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Senegal’s NIMA Codes to launch address app in 15 African countries

Posted by | africa, Android, api, carsharing, commuting, IBM, kenya, location based service, NIMA Codes, north america, ovi, senegal, Snap, Startups, TC, transport, Uber, United States, west africa | No Comments

Senegalese startup NIMA Codes — a digital mapping service for locations without formal addresses — has upgraded its app and plans to go live in 15 African countries in 2020.

The pre-seed stage startup launched in 2018 around an API that uses mobile-phone numbers to catalog coordinates for unregistered homes and businesses in Senegal.

NIMA Codes is adding a chat tool to its platform, to help users locate and comment on service providers, and is integrating a photo-based location identifier, NIMA Snap, in the application.

“What we offer right now is a reliable street-addressing product. Because it’s very difficult for people…to communicate location in Africa and a lot of services are using location. So we need a service that can communicate reliable locations,” NIMA Codes co-founder and CEO Mouhamadou Sall told TechCrunch.

By several rankings, NIMA Codes has become a top-three downloaded navigation app in Senegal (for Android and iOS). The platform has 16,000 subscribed users and has recorded more than 100,000 searches, according to Sall.

He and co-founder Steven Sakayroun (a software engineer and IBM alum) came up with the idea for assigning location coordinates to mobile numbers in previous software development roles.

“If you look at street addresses in North America, in the end they are just a way to name longitude and latitude, because the computer doesn’t know what 6th Avenue really means,” Sall said.

Because mobile-phone penetration in Senegal and broader Africa is high, mobile numbers serve as a useful reference point to attach location information tagged for both homes and businesses, Sall explained. Mobile-phones can also serve as an entry point for people to input location coordinates to NIMA Codes’ database.

There are advantages to assigning coordinates to digits, versus letters, in Sub-Saharan Africa with its thousands of language groupings, Sall explained. “Nima Codes is a cross-border and language-agnostic solution,” he said.

Mouhamadou Sall

Sall believes that will work to the startup’s advantage when it expands services and database building to all 15 countries of the Economic Community of West African States by the end of 2020.

NIMA Codes is still plotting prospects for its best use-cases and revenue generation. It hasn’t secured partners yet and is still identifying how those downloading the app are using it. “Right now it’s mostly people who download the app…and register locations. Some delivery companies may be using it and not telling us,” said Sall.

Ecowas Countries

The startup plans to generate revenue through partnerships and API usage fees.

Sall believes NIMA Codes’ new image-based location and chat-based business search functions could come together — akin to Google Maps and finding nearby places — to create commercial revenue opportunities across merchants in West Africa’s large, informal economies.

Another obvious plug-in for NIMA Codes’ service is Africa’s fast-growing ride-hail and delivery markets. Sall points to 2019 data that Uber paid $58 million over three years for map and search services.The U.S. ride-hail company has also tested an image-based directions app called OKHi in Kenya. And there are reports of Uber’s imminent expansion into Senegal.

Whatever the application, Sall believes NIMA Codes is cornering a central point of demand in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“The use case is so big, you need to start with something and eventually expand,” he said.

“But everything wraps around having a reliable location service for people and small business.”

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Amazon introduces new $99 Eero mesh Wi-Fi routers

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Hardware Event 2019, api, asus, computing, Eero, Europe, Gadgets, google onhub, hardware, linksys, Router, TC, telecommunications, tp-link, United States, wifi, wireless networking | No Comments

Amazon is launching a new generation of Eero router, the first new iteration of Eero hardware since it acquired the company earlier this year. The new router is $99 for one, or available in a three-pack for $249, and is available in the U.S. today and in Europe later this year.

Alongside the new hardware, Amazon has added even more specific voice commands for its routers, including the ability to turn on and off guest Wi-Fi via voice, as well as pause Wi-Fi access for specific devices on the network (Amazon showed off turning off the PlayStation Wi-Fi as one example). These features go above and beyond what’s currently available for third-party devices, but Amazon says it’s also making an API available and that routers from TP-Link, Asus, Linksys and Arris will able to take advantage, as well.
Image from iOS 5

Amazon’s intent with the revised Eero and Alexa commands is to make the whole process of setting up and managing a secure Wi-Fi network super easy for everyone.

Amazon’s updated Eero three-pack will cover a home up to 5,000 square feet in size, the company says, and provide speeds of up to 350 Mbps with dual-band 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz 802.11ac Wi-Fi, with 2 Ethernet ports per device for wired connections. They also include Bluetooth LE 5.0, which is used for simple setup via your smartphone.

