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Borrowed a School Laptop? Mind Your Open Tabs

By Sidney Fussell
Students—many from lower-income households—were likely to use school-issued devices for remote learning. But the devices often contained monitoring software.

Why Robots Can’t Sew Your T-Shirt

By Harris Quinn
Machines can print textiles, cut fabric, and fold clothes. But it’s hard to train them to sew as fast and precisely as humans.

Make accessibility part of your startup’s products and culture from day one

By Annie Siebert
Joe Devon Contributor
Joe Devon is the co-founder of Diamond, a digital agency that builds accessible experiences. He is also a co-founder of Global Accessibility Awareness Day and chair of the GAAD Foundation.

The world of accessibility has experienced a tipping point thanks to the pandemic, which drove people of all abilities to do more tasks and shopping online.

For the last year, the digital world was the only place brands could connect with their customers. A Forrester survey found that 8 in 10 companies have taken their first steps toward working on digital accessibility.

What’s driving this change besides the increased digital interactions? Fortune 500 companies are finally starting to realize that people with disabilities make up 1 billion of the world’s market. That population and their families control more than $13 trillion in disposable income, according to Return on Disability’s “The Global Economics of Disability.”

However, only 36% of companies in Forrester’s survey are completely committed to creating accessible digital experiences.

Although digital accessibility has been around for decades, companies have not caught on to its benefits until recently. In its latest survey, the WebAIM Million analysis of 1 million home pages found accessibility errors on 97.4% of the websites evaluated.

What does this mean for you? Why should you care about this? Because this is an opportunity for your company to get ahead of the competition and reap the rewards of being an early adopter.

The benefits of digital accessibility

Companies are now realizing the advantages of creating accessible products and properties that go beyond doing the right thing. For one, people are living longer. The World Health Organization says people aged 60 and older outnumber children under 5. Moreover, the world’s population of those who are 60 and older is expected to reach 2 billion by 2050, up from 900 million in 2015.

W3C Web Accessibility Initiative provides an overview on Web Accessibility for Older Users. Here’s what it reveals.

  • Hearing loss affects 47% of people aged 61 to 80.
  • Vision decline affects 16% of people aged 65 to 74.
  • Mild cognitive impairment affects 20% of people over 70.
  • Arthritis affects more than 50% of people over 65.

In short, developing accessible digital products helps you reach a much larger audience, which will include you, your co-workers and your family. Everyone is going to become situationally, temporarily or episodically impaired at some point in their lives. Everyone enters a noisy or dark environment that can make it harder to see or hear. An injury or an illness can cause someone to use the internet differently on a temporary basis. People with arthritis, migraines and vertigo experience episodes of pain and discomfort that affect their ability to interact with digital devices, apps and tools.

Additionally, no one has ever advocated against making products and websites accessible to more people. Despite this, the relative universal appeal of accessibility as a principle does not mean that it will be as easy as explaining the need and getting people on board to make major organizational changes. A lot of work remains in raising awareness and educating people about why we need to make these changes and how to go about it.

You have the why. Now here are five things to help you with how to make changes in your company to integrate accessibility as a core part of your business.

1. Tap the right people to create accessible experiences

According to the second annual State of Accessibility Report, only 40% of the Alexa Top 100 websites are fully accessible, proving the needs of people with disabilities are, more often than not, being overlooked when creating web experiences.

To design for people with disabilities, it’s important to have an understanding of how they use your products or web properties. You’ll also want to know what tools will help them achieve their desired results. This starts with having the right people on board.

Hiring accessibility experts to advise your development team will proactively identify potential issues and ensure you design accessibly from the start, as well as create better products. Better yet, hiring people with disabilities brings a deeper level of understanding to your work.

2. Hire designers passionate about accessibility

Having accessibility experts on your team to provide advice and guidance is a great start. However, if the rest of your team is not passionate about accessibility, that can turn into a potential roadblock. When interviewing new designers, ask about accessibility. It’ll gauge a candidate’s knowledge and passion in the area. At the same time, you set an expectation that accessibility is a priority at your organization.

Being proactive about your hires and making sure they will contribute to a culture of accessibility and inclusion will save you major headaches. Accessibility starts in the design and user experience (UX) phase. If your team doesn’t deliver there, then you will have to fix their mistakes later, essentially delaying the project and costing your organization. It costs more to fix things than to build them accessibly in the first place.

3. Remember that accessibility is for everyone

People deciding whether to invest in accessibility often ask themselves how many people are going to use the feature. The reasoning behind the question is understandable from a business perspective; accessibility can be an expense, and it’s reasonable to want to spend money responsibly.

However, the question is rooted in one of the biggest misconceptions in the field. The myth is that accessibility only benefits people who are blind or deaf. This belief is frustrating because it greatly underestimates the number of people with disabilities and minimizes their place in society. Furthermore, it fails to acknowledge that people who may not have a disability still benefit greatly from accessibility features.

Disability is a spectrum that all of us will find ourselves on sooner or later. Maybe an injury temporarily limits our mobility that requires us to perform basic tasks like banking and shopping exclusively online. Or maybe our vision and hearing change as we age, which affects our ability to interact online.

When we understand that accessibility is about designing in a way that includes as many people as possible, we can reframe the conversation around whether it’s worth investing in. This approach sends a clear message: No business can afford to ignore a fast-growing population.

Think about it this way: If you have a choice of taking an elevator or the stairs, which would you take? Most pick the elevator. Those ramps on street corners called curb cuts? They were initially designed for allowing wheelchairs to cross the street.

Yet, many use these ramps, including parents pushing strollers, travelers pulling luggage, skateboarders rolling and workers moving heavy loads on dollies. A feature initially designed for accessibility benefits far more people than the original target audience. That’s the magic of the curb-cut effect.

4. Hire agencies that build accessibly by default

Whether you have a small team or are expanding an in-house accessibility practice, working with an agency can be an effective way to embrace and adopt accessible practices. The secret to a successful partnership is choosing an agency that will help your team grow into its accessibility practice.

The key to finding the right agency is selecting one that builds accessibly by default. When you know you are working with an agency that shares your organization’s values, you have a trusted partner in your mission of improving accessibility. It also removes any guesswork or revisions down the line. This is a huge win, as many designers overlook details that can make or break an experience for a user with a disability.

