it doesn’t believe that the technology plays as important a role as having a solid relationship with the companies it’s targeting, key given that now the top marketplace sellers are likely being feted by a number of companies as acquisition targets.

“The tech is very important,” said Alessio in an interview. “It helps us build robust processes that tie all the systems together across multiple brands and marketplaces. But what we have is very different from a SaaS business. We are not building an app, and tech is not the core of what we do. From the acquisitions side, we believe that human interactions ultimately win. We don’t think tech can replace a strong acquisition process.”

Image Credits: Heroes

Heroes’ three founder-brothers (two of them, Riccardo and Alessio, pictured above) have worked across a number of investment, finance and operational roles (the CVs include Merrill Lynch, EQT Ventures, Perella Weinberg Partners, Lazada, Nomura and Liberty Global) and they say there have been strong signs so far of its strategy working: of the brands that it has acquired since launching in November, they claim business (sales) has grown five-fold.

Collectively, the roll-up startups are raising hundreds of millions of dollars to fuel these efforts. Other recent hopefuls that have announced funding this year include Suma Brands ($150 million); Elevate Brands ($250 million); Perch ($775 million); factory14 ($200 million); Thrasio (currently probably the biggest of them all in terms of reach and money raised and ambitions), HeydayThe Razor GroupBrandedSellerXBerlin Brands Group (X2), Benitago, Latin America’s Valoreo and Rainforest and Una Brands out of Asia. 

The picture that is emerging across many of these operations is that many of these companies, Heroes included, do not try to make their particular approaches particularly more distinctive than those of their competitors, simply because — with nearly 10 million third-party sellers today on Amazon globally — the opportunity is likely big enough for all of them, and more, not least because of current market dynamics.

“It’s no secret that we were inspired by Thrasio and others,” Riccardo said. “Combined with COVID-19, there has been a massive acceleration of e-commerce across the continent.” It was that, plus the realization that the three brothers had the right e-commerce, fundraising and investment skills between them, that made them see what was a ‘perfect storm’ to tackle the opportunity, he continued. “So that is why we jumped into it.”

In the case of Heroes, while the majority of the funding will be used for acquisitions, it’s also planning to double headcount from its current 70 employees before the end of this year with a focus on operational experts to help run their acquired businesses. 

Microsoft is discontinuing its Office apps for Chromebook users in favor of web versions 

By Sean Michael Kerner

Since 2017, Microsoft has offered its Office suite to Chromebook users via the Google Play store, but that is set to come to an end in a few short weeks.

As of Sept. 18, Microsoft is discontinuing support for Office, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Outlook, on Chromebook. Microsoft is not, however, abandoning the popular mobile device altogether. Instead of an app that is downloaded, Microsoft is encouraging users to go to the web instead.

“In an effort to provide the most optimized experience for Chromebook customers, Microsoft apps (Office and Outlook) will be transitioned to web experiences (Office.com and Outlook.com) on September 18, 2021,” Microsoft wrote in a statement emailed to TechCrunch. 

Microsoft’s statement also noted that “this transition brings Chromebook customers access to additional and premium features.” 

The Microsoft web experience will serve to transition its base of Chromebook users to the Microsoft 365 service, which provides more Office templates and generally more functionality than what the app-based approach provides. The web approach is also more optimized for larger screens than the app.

In terms of how Microsoft wants Chromebook users to get access to Office and Outlook, the plan is for customers to, “..sign in with their personal Microsoft Account or account associated with their Microsoft 365 subscription,” according to the statement. Microsoft has also provided online documentation to show users how to run Office on a Chromebook.

Chromebooks run on Google’s Chrome OS, which is a Linux-based operating system. Chromebooks also enable Android apps to run, as Android is also Linux based, with apps downloaded from Google Play. It’s important to note that while support for Chromebooks is going away, Microsoft is not abandoning other Android-based mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones.

For those Chromebook users that have already downloaded the Microsoft Office apps, the apps will continue to function after September 18, though they will not receive any support or future updates.

The pure hell of managing your JPEGs

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

Natasha and Alex and Grace and Chris were joined by none other than TechCrunch’s own Mary Ann Azevedo, in her first-ever appearance on the show. She’s pretty much the best person and we’re stoked to have her on the pod.

And it was good that Mary Ann was on the show this week as she wrote about half the dang site. Which meant that we got to include all sorts of her work in the rundown. Here’s the agenda:

And that’s a wrap, for, well, at least the next five seconds.
Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PDT, Wednesday, and Friday morning at 7:00 a.m. PDT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Netflix begins testing mobile games in its Android app in Poland

By Sarah Perez

Netflix today announced it will begin testing mobile games inside its Android app for its members in Poland. At launch, paying subscribers will be able to try out two games, “Stranger Things: 1984” and “Stranger Things 3” — titles that have been previously available on the Apple App Store, Google Play and, in the case of the newer release, on other platforms including desktop and consoles. While the games are offered to subscribers from within the Netflix mobile app’s center tab, users will still be directed to the Google Play Store to install the game on their devices.

To then play, members will need to confirm their Netflix credentials.

Members can later return to the game at any time by clicking “Play” on the game’s page from inside the Netflix app or by launching it directly from their mobile device.

“It’s still very, very early days and we will be working hard to deliver the best possible experience in the months ahead with our no ads, no in-app purchases approach to gaming,” a Netflix spokesperson said about the launch.

Let’s talk Netflix and gaming.

Today members in Poland can try Netflix mobile gaming on Android with two games, Stranger Things: 1984 and Stranger Things 3. It’s very, very early days and we’ve got a lot of work to do in the months ahead, but this is the first step. https://t.co/yOl44PGY0r

— Netflix Geeked (@NetflixGeeked) August 26, 2021

The company has been expanding its investment in gaming for years, seeing the potential for a broader entertainment universe that ties in to its most popular shows. At the E3 gaming conference back in 2019, Netflix detailed a series of gaming integrations across popular platforms like Roblox and Fortnite and its plans to bring new “Stranger Things” games to the market.

On mobile, Netflix has been working with the Allen, Texas-based game studio BonusXP, whose first game for Netflix, “Stranger Things: The Game,” has now been renamed “Stranger Things: 1984” to better differentiate it from others. While that game takes place after season 1 and before season 2, in the “Stranger Things” timeline, the follow-up title, “Stranger Things 3,” is a playable version of the third season of the Netflix series. (So watch out for spoilers!)

Netflix declined to share how popular the games had been in terms of users or installs, while they were publicly available on the app stores.

With the launch of the test in Poland, Netflix says users will need to have a membership to download the titles as they’re now exclusively available to subscribers. However, existing users who already downloaded the game from Google Play in the past will not be impacted. They will be able to play the game as usual or even re-download it from their account library if they used to have it installed. But new players will only be able to get the game from the Netflix app.

The test aims to better understand how mobile gaming will resonate with Netflix members and determine what other improvements Netflix may need to make to the overall functionality, the company said. It chose Poland as the initial test market because it has an active mobile gaming audience, which made it seem like a good fit for this early feedback.

Netflix couldn’t say when it would broaden this test to other countries, beyond “the coming months.”

The streamer recently announced during its second-quarter earnings that it would add mobile games to its offerings, noting that it viewing gaming as “another new content category” for its business, similar to its “expansion into original films, animation and unscripted TV.”

The news followed what had been a sharp slowdown in new customers after the pandemic-fueled boost to streaming. In North America, Netflix in Q2 lost a sizable 430,000 subscribers — its third-ever quarterly decline in a decade. It also issued weaker guidance for the upcoming quarter, forecasting the addition of 3.5 million subscribers when analysts had been looking for 5.9 million. But Netflix downplayed the threat of competition on its slowing growth, instead blaming a lighter content slate, in part due to Covid-related production delays.

 

 

 

 

 

Playbook, which aims to be the ‘Dropbox for designers,’ raises $4M in round led by Founders Fund

By Mary Ann Azevedo

When Jessica Ko was head of design at Google and then Opendoor, she realized that her teams spent about 90% of their time digging around Dropbox looking for assets.

In many cases, they’d find older versions. Or they couldn’t find what they were looking for. Or even worse, they’d accidentally pick the wrong asset.

“It was such a chaotic process,” Ko recalls. “Anyone could go in and alter things and change folder structures around. It was a total mess, and just continued like that because there was no alternative.”

As Opendoor grew in size, the problem became an even bigger one, she said. 

“Designers were quitting because it was giving them so much anxiety,” Ko recalls. “Dropbox hadn’t solved it yet. Google Drive was not a good alternative either. Designers deal with files the most, and we’re exchanging files constantly.

Besides the frustration and stress the problem of file storage and sharing caused, not being able to locate the correct assets also led to errors, which in turn led to lots of money lost, according to Ko.