The price point on the new Eero is certainly attractive, and more competitive than the previous version, which started at $149 for just a beacon alone, and $199 for the hub.

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AI photo editor FaceApp goes viral again on iOS, raises questions about photo library access

Posted by | Android, api, apple inc, Apple Photos, artificial intelligence, Banking, computing, iOS, ios 11, iOS 8, ML, ocr, operating systems, smartphones, Software, TC, Will Strafach | No Comments

FaceApp. So. The app has gone viral again after first doing so two years ago or so. The effect has gotten better but these apps, like many other one off viral apps, tend to come and go in waves driven by influencer networks or paid promotion. We first covered this particular AI photo editor  from a team of Russian developers about two years ago.

It has gone viral again now due to some features that allow you to edit a person’s face to make it appear older or younger. You may remember at one point it had an issue because it enabled what amounted to digital blackface by changing a person from one ethnicity to another.

In this current wave of virality, some new rumors are floating about FaceApp. The first is that it uploads your camera roll in the background. We found no evidence of this and neither did security researcher and Guardian App CEO Will Strafach or researcher Baptiste Robert.

The second is that it somehow allows you to pick photos without giving photo access to the app. You can see a video of this behavior here:

Shouldn’t photo access need to be enabled for this to be possible ? 🤔pic.twitter.com/wy45zKn63E

— Karissa Bell (@karissabe) July 16, 2019

While the app does indeed let you pick a single photo without giving it access to your photo library, this is actually 100% allowed by an Apple API introduced in iOS 11. It allows a developer to let a user pick one single photo from a system dialog to let the app work on. You can view documentation here and here.

IMG 54E064B28241 1

Because the user has to tap on one photo, this provides something Apple holds dear: user intent. You have explicitly tapped it, so it’s ok to send that one photo. This behavior is actually a net good in my opinion. It allows you to give an app one photo instead of your entire library. It can’t see any of your photos until you tap one. This is far better than committing your entire library to a jokey meme app.

Unfortunately, there is still some cognitive dissonance here, because Apple allows an app to call this API even if a user has set the Photo Access setting to Never in settings. In my opinion, if you have it set to Never, you should have to change that before any photo can enter the app from your library, no matter what inconvenience that causes. Never is not a default, it is an explicit choice and that permanent user intent overrules the one-off user intent of the new photo picker.

I believe that Apple should find a way to rectify this in the future by making it more clear or disallowing if people have explicitly opted out of sharing photos in an app.

IMG 0475

One good idea might be the equivalent of the ‘only once’ location option added to the upcoming iOS 13 might be appropriate.

One thing that FaceApp does do, however, is it uploads your photo to the cloud for processing. It does not do on-device processing like Apple’s first party app does and like it enables for third parties through its ML libraries and routines. This is not made clear to the user.

I have asked FaceApp why they don’t alert the user that the photo is processed in the cloud. I’ve also asked them whether they retain the photos.

Given how many screenshots people take of sensitive information like banking and whatnot, photo access is a bigger security risk than ever these days. With a scraper and optical character recognition tech you could automatically turn up a huge amount of info way beyond ‘photos of people’.

So, overall, I think it is important that we think carefully about the safeguards put in place to protect photo archives and the motives and methods of the apps we give access to.

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Apollo raises $22M for its GraphQL platform

Posted by | Andreessen Horowitz, Android, api, computing, data management, database, Developer, Enterprise, Facebook, graph database, graph databases, Javascript, Matrix Partners, meteor, Recent Funding, relational database, San Francisco, SQL, Startups, TC, Trinity Ventures | No Comments

Apollo, a San Francisco-based startup that provides a number of developer and operator tools and services around the GraphQL query language, today announced that it has raised a $22 million growth funding round co-led by Andreessen Horowitz and Matrix Partners. Existing investors Trinity Ventures and Webb Investment Network also participated in this round.

Today, Apollo is probably the biggest player in the GraphQL ecosystem. At its core, the company’s services allow businesses to use the Facebook -incubated GraphQL technology to shield their developers from the patchwork of legacy APIs and databases as they look to modernize their technology stacks. The team argues that while REST APIs that talked directly to other services and databases still made sense a few years ago, it doesn’t anymore now that the number of API endpoints keeps increasing rapidly.