Working with an agency focused on providing accessible experiences narrows the likelihood of errors going unnoticed and unremedied, giving you confidence that you are providing an excellent experience to your entire audience.

5. Integrate accessibility into your supply chain

On any given day, enterprises and large organizations often work with dozens of stakeholders. From vendors and agencies to freelancers and internal employees, the nature of business today is far-reaching and collaborative. While this is valuable for exchanging ideas, accessibility can get lost in the mix with so many different people involved.

To prevent this from happening, it’s important to align these moving pieces of a business into a supply chain that is focused on accessibility at every stage of the business. When everyone is completely bought in, it cuts the risk of a component being inaccessible and causing issues for you in the future.

The startup advantage

A major challenge that comes up repeatedly is the struggle to change the status quo. Once an organization implements and ingrains inaccessible processes and products into its culture, it is hard to make meaningful change. Even if everyone is willing to commit to the change, the fact is, rewriting the way you do business is never easy.

Startups have an advantage here: They do not bear years of inaccessible baggage. It’s not written into the code of their products. It’s not woven into the business culture. In many ways, a startup is a clean slate, and they need to learn from the trials of their more established peers.

Startup founders have the opportunity to build an accessible organization from the ground up. They can create an accessible-first culture that will not need rewriting 10, 20 or 30 years from now by hiring a diverse workforce with a passion for accessibility, writing accessible code for products and web properties, choosing to work with only third parties who embrace accessibility and advocating for the rights of people with disabilities.

Many of these considerations here have a common denominator: culture. While most people in the technology industry will agree that accessibility is an important and worthy cause to champion, it has a huge awareness problem.

Accessibility needs to be everywhere in software development, from requirements and beyond to include marketing, sales and other non-tech teams. It cannot be a niche concern left to a siloed team to handle. If we, as an industry and as a society, recognize that accessibility is everyone’s job, we will create a culture that prioritizes it without question.

By creating this culture, we will no longer be asking, “Do we have to make this accessible?” Instead, we’ll ask, “How do we make this accessible?” It’s a major mindset shift that will make a tangible difference in the lives of 1 billion people living with a disability and those who eventually will have a disability or temporary, situational or episodic impairments affecting their ability to use online and digital products.

Advocating for accessibility may feel like an uphill battle at times, but it isn’t rocket science. The biggest need is education and awareness.

When you understand the people you build accessible products for and the reasons they need those products, it becomes easier to secure buy-in from people in all parts of your organization. Creating this culture is the first step in a long quest toward accessibility. And the best part is, it gets easier from here.

Playbyte’s new app aims to become the ‘TikTok for games’

By Sarah Perez

A startup called Playbyte wants to become the TikTok for games. The company’s newly launched iOS app offers tools that allow users to make and share simple games on their phone, as well as a vertically scrollable, fullscreen feed where you can play the games created by others. Also like TikTok, the feed becomes more personalized over time to serve up more of the kinds of games you like to play.

While typically, game creation involves some aspect of coding, Playbyte’s games are created using simple building blocks, emoji and even images from your Camera Roll on your iPhone. The idea is to make building games just another form of self-expression, rather than some introductory, educational experience that’s trying to teach users the basics of coding.

At its core, Playbyte’s game creation is powered by its lightweight 2D game engine built on web frameworks, which lets users create games that can be quickly loaded and played even on slow connections and older devices. After you play a game, you can like and comment using buttons on the right-side of the screen, which also greatly resembles the TikTok look-and-feel. Over time, Playbyte’s feed shows you more of the games you enjoyed as the app leverages its understanding of in-game imagery, tags and descriptions, and other engagement analytics to serve up more games it believes you’ll find compelling.

At launch, users have already made a variety of games using Playbyte’s tools — including simulators, tower defense games, combat challenges, obbys, murder mystery games, and more.

We made an app called Playbyte that lets you make games on your phone, discover games made by other users, and challenge your friends https://t.co/FFnMbKG1ls pic.twitter.com/eqhabN3kM1

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) May 25, 2021

According to Playbyte founder and CEO Kyle Russell — previously of Skydio, Andreessen Horowitz, and (disclosure!) TechCrunch — Playbyte is meant to be a social media app, not just a games app.

“We have this model in our minds for what is required to build a new social media platform,” he says.

What Twitter did for text, Instagram did for photos and TikTok did for video was to combine a constraint with a personalized feed, Russell explains. “Typically. [they started] with a focus on making these experiences really brief…So a short, constrained format and dedicated tools that set you up for success to work within that constrained format,” he adds.

Similarly, Playbyte games have their own set of limitations. In addition to their simplistic nature, the games are limited to five scenes. Thanks to this constraint, a format has emerged where people are making games that have an intro screen where you hit “play,” a story intro, a challenging gameplay section, and then a story outro.

In addition to its easy-to-use game building tools, Playbyte also allows game assets to be reused by other game creators. That means if someone who has more expertise makes a game asset using custom logic or which pieced together multiple components, the rest of the user base can benefit from that work.

“Basically, we want to make it really easy for people who aren’t as ambitious to still feel like productive, creative game makers,” says Russell. “The key to that is going to be if you have an idea — like an image of a game in your mind — you should be able to very quickly search for new assets or piece together other ones you’ve previously saved. And then just drop them in and mix-and-match — almost like Legos — and construct something that’s 90% of what you imagined, without any further configuration on your part,” he says.

In time, Playbyte plans to monetize its feed with brand advertising, perhaps by allowing creators to drop sponsored assets into their games, for instance. It also wants to establish some sort of patronage model at a later point. This could involve either subscriptions or even NFTs of the games, but this would be further down the road.

The cutest lil sprite blob I’ve ever seen 😭#pixelart #gamedev pic.twitter.com/7uBRzs6ix0

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) August 21, 2021

The startup had originally began as a web app in 2019, but at the end of last year, the team scrapped that plan and rewrote everything as a native iOS app with its own game engine. That app launched on the App Store this week, after previously maxing out TestFlight’s cap of 10,000 users.

Currently, it’s finding traction with younger teenagers who are active on TikTok and other collaborative games, like Roblox, Minecraft, or Fortnite.