“We spent a lot of money on photo shoots because we couldn’t find new things, or people would have to recreate designs,” she said. 

On top of that, she said, designers weren’t the only ones who needed to access the assets. Finance teams were constantly needing them for things like creating pitch decks.

So in 2018, Ko left Opendoor to set about solving the problem she was tired of dealing with by creating file storage for modern design workflows and processes. Or put more simply, she wanted to build a new kind of cloud storage that would serve as an alternative to Dropbox and Google Drive “built by, and for, creatives.”

In early 2020, Ko (CEO) teamed up with Alex Zirbel (CTO) to launch San Francisco-based Playbook, which she describes as the “Dropbox for designers,” to tackle the challenge. And today, the startup has emerged from stealth and announced it has raised $4 million in a seed funding round led by Founders Fund at a $20 million post-money valuation.

Other investors in the round include Abstract, Inovia, Maple, Basis Set, Backend, Wilson Sonsini and a number of angels including Opendoor co-founder and CEO Eric Wu, Gusto co-founder Eddie Kim and SV Angel’s Beth Turner.

The first thing Playbook set out to do was attempt to reinvent the way folders exist for assets, with subfolders underneath. And then, the company set about trying to change the way people share files. 

“Since so much is done over email and Slack these days, version control becomes even more difficult,” Ko told TechCrunch. So Playbook, she said, has built a storage system that can be accessed by all parties as opposed to just sending files via different channels.

“For years, these assets have been dropped into what feels like a file cabinet,” Ko said. “But these days, sharing assets is much more collaborative and there’s different kinds of parties involved such as freelancers and contractors. So who is managing these files, and controlling the versions has become very complex.”

Playbook offers 4TB of free storage, which Ko says is 266 times the free version of Google Storage and 2000 times that of Dropbox. The hope is that this encourages users to use its platform as an all-around creative hub without worrying about running out of storage space. It also automatically scans, organizes and tags files and has worked to make it easier to browse files and folders visually.

Image Credits: Playbook

In March, Playbook opened a beta version of its product to the design community and got about 1,000 users in two months. People continued to sign up and the company at one point had to close the beta so that it could manage all the new users.

Today, it has about 10,000 users signed up in beta. Early users include individual freelancers to design teams at companies like Fast, Folx and Literati.

The 7-person company wants to focus on getting the product “right” before attempting to monetize and launch to enterprises (which will likely happen next year), Ko said.

For now, Playbook is focused on the needs of freelancers. The company believes that the exponential growth of freelancers post-pandemic means “cloud storage needs to be smarter.”

“We want to first solve that use case, and unlock the problem from the bottom up,” Ko told TechCrunch. 

Also, another strategy behind that initial focus is that freelancers can also introduce Playbook to the companies and enterprises they work for, so the marketing then becomes built into the product.

“They can transfer assets and files through Playbook to their clients, who tend to adopt,” she said.

Today, Playbook is helping manage over 2 million assets and says it has “hundreds of waitlist sign-ups” every month.

Looking ahead, Zirbel said the startup wants to branch out into image scanning, similarity, content detection, previewing and long-term cloud storage and tons of integrations.

“There are lots of interesting technology challenges when you focus on the creative side of cloud storage,” he said.

Founders Fund’s John Luttig said when the firm first met Ko and Zirbel last year, it was “clear that they had a depth of understanding and thoughtfulness around file management” that his firm hadn’t seen before. Plus, in his view, there has been very little innovation in cloud storage since Dropbox launched in 2007. 

“The product leverages modern design, collaboration principles, and artificial intelligence to make file management much faster and easier,” he wrote via email. “Given their design-centric backgrounds, they’re extremely well-positioned to rethink the user experience for file systems from the ground up.”

 Playbook, he said, is able to leverage recent advancements in computer vision and design “to build a far better product to manage and share files.”

Tencent in talks to lead funding in India’s Pocket FM

By Manish Singh

Tencent is in advanced stages of talks to lead an investment round in Gurgaon-headquartered Pocket FM, the latest in the Chinese giant’s push to broaden its consumer internet portfolio in the Indian market.

The Chinese firm, which is already an investor in Pocket FM, is in talks to lead a ~20-25 million round in Pocket FM, according to three people with knowledge of the matter. The proposed term values the three-year-old startup between $75 million to $100 million, two people said. Existing investors Times Internet’s Brand Capital and Lightspeed are also participating in the round.

Tencent and Pocket FM declined to comment.

Pocket FM operates an eponymous app that offers users podcasts and audiobooks in English and several Indian languages. On its website, the service says its catalog is over 10,000 hours. The startup works with several creators to produce audiobooks.

The app is available in a freemium model. It has a paid subscription as well as an ad-supported free version.

The investment talks come at a time when a range of Indian startups are beginning to launch in — or expand to — audio category. Indian social network ShareChat, for instance, launched a Clubhouse-like feature earlier this year.

Pocket FM will be Tencent’s latest bet in India’s consumer internet space. The Chinese giant is also an investor in music streaming service Gaana and on-demand video streaming player MX Player.

Tencent slowed its the pace of investments in India last year after New Delhi amended a rule to require Chinese companies to take its approval before backing Indian firms. It has become more active in recent quarters, investing through debt instead of equity with a convertible note.

Y Combinator, 500 Startups, Plug and Play invest in Odiggo’s $2.2M seed round

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Servicing one’s car personally is a time-consuming, expensive and painstaking process. It’s a cycle that can lead to more expensive repairs and safety issues down the line, and no car owner likes that.

Egypt and Dubai-based auto tech startup Odiggo is a platform addressing this problem. It allows car owners to get the help they need by finding car services and parts suppliers from providers around them. Then for the suppliers, it increases their sales and reaches more customers without necessarily spending on marketing.

Odiggo is part of the current YC Summer batch and has secured a $2.2 million seed round before Demo Day. The rosters of existing investors participating in the round are Y Combinator, 500 Startups, and Plug and Play Ventures. Regional VCs like Seedra Ventures, LoftyInc Capital, and Essa Al-Saleh (CEO of Volta-Tucks) also took part.

Ahmed Omar and Ahmed Nasser launched Odiggo in December 2019. The company operates a marketplace that connects car owners with service providers who can solve their problems, from servicing and repair to washing and maintenance. A commission-based model is used and Odiggo charges the car suppliers 20% commission on every transaction.

Over 50,000 car owners across three markets — Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia — use Odiggo. The company also works directly with over 300 merchants. It claims merchant numbers have grown 40% month-on-month while its user base has increased 200% since the start of the pandemic.

We believe we are at a watershed moment. It is incredible that since COVID hit, Odiggo has experienced over 10 times growth in the last year,” said co-founder Omar. 

CEO Omar said with this new round, Odiggo’s priority will be to attain consistent growth while expanding its team across the UEA, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Odiggo

L-R: Ahmed Nassir (co-founder) & Ahmed Omar (co-founder and CEO)

He adds that since Odiggo taps into a mix of data sources — including car metrics and internal software, it will use that same information to provide more product offerings.

Odiggo will use part of the funding to continue developing its tech and dashboard software, he said.

“For example, the platform would be hooked up to the car owner’s vehicle and link the vehicle to the marketplace and provide frequent updates of your vehicle condition so you’ll be informed if the tires are low, the oil needs changing, or if a service is required.”

The pandemic has upended the mobility and logistics sectors, especially in MENA, making players like Odiggo gain much visibility from investors. In an industry today worth over $61 billion in the Middle East and Africa alone, Odiggo is looking to become a market leader. It has even more lofty plans to go public in the next three years.

“We are also aiming to be fully focused on spending more on our product and technology, as building an ecosystem to monetize requires more capital. Our target is to go for IPO by 2024 and achieve one billion services booked, and this requires a lot of network effects, infrastructure and technology,” the CEO said.

“We aim to be the first $100 billion company coming out of the region,” added Nasser.

Some of its investors, Idris Ayodeji Bello, managing partner at LoftyInc, and Essa Al-Saleh, are onboard with the startup’s plan despite early days.

“We are excited to back Odiggo through our Afropreneurs Funds in its quest to transform the automotive parts market and provide superior service to clients, starting from MENA. The leadership team of Omar and Nasser, supported by the rest of the employees, have been a joy to work with and we are on a countdown to the IPO,” said Bello in a statement

This Week in Apps: OnlyFans bans sexual content, SharePlay delayed, TikTok questioned over biometric data collection

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.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

OnlyFans to ban sexually explicit content

OnlyFans logo displayed on a phone screen and a website

(Photo Illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Creator platform OnlyFans is getting out of the porn business. The company announced this week it will begin to prohibit any “sexually explicit” content starting on October 1, 2021 — a decision it claimed would ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform. The news angered a number of impacted creators who weren’t notified ahead of time and who’ve come to rely on OnlyFans as their main source of income.