Apollo replaces this with what it calls the Data Graph. “There is basically a missing piece where we think about how people build apps today, which is the piece that connects the billions of devices out there,” Apollo co-founder and CEO Geoff Schmidt told me. “You probably don’t just have one app anymore, you probably have three, for the web, iOS and Android . Or maybe six. And if you’re a two-sided marketplace you’ve got one for buyers, one for sellers and another for your ops team.”

Managing the interfaces between all of these apps quickly becomes complicated and means you have to write a lot of custom code for every new feature. The promise of the Data Graph is that developers can use GraphQL to query the data in the graph and move on, all without having to write the boilerplate code that typically slows them down. At the same time, the ops teams can use the Graph to enforce access policies and implement other security features.

“If you think about it, there’s a lot of analogies to what happened with relational databases in the ’80s,” Schmidt said. “There is a need for a new layer in the stack. Previously, your query planner was a human being, not a piece of software, and a relational database is a piece of software that would just give you a database. And you needed a way to query that database, and that syntax was called SQL.”

Geoff Schmidt, Apollo CEO, and Matt DeBergalis, CTO

GraphQL itself, of course, is open source. Apollo is now building a lot of the proprietary tools around this idea of the Data Graph that make it useful for businesses. There’s a cloud-hosted graph manager, for example, that lets you track your schema, as well as a dashboard to track performance, as well as integrations with continuous integration services. “It’s basically a set of services that keep track of the metadata about your graph and help you manage the configuration of your graph and all the workflows and processes around it,” Schmidt said.

The development of Apollo didn’t come out of nowhere. The founders previously launched Meteor, a framework and set of hosted services that allowed developers to write their apps in JavaScript, both on the front-end and back-end. Meteor was tightly coupled to MongoDB, though, which worked well for some use cases but also held the platform back in the long run. With Apollo, the team decided to go in the opposite direction and instead build a platform that makes being database agnostic the core of its value proposition.

The company also recently launched Apollo Federation, which makes it easier for businesses to work with a distributed graph. Sometimes, after all, your data lives in lots of different places. Federation allows for a distributed architecture that combines all of the different data sources into a single schema that developers can then query.

Schmidt tells me the company started to get some serious traction last year and by December, it was getting calls from VCs that heard from their portfolio companies that they were using Apollo.

The company plans to use the new funding to build out its technology to scale its field team to support the enterprises that bet on its technology, including the open-source technologies that power both the services.

“I see the Data Graph as a core new layer of the stack, just like we as an industry invested in the relational database for decades, making it better and better,” Schmidt said. “We’re still finding new uses for SQL and that relational database model. I think the Data Graph is going to be the same way.”

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Fleksy’s AI keyboard is getting a store to put mini apps at chatters’ fingertips

Posted by | Android, api, Apple, Apps, artificial intelligence, barcelona, e-commerce, Europe, european commission, fleksy, Fleksyapps, Fleksynext, flight search, gboard, gif, Google, imessage, Instant Messaging, keyboard apps, Messenger, Mobile, Pinterest, play store, Qwant, Skyscanner, smartphone, social media, Startups, SwiftKey, TC, Thingthing, tripadvisor, United States, WeChat | No Comments

Remember Fleksy? The customizable Android keyboard app has a new trick up its sleeve: It’s adding a store where users can find and add lightweight third party apps to enhance their typing experience.

Right now it’s launched a taster, preloading a selection of ‘mini apps’ into the keyboard — some from very familiar brand names, some a little less so — so users can start to see how it works.

The first in-keyboard apps are Yelp (local services search); Skyscanner (flight search); Giphy (animated Gif search); GifNote (music Gifs; launching for U.S. users only for rights reasons); Vlipsy (reaction video clips); and Emogi (stickers) — with “many more” branded apps slated as coming in the next few months.

They’re not saying exactly what other brands are coming but there are plenty of familiar logos to be spotted in their press materials — from Spotify to Uber to JustEat to Tripadvisor to PayPal and more…

The full keyboard store itself — which will let users find and add and/or delete apps — will be launching at the end of this month.

The latest version of the Fleksy app can be downloaded for free via the Play Store.

Mini apps made for messaging

The core idea for these mini apps (aka Fleksyapps) is to offer lightweight additions designed to serve the messaging use case.

Say, for example, you’re chatting about where to eat and a friend suggests sushi. The Yelp Fleksyapp might pop up a contextual suggestion for a nearby Japanese restaurant that can be shared directly into the conversation — thereby saving time by doing away with the need for someone to cut out of the chat, switch apps, find some relevant info and cut and paste it back into the chat.