“These are young people who feel inspired to build their own games but have been intimidated by the need to learn to code or use other advanced tools, or who simply don’t have a computer at home that would let them access those tools,” notes Russell.

Playbyte is backed by $4 million in pre-seed and seed funding from investors including FirstMark (Rick Heitzmann), Ludlow Ventures (Jonathon Triest and Blake Robbins), Dream Machine (former Editor-in-Chief at TechCrunch, Alexia Bonatsos), and angels such as Fred Ehrsam, co-founder of Coinbase; Nate Mitchell, co-founder of Oculus; Ashita Achuthan, previously of Twitter; and others.

The app is a free download on the App Store.

Australia’s TechnologyOne acquires UK-based higher-ed platform Scientia for $16.6M

By Mike Butcher

TechnologyOne, an Australian SaaS enterprise, has agreed to acquire UK-based higher education software provider Scientia for £12 million /$16.6 million in cash.
 
TechnologyOne claims to have 75% of Higher Education institutions in Australia using its software, while Scientia claims 50% market share in the UK.

The acquisition includes an initial payment of £6m and further payments.
 
Adrian Di Marco, TechnologyOne founder and Executive Chairman said: “This is our company’s first international acquisition and it demonstrates our deep commitment to serving the higher education sector and the UK market. The unique IP and market-leading functionality of Scientia’s product supports our vision of delivering enterprise software that is incredibly easy to use.”

Commenting, Michelle Gillespie, Registrar and Director of Student Administration and Library Services at Swinburne University of Technology said: “The one thing that students care most about is their timetable. Being able to fully integrate a schedule into the full student experience is very important, and an exciting step for those universities – like Swinburne – that use TechnologyOne’s student management system.”

Report: India may be next in line to mandate changes to Apple’s in-app payment rules

By Ingrid Lunden

Summer is still technically in session, but a snowball is slowly developing in the world of apps, and specifically the world of in-app payments. A report in Reuters today says that the Competition Commission of India, the country’s monopoly regulator, will soon be looking at an antitrust suit filed against Apple over how it mandates that app developers use Apple’s own in-app payment system — thereby giving Apple a cut of those payments — when publishers charge users for subscriptions and other items in their apps.

The suit, filed by an Indian non-profit called “Together We Fight Society”, said in a statement to Reuters that it was representing consumer and startup interests in its complaint.

The move would be the latest in what has become a string of challenges from national regulators against app store operators — specifically Apple but also others like Google and WeChat — over how they wield their positions to enforce market practices that critics have argued are anti-competitive. Other countries that have in recent weeks reached settlements, passed laws, or are about to introduce laws include Japan, South Korea, Australia, the U.S. and the European Union.

And in India specifically, the regulator is currently working through a similar investigation as it relates to in-app payments in Android apps, which Google mandates use its proprietary payment system. Google and Android dominate the Indian smartphone market, with the operating system active on 98% of the 520 million devices in use in the country as of the end of 2020.

It will be interesting to watch whether more countries wade in as a result of these developments. Ultimately, it could force app store operators, to avoid further and deeper regulatory scrutiny, to adopt new and more flexible universal policies.

In the meantime, we are seeing changes happen on a country-by-country basis.

Just yesterday, Apple reached a settlement in Japan that will let publishers of “reader” apps (those for using or consuming media like books and news, music, files in the cloud and more) to redirect users to external sites to provide alternatives to Apple’s proprietary in-app payment provision. Although it’s not as seamless as paying within the app, redirecting previously was typically not allowed, and in doing so the publishers can avoid Apple’s cut.

South Korean legislators earlier this week approved a measure that will make it illegal for Apple and Google to make a commission by forcing developers to use their proprietary payment systems.

And last week, Apple also made some movements in the U.S. around allowing alternative forms of payments, but relatively speaking the concessions were somewhat indirect: app publishers can refer to alternative, direct payment options in apps now, but not actually offer them. (Not yet at least.)

Some developers and consumers have been arguing for years that Apple’s strict policies should open up more. Apple however has long said in its defense that it mandates certain developer policies to build better overall user experiences, and for reasons of security. But, as app technology has evolved, and consumer habits have changed, critics believe that this position needs to be reconsidered.

One factor in Apple’s defense in India specifically might be the company’s position in the market. Android absolutely dominates India when it comes to smartphones and mobile services, with Apple actually a very small part of the ecosystem.

As of the end of 2020, it accounted for just 2% of the 520 million smartphones in use in the country, according to figures from Counterpoint Research quoted by Reuters. That figure had doubled in the last five years, but it’s a long way from a majority, or even significant minority.

The antitrust filing in India has yet to be filed formally, but Reuters notes that the wording leans on the fact that anti-competitive practices in payments systems make it less viable for many publishers to exist at all, since the economics simply do not add up:

“The existence of the 30% commission means that some app developers will never make it to the market,” Reuters noted from the filing. “This could also result in consumer harm.”

Reuters notes that the CCI will be reviewing the case in the coming weeks before deciding whether it should run a deeper investigation or dismiss it. It typically does not publish filings during this period.

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.

Chrome Beta to experiment with a more powerful New Tab page, web highlights and search changes

By Sarah Perez

Google is launching a new version of its Chrome Beta browser today that’s introducing some fairly notable changes to its user interface and design. The browser will introduce an updated New Tab page, which will now include cards directing you back to past web search activities, instead of only a list of shortcuts to favorite websites. Other changes aim to make it easier to navigate search results and to highlight and share quotes from the web.

The New Tab page’s update will be one of the first changes Chrome beta users may notice.

The idea behind this design change is about getting you back quickly to past web activities without a need to dive into your browsing history to remember which sites you had been using for things like recipes or shopping. It can also help you to return quickly to your recent documents list in Google Drive, in a handy bit of cross-promotion for Google services.

Image Credits: Google

The page will now feature what Google is calling “cards,” not just links, which could direct you to things like a recently visited recipe site where you had been browsing for ideas, a Google doc you need to finish editing, or a retailer’s website where you had left your shopping cart filled with things you may like to purchase at a later date. The latter ties into Google’s larger investment in online shopping, which has already seen the search giant trying to grab more market share in the space by making product listings free and partnering with e-commerce platforms like Shopify.