However, word is that OnlyFans was struggling to find outside investors, despite its sizable user base, due to the adult content it hosts. Some VC firms are prohibited from investing in adult content businesses, while others may be concerned over other matters — like how NSFW content could have limited interest from advertisers and brand partners. They may have also worried about OnlyFans’ ability to successfully restrict minors from using the app, in light of what appears to be soon-to-come increased regulations for online businesses. Plus, porn companies face a number of other issues, too. They have to continually ensure they’re not hosting illegal content like child sex abuse material, revenge porn or content from sex trafficking victims — the latter which has led to lawsuits at other large porn companies.

The news followed a big marketing push for OnlyFans’ porn-free (SFW) app, OFTV, which circulated alongside reports that the company was looking to raise funds at a $1 billion+ valuation. OnlyFans may not have technically needed the funding to operate its current business — it handled more than $2 billion in sales in 2020 and keeps 20%. Rather, the company may have seen there’s more opportunity to cater to the “SFW” creator community, now that it has big names like Bella Thorne, Cardi B, Tyga, Tyler Posey, Blac Chyna, Bhad Bhabie and others on board.

U.S. lawmakers demand info on TikTok’s plans for biometric data collection

The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max

The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max. Image Credits: Nur Photo/Getty Images

U.S. lawmakers are challenging TikTok on its plans to collect biometric data from its users. TechCrunch first reported on TikTok’s updated privacy policy in June, where the company gave itself permission to collect biometric data in the U.S., including users’ “faceprints and voiceprints.” When reached for comment, TikTok could not confirm what product developments necessitated the addition of biometric data to its list of disclosures about the information it automatically collects from users, but said it would ask for consent in the case such data collection practices began.

Earlier this month, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Thune (R-SD) sent a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, which said they were “alarmed” by the change, and demanded to know what information TikTok will be collecting and what it plans to do with the data. This wouldn’t be the first time TikTok got in trouble for excessive data collection. Earlier this year, the company paid out $92 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that claimed TikTok had unlawfully collected users’ biometric data and shared it with third parties.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Image Credits: Apple

  • ⭐ Apple told developers that some of the features it announced as coming in iOS 15 won’t be available at launch. This includes one of the highlights of the new OS, SharePlay, a feature that lets people share music, videos and their screen over FaceTime calls. Other features that will come in later releases include Wallet’s support for ID cards, the App Privacy report and others that have yet to make it to beta releases.
  • Apple walked back its controversial Safari changes with the iOS 15 beta 6 update. Apple’s original redesign had shown the address bar at the bottom of the screen, floating atop the page’s content. Now the tab bar will appear below the page’s content, offering access to its usual set of buttons as when it was at the top. Users can also turn off the bottom tab bar now and revert to the old, Single Tab option that puts the address bar back at the top as before.
  • In response to criticism over its new CSAM detection technology, Apple said the version of NeuralHash that was reverse-engineered by a developer, Asuhariet Ygvar, was a generic version, and not the complete version that will roll out later this year.
  • The Verge dug through over 800 documents from the Apple-Epic trial to find the best emails, which included dirt on a number of other companies like Netflix, Hulu, Sony, Google, Nintendo, Valve, Microsoft, Amazon and more. These offered details on things like Netflix’s secret arrangement to pay only 15% of revenue, how Microsoft also quietly offers a way for some companies to bypass its full cut, how Apple initially saw the Amazon Appstore as a threat and more.

Platforms: Google

  • A beta version of the Android Accessibility Suite app (12.0.0) which rolled out with the fourth Android beta release added something called “Camera Switches” to Switch Access, a toolset that lets you interact with your device without using the touchscreen. Camera Switches allows users to navigate their phone and use its features by making face gestures, like a smile, open mouth, raised eyebrows and more.
  • Google announced its Pixel 5a with 5G, the latest A-series Pixel phone, will arrive on August 27, offering IP67 water resistance, long-lasting Adaptive Battery, Pixel’s dual-camera system and more, for $449. The phone makes Google’s default Android experience available at a lower price point than the soon to arrive Pixel 6.
  • An unredacted complaint from the Apple-Epic trial revealed that Google had quietly paid developers hundreds of millions of dollars via a program known as “Project Hug,” (later “Apps and Games Velocity Program”) to keep their games on the Play Store. Epic alleges Google launched the program to keep developers from following its lead by moving their games outside the store.

Augmented Reality

  • Snap on Thursday announced it hired its first VP of Platform Partnerships to lead AR, Konstantinos Papamiltiadis (“KP”). The new exec will lead Snap’s efforts to onboard partners, including individual AR creators building via Lens Studio as well as large companies that incorporate Snapchat’s camera and AR technology (Camera Kit) into their apps. KP will join in September, and report to Ben Schwerin, SVP of Content and Partnerships.

Fintech

  • Crypto exchange Coinbase will enter the Japanese market through a new partnership with Japanese financial giant Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG). The company said it plans to launch other localized versions of its existing global services in the future.

Social

Image Credits: Facebook

  • Facebook launched a “test” of Facebook Reels in the U.S. on iOS and Android. The new feature brings the Reels experience to Facebook, allowing users to create and share short-form video content directly within the News Feed or within Facebook Groups. Instagram Reels creators can also now opt in to have their Reels featured on users’ News Feed. The company is heavily investing its its battle with TikTok, even pledging that some portion of its $1 billion creator fund will go toward Facebook Reels.
  • Twitter’s redesign of its website and app was met with a lot of backlash from users and accessibility experts alike. The company choices add more visual contrast between various elements and may have helped those with low vision. But for others, the contrast is causing strain and headaches. Experts believe accessibility isn’t a one-size fits all situation, and Twitter should have introduced tools that allowed people to adjust their settings to their own needs.
  • The pro-Trump Twitter alternative Gettr’s lack of moderation has allowed users to share child exploitation images, according to research from the Stanford Internet Observatory’s Cyber Policy Center.
  • Pinterest rolled out a new set of more inclusive search filters that allow people to find styles for different types of hair textures — like coily, curly, wavy, straight, as well as shaved or bald and protective styles. 

Photos

  • Photoshop for iPad gained new image correction tools, including the Healing Brush and Magic Wand, and added support for connecting an iPad to external monitors via HDMI or USB-C. The company also launched a Photoshop Beta program on the desktop.

Messaging

  • WhatsApp is being adopted by the Taliban to spread its message across Afghanistan, despite being on Facebook’s list of banned organizations. The company says it’s proactively removing Taliban content — but that may be difficult to do since WhatsApp’s E2E encryption means it can’t read people’s texts. This week, Facebook shut down a Taliban helpline in Kabul, which allowed civilians to report violence and looting, but some critics said this wasn’t actually helping local Afghans, as the group was now in effect governing the region.
  • WhatsApp is also testing a new feature that will show a large preview when sharing links, which some suspect may launch around the time when the app adds the ability to have the same account running on multiple devices.

Streaming & Entertainment

  • Netflix announced it’s adding spatial audio support on iPhone and iPad on iOS 14, joining other streamers like HBO Max, Disney+ and Peacock that have already pledged to support the new technology. The feature will be available to toggle on and off in the Control Center, when it arrives.
  • Blockchain-powered streaming music service Audius partnered with TikTok to allow artists to upload their songs using TikTok’s new SoundKit in just one click.
  • YouTube’s mobile app added new functionality that allows users to browse a video’s chapters, and jump into the chapter they want directly from the search page.
  • Spotify’s Anchor app now allows users in global markets to record “Music + Talk” podcasts, where users can combine spoken word recordings with any track from Spotify’s library of 70 million songs for a radio DJ-like experience.
  • Podcasters are complaining that Apple’s revamped Podcasts platform is not working well, reports The Verge. Podcasts Connect has been buggy, and sports a confusing interface that has led to serious user errors (like entire shows being archived). And listeners have complained about syncing problems and podcasts they already heard flooding their libraries.

Dating

  • Tinder announced a new feature that will allow users to voluntarily verify their identity on the platform, which will allow the company to cross-reference sex offender registry data. Previously, Tinder would only check this database when a user signed up for a paid subscription with a credit card.

Gaming

Image Source: The Pokémon Company

  • Pokémon Unite will come to iOS and Android on September 22, The Pokémon Company announced during a livestream this week. The strategic battle game first launched on Nintendo Switch in late July.
  • Developer Konami announced a new game, Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls, which will come exclusively to Apple Arcade. The game is described as a “full-fledged side-scrolling action game,” featuring a roster of iconic characters from the classic game series. The company last year released another version of Castelvania on the App Store and Google Play.
  • Dragon Ball Z: Dokkan Battle has now surpassed $3 billion in player spending since its 2015 debut, reported Sensor Tower. The game from Bandai Namco took 20 months to reach the figure after hitting the $2 billion milestone in 2019. The new landmark sees the game joining other top-grossers, including Clash Royale, Lineage M and others.
  • Sensor Tower’s mobile gaming advertising report revealed data on top ad networks in the mobile gaming market, and their market share. It also found puzzle games were among the top advertisers on gaming-focused networks like Chartboost, Unity, IronSource and Vungle. On less game-focused networks, mid-core games were top titles, like Call of Duty: Mobile and Top War. 