Fleksyapps are intended to be helpful shortcuts that keep the conversation flowing. They also of course put brands back into the conversation.

“We couldn’t be more excited to bring the power of the world’s popular songs with GIFs, videos and photos to the new Fleksyapps platform,” says Gifnote co-founder, John vanSuchtelen, in a supporting statement.

Fleksy’s mini apps appear above the Qwerty keyboard — in much the same space as a next-word prediction. The user can scroll through the app stack (each a tiny branded circle until tapped on to expand) and choose one to interact with. It’s similar to the micro apps lodged in Apple’s iMessage but on Android where iMessage isn’t… The team also plans for Fleksy to support a much wider range of branded apps — hence the Fleksyapps store.

In-keyboard apps is not a new concept for the dev team behind Fleksy; an earlier keyboard app of theirs (called ThingThing) offered micro apps they built themselves as a tool to extend its utility.

But now they’re hoping to garner backing and buy in from third party brands excited about the exposure and reach they could gain by being where users spend the most device time: The keyboard.

“Think of it a bit like the iMessage equivalent but on Android across any app. Or the WeChat mini program but inside the keyboard, available everywhere — not only in one app,” CEO Olivier Plante tells TechCrunch. “That’s a problem of messaging apps these days. All of them are verticals but the keyboard is horizontal. So that’s the benefit for those brands. And the user will have the ability to move them around, add some, to remove some, to explore, to discover.”

“The brands that want to join our platform they have the option of being preloaded by default. The analogy is that by default on the home screen of a phone you are by default in our keyboard. And moving forward you’ll be able to have a membership — you’re becoming a ‘brand member’ of the Fleksyapps platform, and you can have your brand inside the keyboard,” he adds.

The first clutch of Fleksyapps were developed jointly, with the team working with the brands in question. But Plante says they’re planning to launch a tool in future so brands will be able to put together their own apps — in as little as just a few hours.

“We’re opening this array of functionalities and there’s a lot of verticals possible,” he continues. “In the future months we will embed new capabilities for the platform — new type of apps. You can think about professional apps, or cloud apps. Accessing your files from different types of clouds. You have the weather vertical. You have ecommerce vertical. You have so many verticals.

“What you have on the app store today will be reflected into the Fleksyappstore. But really with the focus of messaging and being useful in messaging. So it’s not the full app that we want to bring in — it’s really the core functionality of this app.”

The Yelp Fleksyapp, for example, only includes the ability to see nearby places and search for and share places. So it’s intentionally stripped down. “The core benefit for the brand is it gives them the ability to extend their reach,” says Plante. “We don’t want to compete with the app, per se, we just want to bring these types of app providers inside the messenger on Android across any app.”

On the user side, the main advantage he touts is “it’s really, really fast — fleshing that out to: “It’s very lightweight, it’s very, very fast and we want to become the fastest access to content across any app.”

Users of Fleksyapps don’t need to have the full app installed because the keyboard plugs directly into the API of each branded service. So they get core functionality in bite-sized form without a requirement to download the full app. (Of course they can if they wish.)

So Plante also notes the approach has benefits vis-a-vis data consumption — which could be an advantage in emerging markets where smartphone users’ choices may be hard-ruled by the costs of data and/or connectivity limits.

“For those types of users it gives them an ability to access content but in a very light way — where the app itself, loading the app, loading all the content inside the app can be megabits. In Fleksy you’re talking about kilobits,” he says.

Privacy-sensitive next app suggestions

While baking a bunch of third party apps into a keyboard might sound like a privacy nightmare, the dev team behind Fleksy have been careful to make sure users remain in control.

To wit: Also on board is an AI keyboard assistant (called Fleksynext) — aka “a neural deep learning engine” — which Plante says can detect the context, intention and sentiment of conversations in order to offer “very useful” app suggestions as the chat flows.

The idea is the AI supports the substance of the chat by offering useful functionality from whatever pick and mix of apps are available. Plante refers to these AI-powered ‘next app’ suggestions as “pops”.

And — crucially, from a privacy point of view — the Fleksynext suggestion engine operates locally, on device.

That means no conversation data is sent out of the keyboard. Indeed, Plante says nothing the user types in the keyboard itself is shared with brands (including suggestions that pop up but get ignored). So there’s no risk — as with some other keyboard apps — of users being continually strip-mined for personal data to profile them as they type.