Google is rightly concerned about Amazon’s surging advertising business, which is a large part of the retailer’s “Other” category that grew 87% year-over-year to generate $7.9 billion in the second quarter. Now, it’s capitalizing on Chrome’s New Tab real estate to elevate shopping activity in the hopes of pushing users to complete their transactions.

Another change aims to make it easier to do web research. Google says that often, users searching for something on its platform will navigate to multiple web pages to find their answer. The new version of Chrome will experiment with a different way of connecting users to their search results by adding a row beneath the address bar on Chrome for Android that will show the rest of the results so you can navigate to other web pages without needing to hit the back button.

Image Credits: Google

A new “quote cards” experiment, also coming to Chrome Beta on Android, will allow users to create a stylized image for social sharing that features text found on websites. Taking a screengrab of a website’s text is something that’s already a common activity, and particularly for people who want to share a key point from a news article they’re reading with followers on platforms like Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. With this new feature, you’ll be able to long-press text to highlight it, then tap Share and select a template by tapping on the “Create Card” option from the menu.

All features are a part of the Chrome Beta browser. To enable experiments, you can type chrome://flags into the browser’s address bar or click on the Experiments beaker icon, and then enable the flags. The associated flags for these experiments are #ntp-modules flag (New Tab page), #continuous-search (search results changes) and #webnotes-stylize flag (quote cards).

Experiments don’t necessarily become Chrome features that roll out more broadly. Instead, they offer Google a way to capture large-scale user feedback about its new design ideas, so the features can be tweaked and fine-tuned before a public release.

Twitter is testing a new anti-abuse feature called ‘Safety Mode’

By Taylor Hatmaker

Twitter’s newest test could provide some long-awaited relief for anyone facing harassment on the platform.

The new product test introduces a feature called “Safety Mode” that puts up a temporary line of defense between an account and the waves of toxic invective that Twitter is notorious for. The mode can be enabled from the settings menu, which toggles on an algorithmic screening process that filters out potential abuse that lasts for seven days.

“Our goal is to better protect the individual on the receiving end of Tweets by reducing the prevalence and visibility of harmful remarks,” Twitter Product Lead Jarrod Doherty said.

Safe Mode won’t be rolling out broadly — not yet, anyway. The new feature will first be available to what Twitter describes as a “small feedback group” of about 1,000 English language users.

In deciding what to screen out, Twitter’s algorithmic approach assesses a tweet’s content — hateful language, repetitive, unreciprocated mentions — as well as the relationship between an account and the accounts replying. The company notes that accounts you follow or regularly exchange tweets with won’t be subject to the blocking features in Safe Mode.

For anyone in the test group, Safety Mode can be toggled on in the privacy and safety options. Once enabled, an account will stay in the mode for the next seven days. After the seven day period expires, it can be activated again.

In crafting the new feature, Twitter says it spoke with experts in mental health, online safety and human rights. The partners Twitter consulted with were able to contribute to the initial test group by nominating accounts that might benefit from the feature, and the company hopes to focus on female journalists and marginalized communities in its test of the new product. Twitter says that it will start reaching out to accounts that meet the criteria of the test group — namely accounts that often find themselves on the receiving end of some of the platform’s worst impulses.

Earlier this year, Twitter announced that it was working on developing new anti-abuse features, including an option to let users “unmention” themselves from tagged threads and a way for users to prevent serial harassers from mentioning them moving forward. The company also hinted at a feature like Safety Mode that could give users a way to defuse situations during periods of escalating abuse.

Being “harassed off of Twitter” is, unfortunately, not that uncommon. When hate and abuse get bad enough, people tend to abandon Twitter altogether, taking extended breaks or leaving outright. That’s obviously not great for the company either, and while it’s been slow to offer real solutions to harassment, it’s obviously aware of the problem and working toward some possible solutions.

Goodcall picks up $4M, Yelp partnership to answer merchant inbound calls

By Christine Hall

Even without staffing shortages, local merchants have difficulty answering calls while all hands are busy, and Goodcall wants to alleviate some of that burden from America’s 30 million small businesses.

Goodcall’s free cloud-based conversational platform leverages artificial intelligence to manage incoming phone calls and boost customer service for businesses of all sizes. Former Google executive Bob Summers left Google back in January, where he was working on Area 120 — an internal incubator program for experimental projects — to start Goodcall after recognizing the call problem, noting that in fact 60% of the calls that come into merchants go unanswered.

“It’s frustrating for you and for the person calling,” Summers told TechCrunch. “Every missed call is a lost opportunity.”

Goodcall announced its launch Wednesday with $4 million in seed funding led by strategic investors Neo, Foothill Ventures, Merus Capital, Xoogler Ventures, Verissimo Ventures and VSC Ventures, as well as angel investors including Harry Hurst, founder and co-CEO of Pipe.com, and Zillow co-founder Spencer Rascoff.

Goodcall mobile agent. Image Credits: Goodcall

Restaurants, shops and merchants can set up on Goodcall in a matter of minutes and even establish a local phone number to free up an owner’s mobile number from becoming the business’ main line. The service is initially deployed in English and the company has plans to operate in Spanish, French and Hindi by 2022.

Merchants can choose from six different assistant voices and monitor the call logs and what the calls were about. Goodcall can also capture consumer sentiment, Summers said.

The company offers three options, including its freemium service for solopreneurs and business owners, which includes up to 500 minutes per month of Goodcall services for a single phone line. Up to five additional locations and five staff members costs $19 per month for the Pro level, or the Premium level provides unlimited locations and staff for $49 per month.

During the company’s beta period, Goodcall was processing several thousands of calls per month. The new funding will be used to continue to offer the free service, hire engineers and continue product development.

In addition to the funding round, Goodcall is unveiling a partnership with Yelp to tap into its database of local businesses so that those owners and managers can easily deploy Goodcall. Yelp data shows that more than 500,000 businesses opened during the pandemic. The company pulls in from Yelp a merchant’s open hours, location, if they offer Wi-Fi and even their COVID policy.

“We are partnering with Yelp, which has the best data on small businesses, and other large distribution channels to get our product to market,” Summers said. “We are bringing technology into an industry that hasn’t innovated since the 1980s and democratizing conversational AI for small businesses that are the main driver of job creation, and we want to help them grow.”