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Health & Fitness

  • Apple is reportedly scaling back HealthHabit, an internal app for Apple employees that allowed them to track fitness goals, talk to clinicians and coaches at AC Wellness (a doctors’ group Apple works with) and manage hypertension. According to Insider, 50 employees had been tasked to work on the project.
  • Samsung launched a new product for Galaxy smartphones in partnership with healthcare nonprofit The Commons Project, that allows U.S. users to save a verifiable copy of their vaccination card in the Samsung Pay digital wallet.

Image Credits: Samsung

Adtech

Government & Policy

  • China cited 43 apps, including Tencent’s WeChat and an e-reader from Alibaba, for illegally transferring user data. The regulator said the apps had transferred users location data and contact list and harassed them with pop-up windows. The apps have until August 25 to make changes before being punished.

Security & Privacy

  • A VICE report reveals a fascinating story about a jailbreaking community member who had served as a double agent by spying for Apple’s security team. Andrey Shumeyko, whose online handles included JVHResearch and YRH04E, would advertise leaked apps, manuals and stolen devices on Twitter and Discord. He would then tell Apple things like which Apple employees were leaking confidential info, which reporters would talk to leakers, who sold stolen iPhone prototypes and more. Shumeyko decided to share his story because he felt Apple took advantage of him and didn’t compensate him for the work.

Funding and M&A

💰 South Korea’s GS Retail Co. Ltd will buy Delivery Hero’s food delivery app Yogiyo in a deal valued at 800 billion won ($685 million USD). Yogiyo is the second-largest food delivery app in South Korea, with a 25% market share.

💰 Gaming platform Roblox acquired a Discord rival, Guilded, which allows users to have text and voice conversations, organize communities around events and calendars and more. Deal terms were not disclosed. Guilded raised $10.2 million in venture funding. Roblox’s stock fell by 7% after the company reported earnings this week, after failing to meet Wall Street expectations.

💰 Travel app Hopper raised $175 million in a Series G round of funding led by GPI Capital, valuing the business at over $3.5 billion. The company raised a similar amount just last year, but is now benefiting from renewed growth in travel following COVID-19 vaccinations and lifting restrictions.

💰 Indian quiz app maker Zupee raised $30 million in a Series B round of funding led by Silicon Valley-based WestCap Group and Tomales Bay Capital. The round values the company at $500 million, up 5x from last year.

💰 Danggeun Market, the publisher of South Korea’s hyperlocal community app Karrot, raised $162 million in a Series D round of funding led by DST Global. The round values the business at $2.7 billion and will be used to help the company launch its own payments platform, Karrot Pay.

💰 Bangalore-based fintech app Smallcase raised $40 million in Series C funding round led by Faering Capital and Premji Invest, with participation from existing investors, as well as Amazon. The Robinhood-like app has over 3 million users who are transacting about $2.5 billion per year.

💰 Social listening app Earbuds raised $3 million in Series A funding led by Ecliptic Capital. Founded by NFL star Jason Fox, the app lets anyone share their favorite playlists, livestream music like a DJ or comment on others’ music picks.

💰 U.S. neobank app One raised $40 million in Series B funding led by Progressive Investment Company (the insurance giant’s investment arm), bringing its total raise to date to $66 million. The app offers all-in-one banking services and budgeting tools aimed at middle-income households who manage their finances on a weekly basis.

Public Markets

📈Indian travel booking app ixigo is looking to raise Rs 1,600 crore in its initial public offering, The Economic Times reported this week.

📉Trading app Robinhood disappointed in its first quarterly earnings as a publicly traded company, when it posted a net loss of $502 million, or $2.16 per share, larger than Wall Street forecasts. This overshadowed its beat on revenue ($565 million versus $521.8 million expected) and its more than doubling of MAUs to 21.3 million in Q2.  Also of note, the company said dogecoin made up 62% of its crypto revenue in Q2.

Downloads

Polycam (update)

Image Credits: Polycam

3D scanning software maker Polycam launched a new 3D capture tool, Photo Mode, that allows iPhone and iPad users to capture professional-quality 3D models with just an iPhone. While the app’s scanner before had required the use of the lidar sensor built into newer devices like the iPhone 12 Pro and iPad Pro models, the new Photo Mode feature uses just an iPhone’s camera. The resulting 3D assets are ready to use in a variety of applications, including 3D art, gaming, AR/VR and e-commerce. Data export is available in over a dozen file formats, including .obj, .gtlf, .usdz and others. The app is a free download on the App Store, with in-app purchases available.

Jiobit (update)

Jiobit, the tracking dongle acquired by family safety and communication app Life360, this week partnered with emergency response service Noonlight to offer Jiobit Protect, a premium add-on that offers Jiobit users access to an SOS Mode and Alert Button that work with the Jiobit mobile app. SOS Mode can be triggered by a child’s caregiver when they detect — through notifications from the Jiobit app — that a loved one may be in danger. They can then reach Noonlight’s dispatcher who can facilitate a call to 911 and provide the exact location of the person wearing the Jiobit device, as well as share other details, like allergies or special needs, for example.

Tweets

When your app redesign goes wrong…

Image Credits: Twitter.com

Prominent App Store critic Kosta Eleftheriou shut down his FlickType iOS app this week after too many frustrations with App Review. He cited rejections that incorrectly argued that his app required more access than it did — something he had successfully appealed and overturned years ago. Attempted follow-ups with Apple were ignored, he said. 

Image Credits: Twitter.com

Anyone have app ideas?

Role’s video role-playing platform makes a $2.75M charm attempt on the burgeoning tabletop world

By Devin Coldewey

Tabletop gaming is in the middle of a historic boom, despite recent restrictions imposed on in-person gatherings by COVID. The tools adopted by game masters and casual players to play remotely are powerful but not always the easiest to use or adopt. Role hopes to change that with a super-accessible video platform focused on the social aspect of role-playing games, and it has raised a $2.75 million seed round to do so.

It’s hard to say what has powered the incredible growth of the tabletop gaming space, which just a few years ago was perceived as a sleepy realm of basement-dwelling nerds, a niche within a niche. But it was a different kind of sleeping giant, one that has proven to be immensely diverse, valuable, and surprisingly tenacious in the face of the pandemic.

Some platforms, like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, have seized on this opportunity to provide online video collaboration platforms for playing games like D&D, strategy titles, and many others of the general tabletop type.

But Logan Dwight and Ian Hirschfeld, co-founders of Role, felt these approaches tended to emphasize the mechanics over what they felt was a more important aspect of RPGs.

“We asked ourselves, why is it that people, when they have all these options, choose to play D&D on the internet? And what we figured out is, it’s the people,” said Dwight. “The game lives in the minds of the people, a shared social experience. It’s about the conversation, the face-to-face interactions.”

This is the start of something new, they said — and big. As an analogue, they referred to the social gaming explosion a decade ago.

“People always find a way to play. Because we had social media platforms and mobile phones then, we were socializing over those — so we naturally looked for ways to play over them,” they said. “We’re at another one of those inflection points now with the explosion of online video and the creator economy in gaming. Video has become so good and so ubiquitous it’s becoming the dominant way people socialize — and then what naturally happens is we look for a way to play. And it turns out the, answer was right under our noses, and it’s been there since the ’70s: it’s role playing, a game that takes the form of conversation.”

Role was designed from the ground up to smooth out and simplify how the complex mechanics of these games are implemented, putting the players visually and cognitively at the forefront. After all, when you’re playing D&D or another game around the table, you spend most of your time looking at each other, not the game board — because it’s a game and you’re having fun with each other, right?

Of course, it’s easy to say the face-to-face interactions should be front and center, but the truth is these games are mechanically complicated and involve sheets, dice, maps, rulebooks and so on. Dwight said the problem here is not so much keeping them always in view, but making them simple and intuitive to access and involve in gameplay.

Take a character sheet with some attributes and associated bonuses, and a standard combat encounter. Depending on how well the GM has prepped, it may be that the dice rolls need to have bonuses added manually, and the results compared manually to the defending monster’s sheet. But if the bonuses, the dice, and the monster’s stats are all aware of one another, you know if you hit as soon as the die is cast.

Screenshot of Role's interface for building game systems.

It looks complicated, but compared with scripting it manually, this is a cakewalk.