 

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.

General Catalyst, Abstract back Wanderlog’s $1.5M round for collaborative travel

By Christine Hall

Twin brothers Harry and Peter Yu grew up traveling all over, an aspect of their lives that continued even into their careers. What they didn’t enjoy was figuring out all the logistics, which has become more difficult during the pandemic: vacations that could be taken quickly now require more planning and even reservations.

“People travel differently, but the common denominator is that everyone uses some kind of document to plan and share their trip information,” Harry Yu told TechCrunch. “We saw a need for something that is better than spreadsheets and ‘copy-and paste.’ ”

So they launched Bay Area-based Wanderlog in 2019 to enable users to gather and record their travel plans. The free itinerary maker and road trip planner takes the best parts of Google Docs and Maps and enables users to import the information and map out the trip. You can even add lists of places you’d like to visit, and Wanderlog will recommend the best way to get there. Reservations can also be added, Peter Yu said.

Wanderlog demo. Image Credits: Wanderlog

The company announced Wednesday it raised $1.5 million in seed funding from General Catalyst and Abstract Ventures.

“Wanderlog has built a product that has a unique understanding of how users plan trips and share their experiences — it’s no surprise that people love using it,” General Catalyst’s Niko Bonatsos said via email. “General Catalyst is proud to invest in Wanderlog as they change the way we travel together, and we’re excited by the growth Peter, Harry and the entire Wanderlog team have achieved.”

The company, which was part of Y Combinator’s 2019 cohort, plans to use the new funding to expand its web and mobile app features, including offering restaurant recommendations, based on Google and Yelp reviews, for those who don’t want to do a bunch of searching and reading reviews.

The founders declined to share growth metrics, but said the platform is already facilitating thousands of trips per week. Customers are already sharing with the founders that the app is good for communication among a large group, where everyone can see what the plans are and discuss them, Harry Yu said. In addition, they just launched a subscription service and are seeing good early metrics.

Wanderlog is among a number of travel startups attracting venture capital dollars as travel restrictions have begun to ease amid the pandemic. For example, just over the past month companies like Thatch raised $3 million for its platform aimed at travel creators, travel tech company Hopper brought in $175 million, Wheel the World grabbed $2 million for its disability-friendly vacation planner and Elude raised $2.1 million to bring spontaneous travel back to a hard-hit industry.

 

TikTok adds educational resources for parents as part of its Family Pairing feature

By Sarah Perez

TikTok is expanding its in-app parental controls feature, Family Pairing, with educational resources designed to help parents better support their teenage users, the company announced morning. The pairing feature, which launched to global users last year, allows parents of teens aged 13 and older to connect their accounts with the child’s so the parent can set controls related to screen time use, who the teen can direct message, and more. But the company heard from teens that they also want their voices to be heard when it comes to parents’ involvement in their digital life.

To create the new educational content, TikTok partnered with the online safety nonprofit, Internet Matters. The organization developed a set of resources in collaboration with teens that aim to offer parents tips about navigating the TikTok landscape and teenage social media usage in general.

Teens said they want parents to understand the rules they’re setting when they use features like Family Pairing and they want them to be open to having discussions about the time teens spend online. And while teens don’t mind when parents set boundaries, they also want to feel they’ve earned some level of trust from the adults in their life.

The older teens get, the more autonomy they want to have on their own device and social networks, as well. They may even tell mom or dad that they don’t want them to follow them on a given platform.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the teen is up to no good, the new resources explain to parents. The teens just want to feel like they can hang out with their friends online without being so closely monitored. This has become an important part of the online experience today, in the pandemic era, where many younger people are spending more time at home instead of socializing with friends in real-life or participating in other in-person group activities.

Image Credits: TikTok

Teens said they also want to be able to come to parents when something goes wrong, without fearing that they’ll be harshly punished or that the parent will panic about the situation. The teens know they’ll be consequences if they break the rules, but they want parents to work through other tough situations with them and devise solutions together, not just react in anger.

All this sounds like straightforward, common sense advice, but parents on TikTok often have varying degrees of comfort with their teens’ digital life and use of social networks. Some basic guidelines that explain what teens want and feel makes sense to include. That said, the parents who are technically savvy enough to enable a parental control feature like Family Pairing may already be clued into best practices.

Image Credits: TikTok

In addition, this sort of teen-focused privacy and safety content is also designed to help TikTok better establish itself as a platform working to protect its younger users — an increasingly necessary stance in light of the potential regulation which big tech has been trying to ahead of, as of late. TikTok, for instance, announced in August it would roll out more privacy protections for younger teens aimed to make the app safer. Facebook, Google and YouTube also did the same.

TikTok says parents or guardians who have currently linked their account to a teen’s account via the Family Pairing feature will receive a notification that prompts them to find out more about the teens’ suggestions and how to approach those conversations about digital literacy and online safety. Parents who sign up and enable Family Pairing for the first time, will also be guided to the resources.

A popular smart home security system can be remotely disarmed, researchers say

By Zack Whittaker

A cybersecurity company says a popular smart home security system has a pair of vulnerabilities that can be exploited to disarm the system altogether.

Rapid7 found the vulnerabilities in the Fortress S03, a home security system that relies on Wi-Fi to connect cameras, motion sensors and sirens to the internet, allowing owners to remotely monitor their home anywhere with a mobile app. The security system also uses a radio-controlled key fob to let homeowners arm or disarm their house from outside their front door.

But the cybersecurity company said the vulnerabilities include an unauthenticated API and an unencrypted radio signal that can be easily intercepted.

Rapid7 revealed details of the two vulnerabilities on Tuesday after not hearing from Fortress in three months, the standard window of time that security researchers give companies to fix bugs before details are made public. Rapid7 said its only acknowledgment of its email was when Fortress closed its support ticket a week later without commenting.

Fortress owner Michael Hofeditz opened but did not respond to several emails sent by TechCrunch with an email open tracker. An email from Bottone Reiling, a Massachusetts law firm representing Fortress, called the claims “false, purposely misleading and defamatory,” but did not provide specifics that it claims are false, or if Fortress has mitigated the vulnerabilities.

Rapid7 said that Fortress’ unauthenticated API can be remotely queried over the internet without the server checking if the request is legitimate. The researchers said by knowing a homeowner’s email address, the server would return the device’s unique IMEI, which in turn could be used to remotely disarm the system.

The other flaw takes advantage of the unencrypted radio signals sent between the security system and the homeowner’s key fob. That allowed Rapid7 to capture and replay the signals for “arm” and “disarm” because the radio waves weren’t scrambled properly.

Arvind Vishwakarma from Rapid7 said homeowners could add a plus-tagged email address with a long, unique string of letters and numbers in place of a password as a stand-in for a password. But there was little for homeowners to do for the radio signal bug until Fortress addresses it.

Fortress has not said if it has fixed or plans to fix the vulnerabilities. It’s not clear if Fortress is able to fix the vulnerabilities without replacing the hardware. It’s not known if Fortress builds the device itself or buys the hardware from another manufacturer.

Read more:

TikTok’s new Creator Marketplace API lets influencer marketing companies tap into first-party data

By Sarah Perez

TikTok is making it easier for brands and agencies to work with the influencers using its service. The company is rolling out a new “TikTok Creator Marketplace API,” which allows marketing companies to integrate more directly with TikTok’s Creator Marketplace, the video app’s in-house influencer marketing platform.

On the Creator Marketplace website, launched in late 2019, marketers have been able to discover top TikTok personalities for their brand campaigns, then create and manage those campaigns and track their performance.

The new API, meanwhile, allows partnered marketing companies to access TikTok’s first-party data about audience demographics, growth trends, best-performing videos and real-time campaign reporting (e.g. views, likes, shares, comments, engagement, etc.) for the first time.

They can then bring this data back into their own platforms, to augment the insights they’re already providing to their own customer base.

TikTok is not officially announcing the API until later in September, but it is allowing its alpha partners to discuss their early work.

One such partner is Captiv8, which tested the API with an NRF top 50 retailer on one of their first TikTok campaigns. The retailer wanted to discover a diverse and inclusive group of TikTok creators to partner with on a new collaboration and wanted help with launching its own TikTok channel. Captiv8 says the branded content received nearly 10 million views, and the campaign resulted in a “significant increase” in several key metrics, which performed above the Nielsen average. This included familiarity (+4% above average), affinity (+6%), purchase intent (+7%) and recommendation intent (+9%).

Image Credits: TikTok Creator Marketplace website

Capitv8 is now working with TikTok’s API to pull in audience demographics, to centralize influencer offers and activations, and to provide tools to boost branded content and monitor campaign performance. On that last front, the API allows the company to pull in real-time metrics from the TikTok Creator Marketplace API — which means Capitv8 is now one of only a handful of third-party companies with access to TikTok first-party data.

Another early alpha partner is Influential, which shared it’s also leveraging the API to access first-party insights on audience demographics, growth trends, best-performing videos and more, to help its customer base of Fortune 1000 brands to identify the right creators for both native and paid advertising campaigns.

One partner it worked with was DoorDash, which launched multiple campaigns on TikTok with Influential’s help. It’s also planning to work with McDonald’s USA on several new campaigns that will run this year, including those focused on the chain’s new Crispy Chicken Sandwich and the return of Spicy McNuggets.

Other early alpha partners include Whalar and INCA. The latter’s integration stems from the larger TikTok global partnership with WPP, announced in February. That deal provided WPP agencies with early access to new advertising products marketing API integrations, and new AR offerings, among other things.

Creator marketplaces are now common to social media platforms with large influencer communities as this has become a standard way to advertise to online consumers, particularly the younger generation. Facebook today offers its Brands Collabs Manager, for both Facebook and Instagram; YouTube has BrandConnect; while Snapchat recently announced a marketplace to connect brands with Lens creators. These type of in-house platforms make it easier for marketers to work with the wider influencer community by offering trusted data on metrics that matter to brands’ own ROI, rather than relying on self-reported data from influencers or on data they have to manually collect themselves. And as campaigns run, marketers can compare how well their partnered creators are able to drive results to inform their future collaborations.

TikTok isn’t making a formal announcement about its new API at this time, telling TechCrunch the technology is still in pilot testing phases for the time being.

“Creators are the lifeblood of our platform, and we’re constantly thinking of new ways to make it easy for them to connect and collaborate with brands. We’re thrilled to be integrating with an elite group of trusted partners to help brands discover and work with diverse creators who can share their message in an authentic way,” said Melissa Yang, TikTok’s head of Ecosystem Partnerships, in a statement provided to select marketing company partners.

Update, 8/31/21, 3:22 PM ET: INCA is currently using the API in the U.S. and U.K. An earlier version said it was U.K. only, based on information provided by TikTok. We’ve since corrected. 

The $150 Million Machine Keeping Moore’s Law Alive

By Will Knight
ASML’s next-generation extreme ultraviolet lithography machines achieve previously unattainable levels of precision, which means chips can keep shrinking for years to come.

Stipop offers developers and creators instant access to a huge global sticker library

By Taylor Hatmaker

With more than 270,000 stickers, Stipop’s library of colorful, character-driven expressions has a little something for everyone.

The company offers keyboard and social app stickers through ad-supported mobile apps on iOS and Android, but it’s recently focused more on providing stickers to developers, creators and other online businesses.

“We were able to gather so many artists because we actually began as our own app that provided stickers,” Stipop co-founder Tony Park told TechCrunch. The team took what they learned from running their own consumer-facing app — namely that collecting and licensing hundreds of thousands of stickers from artists around the world is hard work — and adapted their business to help solve that problem for others.

Stipop was the first Korean company to go through Yellow, Snapchat’s exclusive accelerator. The company is also part of Y Combinator’s Summer 2021 cohort.

Stipop’s sticker library is accessible through an SDK and an API, letting developers slot the searchable sticker library into their existing software. The company already has more than 200 companies that tap into its huge sticker trove, which offers a “single-day solution” for a process that would otherwise necessitate a lot more legwork. Stipop launched a website recently that helps developers integrate its SDK and API through quick installs.

“They can just add a single line of code inside their product and will have a fully customized sticker feature [so] users will be able to spice up their chats,” Park said.