This can be done in many games but it’s not always easy, and becomes much harder the further one goes from official, canon rulebooks. House rules are common enough, but these days there are entire variant game types being built out from open-license rulebooks that have no “official” support from a major gaming company like Wizards. Prepping a game for play online might be weeks of work that’s relatively technically demanding.

Some GMs and creators take pleasure in the intricacy of these systems, but as Dwight pointed out, the expansion of the community means more people are coming to this from non-gaming and non-tech backgrounds.

“The core skills people are bringing to this are that they’re a writer or something. So the ability to create together needs to be really easy and really powerful,” they said. “We want to give people like… a Squarespace for tabletop RPGs. It’s a WYSIWYG editor, the RPG equivalent of a box of LEGO. You can make a whole set of templates for whatever game you want to run, tweak sheets, create animations, all without having to touch code, and you can share it easily.”

The platform has already seen major growth in user-created campaigns and variants for games designed to be built upon, like Mörk Borg and Lancer, with thousands being shared.

Role first raised money via Kickstarter (though the idea goes back to 2015), then via some angel funding, but this seed round brings in their first proper VC money. The $2.75M round is co-led by Konvoy and London Venture Partners, with whom Dwight said they were pleased to find willing partners who understood the opportunity perfectly. That’s a feat, considering the skyrocketing value and diversity of tabletop has taken even industry veterans by surprise.

The money is going towards effecting the lessons the company has learned from its early adopters, with a renewed focus on ease of use, accessibility, and extensibility. As for making money, the company intends to do so through a marketplace for games and scenarios, and for premium features like extra online storage and so on. But for regular users who just want to play with friends, Role is free to sign up for and use right now.

Medal.tv, a video clipping service for gamers, enters the livestreaming market with Rawa.tv acquisition

By Sarah Perez

Medal.tv, a short-form video clipping service and social network for gamers, is entering the livestreaming market with the acquisition of Rawa.tv, a Twitch rival based in Dubai, which had raised around $1 million to date. The seven-figure, all-cash deal will see two of Rawa’s founders, Raya Dadah and Phil Jammal, now joining Medal, and further integrations between the two platforms going forward.

The Middle East and North African region (MENA) is one of the fastest-growing markets in gaming and still one that’s mostly un-catered to, explained Medal.tv CEO Pim de Witte, as to his company’s interest in Rawa.

“Most companies that target that market don’t really understand the nuances and try to replicate existing Western or Far-Eastern models that are doomed to fail,” he said. “Absorbing a local team will increase Medal’s chances of success here. Overall, we believe that MENA is an underserved market without a clear leader in the livestreaming space, and Rawa brings to Medal the local market expertise that we need to capitalize on this opportunity,” de Witte added.

Medal.tv’s community had been asking for the ability to do livestreaming for some time, the exec also noted, but the technology would have been too expensive for the startup to build using off-the-shelf services at its scale, de Witte said.

“People increasingly connect around live and real-time experiences, and this is something our platform has lacked to date,” he noted.

But Rawa, as the first livestreaming platform dedicated to Arab gaming, had built out its own proprietary live and network streaming technology that’s now used in all its products. That technology is now coming to Medal.tv.

Image Credits: Medal.tv

The two companies were already connected before today, as Rawa users have been able to upload their gaming clips to Medal.tv, and some Rawa partners had joined Medal’s skilled player program. Going forward, Rawa will continue to operate as a separate platform, but it will become more tightly integrated with Medal, the company says. Currently, Rawa sees around 100,000 active users on its service.

The remaining Rawa team will continue to operate the livestreaming platform under co-founder Jammal’s leadership following the deal’s close, and the Rawa HQ will remain based in Dubai. However, Rawa’s employees have been working remotely since the start of the pandemic, and it’s unclear if that will change in the future, given the uncertainty of COVID-19’s spread.

Medal.tv detailed its further plans for Rawa on its site, where the company explained it doesn’t aim to build a “general-purpose” livestreaming platform where the majority of viewers don’t pay — a call-out that clearly seems aimed at Twitch. Instead, it says it will focus on matching content with viewers who would be interested in subscribing to the creators. This addresses one of the challenges that has faced larger platforms like Twitch in the past, where it’s been difficult for smaller streamers to get off the ground.

The company also said it will remain narrowly focused on serving the gaming community as opposed to venturing into non-gaming content, as others have done. Again, this differentiates itself from Twitch which, over the years, expanded into vlogs and even streaming old TV shows. And it’s much different from YouTube or Facebook Watch, where gaming is only a subcategory of a broader video network.

The acquisition follows Medal.tv’s $9 million Series A led by Horizons Ventures in 2019, after the startup had grown to 5 million registered users and “hundreds of thousands” of daily active users. Today, the company says over 200,000 people create content every day on Medal, and 3 million users are actively viewing that content every month.

A new Senate bill would totally upend Apple and Google’s app store dominance

By Taylor Hatmaker

With two giants calling the shots and collecting whatever tolls they see fit, mobile software makers have long complained that app stores take an unfair cut of the cash that should be flowing directly to developers. Hearing those concerns, a group of senators introduced a new bill this week that, if passed, would greatly diminish Apple and Google’s ability to control app purchases in their operating systems and completely shake up the way that mobile software gets distributed.

The new bill, called the Open App Markets Act, would enshrine quite a few rights that could benefit app developers tired of handing 30% of their earnings to Apple and Google. The bill, embedded in full below, would require companies that control operating systems to allow third-party apps and app stores.

It would also prevent those companies from blocking developers from telling users about lower prices for their software that they might find outside of official app stores. Apple and Google would also be barred from leveraging “non-public” information collecting through their platforms to create competing apps.

“This legislation will tear down coercive anticompetitive walls in the app economy, giving consumers more choices and smaller startup tech companies a fighting chance,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who introduced the bipartisan bill with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). Klobuchar chairs the Senate’s antitrust subcommittee and Blackburn and Blumenthal are both subcommittee members.

Senator Blackburn called Apple and Google’s app store practices a “direct affront to a free and fair marketplace” and Sen. Klobuchar noted that their behavior raises “serious competition concerns.”

The bill draws on information collected earlier this year from that subcommittee’s hearing on app stores and competition. In the hearing, lawmakers heard from Apple and Google as well as Spotify, Tile and Match Group, three companies that argued their businesses have been negatively impacted by anti-competitive app store policies.

“… We urge Congress to swiftly pass the Open App Markets Act,” Spotify Chief Legal Officer Horacio Gutierrez said of the new bill. “Absent action, we can expect Apple and others to continue changing the rules in favor of their own services, and causing further harm to consumers, developers and the digital economy.”

The Coalition for App Fairness, a developer advocacy group, praised the bill for its potential to spur innovation in digital markets. “The bipartisan Open App Markets Act is a step towards holding big tech companies accountable for practices that stifle competition for developers in the U.S. and around the world,” CAF executive director Meghan DiMuzio said.

Hoping to head off future regulatory headaches, Apple dropped its own fees for companies that generate less than $1 million in App Store revenue from 30% to 15% last year. Google followed suit with its own gesture, dropping fees to 15% for the first $1 million in revenue a developer earns through the Play Store in a year. Some developers critical of the companies’ practices saw those changes as little more than a publicity stunt.

Developers have long complained about the high tolls they pay to distribute their software through the world’s two major mobile operating systems. That fight escalated over the last year when Epic Games circumvented Apple’s payments rules by allowing Fortnite players to pay Epic directly, setting off a legal fight that has huge implications for the mobile software world. Following a May trial, the verdict is expected later this year.

“This will make it easier for developers of all sizes to challenge these harmful practices and seek relief from retaliation, be it during litigation or simply because they dared speak up,” Epic Games VP of Public Policy Corie Wright said of the new bill.

Unlike Apple, Google does allow apps to be “sideloaded,” installed onto devices outside of the Google Play Store. But documents unsealed in Epic’s parallel case against Google revealed that the Play Store’s creator knows the sideloading process is a terrible experience for users — something the company brings up when pressuring developers to stick with its official app marketplace.

The counterargument here is that official app stores make apps safer and smoother for consumers. While Apple and Google extract heavy fees for selling mobile software through the App Store and the Google Play Store, the companies both argue that streamlining apps through those official channels protects people from malware and allows for prompt software updates to patch security concerns that could jeopardize user privacy.

“At Apple, our focus is on maintaining an App Store where people can have confidence that every app must meet our rigorous guidelines and their privacy and security is protected,” an Apple spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Adam Kovacevich, a former Google policy executive who leads the new tech-backed industry group Chamber of Progress, called the new bill “a finger in the eye” for Android and iPhone owners.