Park points out that stickers encourage engagement — and for social software, engagement means growth. Stickers are a playful way to send characters back and forth in chat, but they also pop up in a number of other less obvious spots, from dating apps to ecommerce and ridesharing apps. Stipop even drives the sticker search in work collaboration software Microsoft Teams.

The company has already partnered with Google, which uses Stipop’s sticker library in Gboard, Android Messages and Tenor, a GIF keyboard platform that Google bought in 2018. That partnership drove 600 million sticker views within the first month. A new partnership between Stipop and Coca-Cola on the near horizon will add Coke-branded stickers to its sticker library and the company is opening its doors to more brands that understand the unique appeal of stickers in messaging apps.

Park says that people tend to compare stickers and gifs, two ways of wordlessly expressing emotion and social nuance, but stickers are a world unto themselves. Stickers exist in their own creative universe, with star artists, regional themes and original casts of characters that take on a life of their own among fans. “Sticker creators have their own profession,” Park said.

Visual artists can also find a lot of traction releasing stickers, even without sophisticated illustrations. And since they’re all about meaning rather than refinement, non-designers and less skilled artists can craft hit stickers too.

“Stickers are great for them because it [is] so easy to go viral,” Park said. The company has partnered with 8,000 sticker creators across 25 languages, helping those artists monetize their creations and generate income based on how many times a sticker is shared.

Stickers command their own visual language around the world, and Park has observed interesting cultural differences in how people use them to communicate. In the West, stickers are often used in place of text, but in Asia, where they’re used much more frequently, people usually send stickers to enhance rather than replace the meaning of text.

In East Asia, users tend to prefer simple black and white stickers, but in India and Saudi Arabia, bright, golden stickers top the trends. In South America, popular stickers take on a more pixelated, unique quality that resonates culturally there.

“With stickers, you fall in love with [the] characters you send… that becomes you,” Park said.

The stars are aligning for federal IT open source software adoption

By Ram Iyer
Venky Adivi Contributor
Venky Adivi is director of strategic capture and proposal management at Canonical, publisher of Ubuntu.

In recent years, the private sector has been spurning proprietary software in favor of open source software and development approaches. For good reason: The open source avenue saves money and development time by using freely available components instead of writing new code, enables new applications to be deployed quickly and eliminates vendor lock-in.

The federal government has been slower to embrace open source, however. Efforts to change are complicated by the fact that many agencies employ large legacy IT infrastructure and systems to serve millions of people and are responsible for a plethora of sensitive data. Washington spends tens of billions every year on IT, but with each agency essentially acting as its own enterprise, decision-making is far more decentralized than it would be at, say, a large bank.

While the government has made a number of moves in a more open direction in recent years, the story of open source in federal IT has often seemed more about potential than reality.

But there are several indications that this is changing and that the government is reaching its own open source adoption tipping point. The costs of producing modern applications to serve increasingly digital-savvy citizens keep rising, and agencies are budget constrained to find ways to improve service while saving taxpayer dollars.

Sheer economics dictate an increased role for open source, as do a variety of other benefits. Because its source code is publicly available, open source software encourages continuous review by others outside the initial development team to promote increased software reliability and security, and code can be easily shared for reuse by other agencies.

Here are five signs I see that the U.S. government is increasingly rallying around open source.

More dedicated resources for open source innovation

Two initiatives have gone a long way toward helping agencies advance their open source journeys.

18F, a team within the General Services Administration that acts as consultancy to help other agencies build digital services, is an ardent open source backer. Its work has included developing a new application for accessing Federal Election Commission data, as well as software that has allowed the GSA to improve its contractor hiring process.

18F — short for GSA headquarters’ address of 1800 F St. — reflects the same grassroots ethos that helped spur open source’s emergence and momentum in the private sector. “The code we create belongs to the public as a part of the public domain,” the group says on its website.

Five years ago this August, the Obama administration introduced a new Federal Source Code Policy that called on every agency to adopt an open source approach, create a source code inventory, and publish at least 20% of written code as open source. The administration also launched Code.gov, giving agencies a place to locate open source solutions that other departments are already using.

The results have been mixed, however. Most agencies are now consistent with the federal policy’s goal, though many still have work to do in implementation, according to Code.gov’s tracker. And a report by a Code.gov staffer found that some agencies were embracing open source more than others.

Still, Code.gov says the growth of open source in the federal government has gone farther than initially estimated.

A push from the new administration

The American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill that President Biden signed in early March 2021, contained $9 billion for the GSA’s Technology Modernization Fund, which finances new federal technology projects. In January, the White House said upgrading federal IT infrastructure and addressing recent breaches such as the SolarWinds hack was “an urgent national security issue that cannot wait.”

It’s fair to assume open source software will form the foundation of many of these efforts, because White House technology director David Recordon is a long-time open source advocate and once led Facebook’s open source projects.

A changing skills environment

Federal IT employees who spent much of their careers working on legacy systems are starting to retire, and their successors are younger people who came of age in an open source world and are comfortable with it.

About 81% of private sector hiring managers surveyed by the Linux Foundation said hiring open source talent is a priority and that they’re more likely than ever to seek out professionals with certifications. You can be sure the public sector is increasingly mirroring this trend as it recognizes a need for talent to support open source’s growing foothold.

Stronger capabilities from vendors

By partnering with the right commercial open source vendor, agencies can drive down infrastructure costs and more efficiently manage their applications. For example, vendors have made great strides in addressing security requirements laid out by policies such as the Federal Security Security Modernization Act (FISMA), Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) and the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRamp), making it easy to deal with compliance.

In addition, some vendors offer powerful infrastructure automation tools and generous support packages, so federal agencies don’t have to go it alone as they accelerate their open source strategies. Linux distributions like Ubuntu provide a consistent developer experience from laptop/workstation to the cloud, and at the edge, for public clouds, containers, and physical and virtual infrastructure.

This makes application development a well-supported activity that includes 24/7 phone and web support, which provides access to world-class enterprise support teams through web portals, knowledge bases or via phone.

The pandemic effect

Whether it’s accommodating more employees working from home or meeting higher citizen demand for online services, COVID-19 has forced large swaths of the federal government to up their digital game. Open source allows legacy applications to be moved to the cloud, new applications to be developed more quickly, and IT infrastructures to adapt to rapidly changing demands.