“I don’t see any consumers marching in Washington demanding that Congress make their smartphones dumber,” Kovacevich said. “And Congress has better things to do than intervene in a multi-million-dollar dispute between businesses.”

At least in Google’s case, the counterargument has its own counterargument. Android has long been notorious for malware, but apparently most of that malicious software isn’t making its way onto devices through sideloading — it’s walking through the Google Play Store’s front door.

 

Google launches Android 12 beta 4, hitting the platform stability milestone

By Sarah Perez

Google has now taken another step towards the public release of the latest version of the Android operating system, Android 12. The company today released the fourth beta of Android 12, whose most notable new feature is that it has achieved the Platform Stability milestone — meaning the changes impacting Android app developers are now finalized, allowing them to test their apps without worrying about breaking changes in subsequent releases.

While the updated version of Android brings a number of new capabilities for developers to tap into, Google urges its developers to first focus on releasing an Android 12-compatible update. If users find their app doesn’t work properly when they upgrade to the new version of Android, they may stop using the app entirely or even uninstall it, the company warns.

Among the flagship consumer-facing features in Android 12 is the new and more adaptive design system called “Material You,” which lets users apply themes that span across the OS to personalize their Android experience. It also brings new privacy tools, like microphone and camera indicators that show if an app is using those features, as well as a clipboard read notification, similar to iOS, which alerts to apps that read the user’s clipboard history. In addition, Android 12 lets users play games as soon as they download them, through a Google Play Instant feature. Other key Android features and tools, like Quick Settings, Google Pay, Home Controls, and Android widgets, among others, have been improved, too.

Google has continued to roll out smaller consumer-facing updates in previous Android 12 beta releases, but beta 4 is focused on developers getting their apps ready for the public release of Android, which is expected in the fall.

Image Credits: Google

The company suggested developers look out for changes that include the new Privacy Dashboard in Settings, which lets users see which app are accessing what type of data and when, and other privacy features like the indicator lights for the mic and camera, clipboard read tools, and new toggles that lets users turn off mic and camera access across all apps.

There’s also a new “stretch” overscroll effect that replace the older “glow” overscroll effect systemwide, new splash screen animations for apps and keygen changes to be aware of. And there are a number of SDKs and libraries that developers use that will need to be tested for compatibility, including those from Google and third-parties.

The new Android 12 beta 4 release is available on supported Pixel devices, and on devices from select partners including ASUS, OnePlus, Oppo, Realme, Sharp, and ZTE. Android TV developers can access beta 4 as well, via the ADT-3 developer kit.

Join us today for Extra Crunch Live, as we speak with 1910 Genetics’ Jen Nwankwo and Playground Global’s Jory Bell

By Darrell Etherington

Our Extra Crunch Live series continues with some heavy hitters in August, including Jen Nwankwo, founder and CEO at 1910 Genetics, and Playground Global general partner Jory Bell. They’ll be with us live on August 11 at 12 p.m. PT (3 p.m. ET) to tell us all about how Nwankwo and her startup won over Bell and Playground as an investor, and as we do every week on Extra Crunch Live, we’ll conduct a live pitch feedback session featuring you, the members of our audience.

Extra Crunch Live gives you the chance to hear live from entrepreneurs who have successfully raised significant rounds of venture capital — and from the investors who believed in them. We go into detail about how the deal got done, and you’ll hear from both about what it takes to pitch VCs and what industry-leading VCs look for in prospective portfolio companies.

We’re thrilled to have Nwankwo and Bell joining us for this episode. Nwankwo founded and leads 1910 Genetics, which takes advantage of AI to accelerate the discovery and development of new drug therapies across a wide range of disease and condition categories. She has a Ph.D. in pharmacology and experimental therapeutics from Tufts University School of Medicine and participated in drug discovery development that led to the creation of Type 2 diabetes drug Trulicity prior to her graduate school work.

Bell’s career includes designing and building autonomous robots for deep-sea exploration, as well as a six-year stint at Apple designing notebooks for the consumer technology leader. Bell’s venture investment work began at Playground Global in 2015; he focuses on deep tech investments, including in aerospace, genomics, synthetic biology, and AI-assisted drug discovery, as in the case of 1910 Genetics.

Extra Crunch Live also features the ECL Pitch-off, where startups in the audience can virtually “raise their hand” to pitch their startup live on our stream. Our expert guests will give their feedback on each pitch. If you want to throw your hat in the ring, you have to show up.

Extra Crunch Live is accessible to everyone, but only Extra Crunch members can access the content on demand. We do these every week, so there are scores of episodes across a wide variety of startup sectors in the ECL Library. It’s but one of many reasons to become an Extra Crunch member. Join here.

Interested in hanging with us for this upcoming episode? Register here for free! 

 

What You Should Know About the Google Play Store Changes

By David Nield
With the first updates kicking in this month, Android apps should be more streamlined and lightweight. Google is also getting a greater level of control.

This Week in Apps: Instagram restricts teens’ accounts, Elon Musk criticizes App Store fees, Google Play’s new policies

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 will finally be a newsletter! It will launch on August 7. Sign up now! 

Top Stories

Google Play updates its policies

Did you hear the one about Google Play banning sugar daddy dating apps? Google this week updated its terms to clarify that apps where users offer sex acts in exchange for money, or “sugar dating,” as the new terms state, are no longer allowed as of September 1, 2021.

More interesting, perhaps, to the larger group of legitimate Android developers is this week’s unveiling of the UI for the upcoming Google Play safety section and the accompanying app labels. The labels will function as the Android counterpart to the app “nutrition labels” the Apple App Store recently introduced. Google is giving developers plenty of time to get used to the idea of increased transparency and disclosure, by offering a detailed timeline of when it expects developers to have their privacy label submissions ready. By April 2022, all developers will need to declare specific info and have a privacy policy.

Developers will have to disclose to users whether their app uses security practices like data encryption, whether it follows Google Play’s Families policy for apps aimed at kids, whether users have a choice in data sharing, whether the app’s safety section had been verified by a third party, and if the app allowed users to request data deletion at the time of uninstalling, among other things.

Apps that don’t disclose won’t be able to list or update until the problems are fixed.

The safety section wasn’t the only Google Play policy news to be announced this week.

Google also reminded developers that it was making a technical change to how advertising IDs work. Now, when users opt out of interest-based advertising or ads personalization, their advertising ID is removed and replaced with a string of zeros. The change, however, is a phased rollout, affecting apps running on Android 12 devices starting late 2021 and expanding to all apps running on devices that support Google Play in early 2022.

Google also said it will test a new feature that notifies developers and ad/analytics service providers of user opt-out preferences and is prohibiting linking persistent device identifiers to personal and sensitive user data or resettable device identifiers. Kids apps will also not be able to transmit an ad ID.

Another policy update includes a plan to close dormant accounts. Google says if the account is inactive or abandoned after a year, it will be closed. This will include accounts where the developer has never uploaded an app or accessed Google Play Console in a year.

Tools to build accessible experiences will also be locked down, as Google is adding new requirements on how AccessibilityService API and IsAccessibilityTool can be used.

Apple tries to fix the Safari mess

In response to feedback and complaints, Apple is clearly trying to fix some of the issues that arose from this change. It re-added a Share button to the tab bar and put additional controls under that menu. There’s also once again a reload button in the tab bar next to the domain name, though it’s a bit smaller, and a Reader Mode button will appear in the tab bar when Reader is available

On iPad, Safari also reverted back to the traditional separate row of tabs, instead of the new compact experience.

The Refresh button is now permanently showing in the iOS 15 Safari address bar #iOS15DevBeta4 pic.twitter.com/v8AoRB68QI

— Apple Software Updates (@AppleSWUpdates) July 27, 2021

Elon Musk sides with Epic Games

Elon Musk sided with Fortnite maker Epic Games in the Apple App Store antitrust lawsuit, as the Tesla CEO tweeted on Friday that Apple’s App Store fees were “a de facto global tax on the Internet.” The lawsuit alleges Apple is abusing its platform power with how it commissions apps and in-app purchases on its App Store platform — fees that add up to big numbers for a game like Fortnite, which arguably doesn’t need an App Store for discovery, marketing, payments and distribution. But there’s no other way to sell to iOS users today. On Android, apps can at least be sideloaded. It’s not currently clear why Musk has decided to take a stand on the issue, as none of his companies’ apps are dramatically impacted by Apple’s fees at present.

Weekly News

Other Platform News (Apple & Google)

Apple announced plans to end support for a number of SiriKit intents and commands, including those that could impact major apps — like ride-sharing app Uber. In total, there are over 20 SiriKit intent domains that will be deprecated and no longer supported in new and existing OS releases, Apple says.

Apple tweaked the controversial iOS 15 Safari changes in the latest betas (iOS 15 and iPadOS 15, beta 4). The new Safari design had moved the tab bar (URL bar) to the bottom of the screen — a fairly radical change for one of the iPhone’s most used apps. It was meant to make the controls easier to reach but critics said that the change made other often used features — like the reload button or Reader Mode — harder to find and use, impacting the overall usability of the browser itself.

Google this week launched version 1.0 of Jetpack Compose, Android’s new, native UI toolkit aimed at helping developers build better apps faster. The tool had been in beta since March. The new production release is built to integrate with the Jetpack libraries developers already use, and offers an implementation of Material Design components and theming. New features include Compose Preview and Deploy Preview, which require Android Studio Arctic Fox, which is also out now in a stable release.

Google also announced the availability of the CarHardwareManager API via the Android for Cars App Library as part of Jetpack.

E-commerce

Twitter launched a U.S. e-commerce pilot test that will help determine the current appetite for online shopping on its platform. The test allows brands and businesses to feature a “Shop Module” with various products for sale at the top of their Professional Profile, a business-friendly version of a profile page with support for things like an address, hours, phone number and more. Users can click on the Shop Module to go to a retail website and transact. Early testers include Game Stop and Arden Cove. The feature itself is somewhat bare bones for now, as it’s really just an image that launches an in-app browser. That’s not enough to really compete with something like Instagram Shop or Shopify’s Shop and the integrated, native checkout experience those types of app offers.

Fintech

Fintech giant Robinhood raised $2.1 billion in its IPO this week. The IPO valued the trading app at $31.8 billion, making it larger that traditional rivals like Charles Schwab, even though the offering priced at the bottom of its range. The stock dropped 8% during its first day’s trading, however. Robinhood now has 21.3 million MAUs.

PayPal during its second-quarter earnings call announced its new “super app” is now code-complete and ready to roll out. The app will feature early direct deposit, check cashing, high yield savings, budgeting tools, improved bill pay, crypto support, subscription management, buy now, pay later functionality, mobile commerce, and person-to-person messaging features. The latter hadn’t yet been announced and would allow users to chat outside of the payments process.

Code found in Apple’s Wallet app indicates that iOS 15 will require users to verify their identities by taking a selfie when they add their driver’s license or other state identification card to the iPhone.

Social

Instagram announced a series of significant changes to how it handles the accounts of younger teens. The company says it will now default users to private accounts at sign-up if they’re under the age of 16  — or under 18 in certain locales, including in the EU. It will also push existing users under 16 to switch their account to private if they have not already done so. In addition, Instagram is rolling out new technology aimed at reducing unwanted contact from adults — like those who have already been blocked or reported by other teens — and it will change how advertisers can reach its teenage audience. The changes give the company a way to argue to regulators that it’s capable of self-policing as it attempts to roll out a version of Instagram to younger users under the age of 13.

Twitter rolls out an update to its live audio platform, Twitter Spaces, that will make it easier to share the audio room with others. Users will be able to compose a tweet right from the Space that links to the room and includes any accompanying hashtags. iOS users also received new guest management controls for hosts.

Snapchat resolved an outage that was stopping people from logging in on Thursday. Unlike other app blips, which fix themselves often without users’ awareness, Snap told users to manually update their app if the issues continued.

Snapchat also this week added a “My Places” feature to Snap Map, which allows users to log their favorite spots, share them with friends and find recommendations. The feature supports over 30 million businesses and allows Snap to differentiate its map from a utility like Google Maps or Apple Maps, because it’s about personal recommendations from people you know and trust: your friends.

Instagram added support for 60-second videos to its TikTok clone, Reels. Previously, only Reels of up to 30 seconds were supported. Sixty seconds is in line with other platforms like YouTube Shorts and Snapchat’s Spotlight. But TikTok is now inching into YouTube territory, as it recently expanded to support three-minute videos.

TikTok expanded its LIVE platform with a huge lineup of new features including the ability to go live with others, host Q&As, use moderators and improved keyword filters, and more. For viewers, TikTok is adding new discovery and viewing tools, including picture-in-picture mode and ways to jump to LIVE streams from the For You and Following feeds. Some markets, including the U.S. already had access to LIVE Events, but the feature is now expanding. Meanwhile, the co-host feature currently supports going live with one other creator, but TikTok says it’s now testing multiple hosts.

Discord launched a new feature, Threads, which will make it easier to read through longer conversations on busy servers. Now, any server with “Community” features enabled will be able to transform their messages into threaded conversations across mobile and desktop. The threads will be designated by their own subject name and can be created by selecting a new hashtag symbol that appears in the menu when hovering over messages or by pressing the + sign in the chat bar.

Pinterest shares dropped by more than 12% after the company reported its second-quarter earnings on Thursday. Despite beating on estimates with revenue of $613.2 million and earnings per share of 25 cents, investors were disappointed by the miss on user growth. The company reported monthly active user growth of just 9% to reach 454 million, when analysts were expecting 482 million. Pinterest blamed COVID impacts for the slowdown. The news follows Pinterest’s launch of new tools for creators to monetize their content, with Ideas Pins — the recently launched video-first format that lets creators show off their work. Now, creators can make their pins “shoppable” and take commissions on those purchases.

Messaging

WhatsApp is testing support for higher image upload quality on iOS devices. The feature was discovered on WhatsApp’s TestFlight version for iOS but is not yet public and offers three options: auto, best quality or data saver.

Streaming & Entertainment

Spotify’s Clubhouse clone, Greenroom, is off to a slow start. The app has only been downloaded 140,000+ times on iOS and 100,000+ on Android, including installs from its earlier life as Locker Room, an app that Spotify acquired to move into live audio. Meanwhile, Spotify has 365 million monthly active users on its flagship streaming app.

Spotify also reported its Q2 earnings this week, where it posted a $23.6 million loss and failed to reach its forecast for total MAUs, despite growing MAUs 22% YOY to 365 million. It now has 165 million paying subscribers, which is up 20% YOY.

In a change to its app, Spotify added an attention-grabbing “What’s New” feed that offers personalized updates about new releases and new podcast episodes. The feature is available through a notification bell icon and uses a blue dot to indicate when there’s something new to see. Dots like this are a psychological hacks popularized by social apps like Facebook and Instagram to addict users, which could impact user engagement time on Spotify’s app.

Apple’s GarageBand app for iOS and iPadOS now lets you remix tracks from top artists and producers like Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga. There are also new Producer Packs with beats, loops and instruments created for GarageBand by top producers, including Boys Noize, Mark Lettieri, Oak Felder, Soulection, Take A Daytrip, Tom Misch and TRAKGIRL.

Google TV’s mobile app was updated with new services and personalized recommendations, following last fall’s launch of the Google TV user experience for Chromecast devices. The app now sports 16:9 widescreen movie and show posters, and added new providers Discovery+, Viki, Cartoon Network, PBS Kids, Boomerang, plus on-demand content from live TV services, including YouTube TV, Philo and fuboTV.

Gaming

Epic Games announced that Fortnite will host another in-game event it’s calling the “Rift Tour,” which kicks off Friday, August 6 and runs through Sunday, August 8. What it hasn’t yet said is what the Rift Tour is, beyond a “musical journey into magical new realities” that will feature a “record-breaking superstar.”

Health & Fitness

Facebook’s Oculus division is exploring an integration of Oculus Workouts with Apple’s Health app, according to the app’s code. An integration would allow users to store their workout data in Health.

Productivity

Usage of mobile video conferencing apps like Zoom grew by 150% in the first half of 2021, according to a report from Sensor Tower. Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet saw a surge in usage, collectively climbing to nearly 21x higher than in H1 2019, the firm found.

Google Voice’s app was updated with a few refinements, including a way to see the reason for a missed call or dropped call, and an easy way to redial. iOS users can now show their Google Voice number as their caller ID when they get a calling through a forwarding number. Another change will allow users to delete multiple SMS messages at once.

Edtech

Language learning app Duolingo raised $521 million in its U.S. IPO, priced above the marketed range. The company priced 5.1 million shared at $102, after first marketing them at $95 to $100.

Utilities

Amazon this week rolled out an update to its Alexa iOS app that allows users to add an Alexa widget to their iOS homescreen. The widget lets you tap on a button to speak to the virtual assistant and issue commands. Watch out Siri! (Ha, just kidding.)

Google Maps also updated its iOS app this week to add support for a homescreen widget. There are two different widgets sizes to choose from — one that gives info like weather and traffic, while another is more of a shortcut to nearby places like gas stations, restaurants, work and home.

Google is working on a”Switch to Android” app for iOS users that will copy over data and apps from an iPhone to bring them to a new Android device. Apple already offers a similar app, called “Move to iOS” for Android users.