As these signs show, the federal government continues to move rapidly from talk to action in adopting open source.

Who wins? Everyone!

Atlassian is bringing new insights to its Jira Software Cloud

By Sean Michael Kerner

DevOps teams are generally trying to constantly improve themselves, so they can deliver software more quickly and reliably, but often they lack the insights needed to actually make that progress.

Atlassian is now offering users of its Jira Software Cloud platform a series of new capabilities that provide data-driven insights into the development process. Jira is a popular issue and project tracking technology and has included features that help developers and their teams to understand where they are in their workflow. 

The new insights go a step beyond what Jira has traditionally provided to its users, with specific insights into different aspects of an agile software development approach. The goal with the new insights is to help organizations better understand what they’re doing right and where development teams can improve, which ultimately results in improved overall efficiency.

“Data is everywhere, but at the same time the insights and the understanding of the actions that you can take are kind of nowhere,” Megan Cook, head of product for Jira Software told TechCrunch. “It’s hard to work smarter in that sense and that’s the big problem that we’re really looking at tackling.” 

Cook explained that development teams need access to metrics on their own progress, so they can make smarter data-driven decisions based on what’s happening in real time. She noted that one of the big shifts that Atlassian is now doing with Jira Cloud is bringing data from all the different development tracking tools together into one place where those teams can make decisions.

One example of the insights that Jira Cloud now provides to users is related to sprint commitments. In the agile software development approach, software is developed in what are known as “sprints” as developers race to complete a certain task. With the sprint commitment insight capability, the idea is to help teams understand what amount of work they can handle, based on past performance. The business goal is to help better understand if a team is over- or under-committing to a given sprint.

Another example is providing an issue type breakdown. Cook explained that the way each team can categorize issues can be very personalized. The categories can include different types of projects, such as whether a project is dealing with fixing bugs and technical debt, or if it’s an innovation or growth product, or just an incremental feature update. With the issue type breakdown insight there is a visualization to help teams better understand what types of issues and projects they are working on in a more intuitive approach than before. Cook explained that users could have identified the different issues before via a search functionality, but she emphasized the new insights approach is far easier.

Atlassian Jira Software Cloud issue type breakdown

Image Credits: Atlassian

In the coming weeks, Cook said that the company will be adding a few additional insights, including the sprint burndown insight. In the agile software development approach, the burndown is about figuring out what’s left to finish in a sprint. The sprint burndown insight will provide a visual indicator of how much work is left to be done as well as how likely it is that the work will be completed within an allocated amount of time.

Atlassian’s approach to enabling developer teams to work more efficiently is one of the primary values that the company has been building for years, and it has resulted in strong growth overall. Atlassian reported fourth-quarter fiscal 2021 revenue of $560 million, up 30% year-over-year gain on the strength of its developer collaboration and management tools.

Popcorn’s new app brings short-form video to the workplace

By Sarah Perez

A new startup called Popcorn wants to make work communication more fun and personal by offering a way for users to record short video messages, or “pops,” that can be used for any number of purposes in place of longer emails, texts, Slack messages or Zoom calls. While there are plenty of other places to record short-form video these days, most of these exist in the social media space, which isn’t appropriate for a work environment. Nor does it make sense to send a video you’ve recorded on your phone as an email attachment, when you really just want to check in with a colleague or say hello.

Popcorn, on the other hand, lets you create the short video and then send a URL to that video anywhere you would want to add a personal touch to your message.

For example, you could use Popcorn in a business networking scenario, where you’re trying to connect with someone in your industry for the first time — aka “cold outreach.” Instead of just blasting them a message on LinkedIn, you could also paste in the Popcorn URL to introduce yourself in a more natural, friendly fashion. You also could use Popcorn with your team at work for things like daily check-ins, sharing progress on an ongoing project or to greet new hires, among other things.

Image Credits: Popcorn

Videos themselves can be up to 60 seconds in length — a time limit designed to keep Popcorn users from rambling. Users also can opt to record audio only if they don’t want to appear on video. And you can increase the playback speed if you’re in a hurry. Users who want to receive “pops” could also advertise their “popcode” (e.g. try mine at U8696).

The idea to bring short-form video to the workplace comes from Popcorn co-founder and CEO Justin Spraggins, whose background is in building consumer apps. One of his first apps to gain traction back in 2014 was a Tinder-meets-Instagram experience called Looksee that allowed users to connect around shared photos. A couple years later, he co-founded a social calling app called Unmute, a Clubhouse precursor of sorts. He then went on to co-found 9 Count, a consumer app development shop which launched more social apps like BFF (previously Wink) and Juju.

9 Count’s lead engineer, Ben Hochberg, is now also a co-founder on Popcorn (or rather, Snack Break, Inc. as the legal entity is called). They began their work on Popcorn in 2020, just after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the rapid shift to remote work in the days that followed could now help Popcorn gain traction among distributed teams. Today’s remote workers may never again return to in-person meetings at the office, but they’re also growing tired of long days stuck in Zoom meetings.

With Popcorn, the goal is to make work communication fun, personal and bite-sized, Spraggins says. “[We want to] bring all the stuff we’re really passionate about in consumer social into work, which I think is really important for us now,” he explains.

“You work with these people, but how do you — without scheduling a Zoom — how do you bring the ‘human’ to it?,” Spraggins says. “I’m really excited about making work products feel more social, more like Snapchat than utility tools.”

There is a lot Popcorn would still need to figure out to truly make a business-oriented social app work, including adding enhanced security, limiting spam, offering some sort of reporting flow for bad actors, and more. It will also eventually need to land on a successful revenue model.

Currently, Popcorn is a free download on iPhone, iPad and Mac, and offers a Slack integration so you can send video messages to co-workers directly in the communication software you already use to catch up and stay in touch. The app today is fairly simple, but the company plans to enhance its short videos over time using AR frames that let users showcase their personalities.

The startup raised a $400,000 pre-seed round from General Catalyst (Nico Bonatsos) and Dream Machine (Alexia Bonatsos, previously editor-in-chief at TechCrunch.) Spraggins says the company will be looking to raise a seed round in the fall to help with hires, including in the AR space.

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