Transportation

Parking app usage has popped to pre-pandemic levels, Apptopia reported. Apps in this space help users find availability in lots and garages nearby and facilitate payments. Browsing time in apps was up 57% YOY in July, and overall parking app usage is now 6.2% above Jan. 2020 pre-pandemic levels.

Moovit integrated Lime’s electric scooters, bikes and mopeds into its transit-planning app that’s live in 117 cities across 20 countries and continents, including the United States, South America, Australia and Europe.

Government & Policy

Tencent’s WeChat suspended new user registrations in China to comply with “relevant laws and regulations.” The move comes amid a broad crackdown on tech companies by Chinese regulators, related to data collection and other harmful practices.

Recently, China ordered Tencent and 13 other developers to fix problems related to pop-ups inside their apps, as part of the tech crackdown. The regulator also said it would tighten controls on misleading and explicit content used for marketing, and issued fines for offensive content to Tencent, Kuaishou and Alibaba.

Security & Privacy

Apple released patches for iOS, iPadOS and macOS to address a zero-day vulnerability that had been exploited in the wild. Apple said the exploit could exploit the vulnerability known as CVE-2021-30807 to execute arbitrary code with kernel privileges on a vulnerable and unpatched device.

Google Play Protect failed an Android security test, according to a report from Bleeping Computer. The mobile threat protection solution ranked last out of 15 Android security apps tested over a span of six months, between January to June 2021.

Funding and M&A

💰 Product insights and analytics startup Pendo raised $150 million at a $2.6 billion valuation, ahead of its expected IPO. The round was led by B Capital, the firm from Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, and included new investor Silver Lake Waterman, alongside existing backers. Pendo’s platform helps companies gather data on how customers use their apps, including clients like Okta, Toast and others.

🤝 Twitter “acqui-hired” the team from subscription news app, Brief, who will now join Twitter’s Experience.org group, which works on Twitter Spaces and Explore. Brief had offered a non-biased news app that allowed you to get both sides of a story and all the necessary facts. Deal terms weren’t disclosed.

💰 Delivery app Gopuff confirmed its $1 billion fundraise at a $15 billion valuation, aimed at expanding its instant delivery service. TechCrunch previously reported the news when the Series H was still being closed.

💰 Indian travel app Ixigo raised $53 million (Rs 395 crore), prepping the business for a valuation of $750 million-$800 million for its upcoming IPO. The round was led by Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC.

💰Mobile-first digital wallet Valora native to the Celo network raised $20 million in Series A funding led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z), a Celo backer, to become a global gateway to crypto.

💰 Crypto wallet company Eco, backed by a16z, raised $60 million in new funding led by Activant Capital and L Catterton. Eco offers a digital wallet with rewards and no fees, and has average deposits of around $6,000.

💰 Search API startup Algolia, which lets developers integrate real-time search in apps or websites, raised $150 million in Series D funding, valuing the business at $2.25 billion, post-money. The round was led by Lone Pine Capital. Algolia now has over 10,000 customers, including Slack, Stripe, Medium, Zendesk and Lacoste.

💰 Brain Technologies raised $50+ million for Natural, a natural language search engine and super app for iOS, which wants users to stop switching between apps to order food, groceries or go shopping. Backers include Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, Goodwater Capital, Scott Cook and WTT Investment.

💰 Messaging app Element, built on the decentralized Matrix protocol, raised $30 million in a Series B round of funding. Investors include open-source R&D lab Protocol Labs and Metaplanet. a fund from Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, as well as past investors Automattic and Notion.

💰 Indonesia-based grocery app HappyFresh raised $65 million in Series D funding in a round led by Naver Financial Corporation and Gafina B.V. The app offers an Instacart-like grocery delivery service for parts of Asia, which today operates in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

💰 Indian D2C beauty brand MyGlamm, which sells products through an app and website, raised $71.3 million in Series C financing, from Amazon, Ascent Capital and Wipro.

Downloads

Nanogram

Image Credits: Nanogram

Developer Kosta Eleftheriou may have taken on Apple in legal battles and on Twitter, as he points out the numerous app scams on the App Store, but that hasn’t stopped him from building new apps.

This week, Eleftheriou introduced Nanogram, a Telegram client app that works on the Apple Watch without needing an iPhone connection. Eleftheriou said he was inspired to build Nanogram because he wanted a Telegram app for his LTE Apple Watch and didn’t like the official version that didn’t provide “basic and reliable messaging functionality.” So he built his own app from scratch using the Telegram SDK, which allows you to send, receive and view all your messages and notifications right from your wrist — even if you don’t have your phone nearby. The app also supports Eleftheriou’s FlickType Swipe Keyboard for faster replies while on the go.

Eleftheriou notes the app doesn’t collect any personal information and requires an Apple Watch Series 3 or later, running watchOS 7 or later.

Lightricks’ Videoleap for Android

Image Credits: Lightricks

After seeing a 70% yearly increase for its iOS version, Lightricks brought its Videoleap app to the Google Play Store. The app has grown popular with online creators for offering professional quality editing tools on mobile, including those that let you apply artistic effects, mix videos with images, add text and layer transformations and more. The company says Videoleap users are now creating 35 million pieces of content per month, and 47% of users are exporting their creations to TikTok in pursuit of monetizing their content further. The app, like others from Lightricks (which also makes FaceTune and others), monetizes by way of in-app subscriptions.

Tweets

Apple app store fees are a de facto global tax on the Internet. Epic is right.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 30, 2021

There’s a total of *six* different touch targets in the iOS 15 beta 4 tab bar in Safari.

These exclude the ability to long-press the tab bar, swipe across it to change tabs, and swipe it up to open the Tabs view.

I’m…starting to think a single, small toolbar just won’t do. 😬pic.twitter.com/EiD2mekVRL

— Federico Viticci (@viticci) July 27, 2021

Shortcuts has a new “Return to Home Screen” action in iOS 15 developer beta 4 – this has been long requested from the community and is great to see! pic.twitter.com/8E3ZB7FIYX

— Matthew Cassinelli (@mattcassinelli) July 27, 2021

I've been fascinated to watch the reaction to Safari in iOS 15 because in 2016-2017, I worked on a similar redesign for mobile Chrome that we never launched. Finally decided to tell a bit of that story here: https://t.co/gF4hepQM5V

— Chris Lee (@cleerview) July 25, 2021

something fun & playful our team has been working on. what are *creative* ways we can utilize voice for more engaging convos on Spaces? how would you use these tools?

let’s have fun & learn together🧏🏽‍♂️@RichardPlom @reedm @audgeyaudgey @callmeparri @niw pic.twitter.com/4ZBahxwkDN

— Danny Singh (@Mr_DannySingh) July 22, 2021

Panic sells 20,000+ Playdate handhelds in under 20 minutes

By Greg Kumparak

As we’ve known for about a week, today was the day Panic’s charming/whacky/curious/all-of-the-above Playdate gaming device (and its crank!) went up for pre-order. The buzz around the little retro-inspired handheld seemed strong — but would that translate into actual sales?

The answer, it seems, is a hard yes. Panic committed to making 20,000 units for 2021, selling them on a first come, first serve basis. Any orders after that would still be accepted, but those orders wouldn’t ship until sometime in 2022 at the earliest.

According to Panic’s shipping estimator, those first 20,000 units were gone in under 20 minutes. That first 2021 batch went real quick. (We confirmed with a rep for Panic that the shipping estimator is accurate, and those first 20,000 units are spoken for.)

Image Credits: Panic

Like just about any much anticipated launch, the process wasn’t without its technical troubles. After a brief blink of server instability and 502 errors, Panic’s checkout system came online … only for the plug-in system they tapped to handle international shipping to come crashing down. This booted some international users out of the checkout flow and — quite unfortunately — out of their place in line and into the 2022 batch.

⚠ Our most sincere apologies to any international customers who had difficulty checking out this morning. Our international shipping provider’s plug-in fell over under heavy load (despite our many warnings). Many orders went through, but many didn’t. We’re investigating options.

— Playdate (@playdate) July 29, 2021

There’s already talk, meanwhile, of a “2023 bucket” for orders, though the company notes that “it’ll take a while” before they get there.

For those who’ve missed the story so far: The Playdate is a kinda-sorta-experimental gaming device built by Panic (the team behind Mac apps like Transmit and Prompt, and which helped ship games like Firewatch and Untitled Goose Game) in collaboration with Teenage Engineering. Games are released to the $179 device in “seasons,” with two games (of varying length/complexity/etc.) scheduled to ship each week of its first three months. With a black-and-white screen, minimal buttons, and, yes, a crank (for controlling games, not charging the device), this one is less “WILL IT RUN CRYSIS?!” and more … blank canvas.

While we’re not talking next-gen-console-level sales here, selling tens of thousands of units in no time flat is a resounding accomplishment for a software team’s first dive into gaming hardware. Now they’ve just gotta get them out the door.

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