That said, if the user chooses to interact with a Fleksyapp (or its suggestive pop) they are then interacting with a third party’s API. So the usual tracking caveats apply.

“We interact with the web so there’s tracking everywhere,” admits Plante. “But, per se, there’s not specific sensitive data that is shared suddenly with someone. It is not related with the service itself — with the Fleksy app.”

The key point is that the keyboard user gets to choose which apps they want to use and which they don’t. So they can choose which third parties they want to share their plans and intentions with and which they don’t.

“We’re not interesting in making this an advertising platform where the advertiser decides everything,” emphasizes Plante. “We want this to be really close to the user. So the user decides. My intentions. My sentiment. What I type decides. And that is really our goal. The user is able to power it. He can tap on the suggestion or ignore it. And then if he taps on it it’s a very good quality conversion because the user really wants to access restaurants nearby or explore flights for escaping his daily routine… or transfer money. That could be another use-case for instance.”

They won’t be selling brands a guaranteed number of conversions, either.

That’s clearly very important because — to win over users — Fleksynext suggestions will need to feel telepathically useful, rather than irritating, misfired nag. Though the risk of that seems low given how Fleksy users can customize the keyboard apps to only see stuff that’s useful to them.

“In a sense we’re starting reshape a bit how advertising is seen by putting the user in the center,” suggests Plante. “And giving them a useful means of accessing content. This is the original vision and we’ve been very loyal to that — and we think it can reshape the landscape.”

“When you look into five years from now, the smartphone we have will be really, really powerful — so why process things in the cloud? When you can process things on the phone. That’s what we are betting on: Processing everything on the phone,” he adds.

When the full store launches users will be able to add and delete (any) apps — included preloads. So they will be in the driving seat. (We asked Plante to a confirm the user will be able to delete all apps, including any pre-loadeds and he said yes. So if you take him at his word Fleksy will not be cutting any deals with OEMs or carriers to indelibly preload certain Fleksyapps. Or, to put it another way, crapware baked into the keyboard is most definitely not plan.)

Depending on what other Fleksyapps launch in future a Fleksy keyboard user could choose to add, for example, a search service like DuckDuckGo or France’s Qwant to power a pro-privacy alternative to using Google search in the keyboard. Or they could choose Google.

Again the point is the choice is theirs.

Scaling a keyboard into a platform

The idea of keyboard-as-platform offers at least the possibility of reintroducing the choice and variety of smartphone app stores back before the cynical tricks of attention-harvesting tech giants used their network effects and platform power to throttle the app economy.

The Android keyboard space was also a fertile experiment ground in years past. But it’s now dominated by Google’s Gboard and Microsoft-acquired Swiftkey. Which makes Fleksy the plucky upstart gunning to scale an independent alternative that’s not owned by big tech and is open to any third party that wants to join its mini apps party.

“It will be Bing search for Swiftkey, it will be Google search for Gboard, it will be Google Music, it will be YouTube. But on our side we can have YouTube, we can also have… other services that exist for video. The same way with pictures and the same way for file-sharing and drive. So you have Google Drive but you have Dropbox, you have OneDrive, there’s a lot of services in the cloud. And we want to be the platform that has them all, basically,” says Plante.

The original founding team of the Fleksy keyboard was acqui-hired by Pinterest back in 2016, leaving the keyboard app itself to languish with minimal updates. Then two years ago Barcelona-based keyboard app maker, ThingThing, stepped in to take over development.

Plante confirms it’s since fully acquired the Fleksy keyboard technology itself — providing a solid foundation for the keyboard-as-platform business it’s now hoping to scale with the launch of Fleksyapps.

Talking of scale, he tells us the startup is in the process of raising a multi-million Series A — aiming to close this summer. (ThingThing last took in $800,000 via equity crowdfunding last fall.)

The team’s investor pitch is the keyboard offers perhaps the only viable conduit left on mobile to reset the playing field for brands by offering a route to cut through tech giant walled gardens and get where users are spending most of their time and attention: i.e. typing and sharing stuff with their friends in private one-to-one and group chats.

That means the keyboard-as-platform has the potential to get brands of all stripes back in front of users — by embedding innovative, entertaining and helpful bite-sized utility where it can prove its worth and amass social currency on the dominant messaging platforms people use.

The next step for the rebooted Fleksy team is of course building scale by acquiring users for a keyboard which, as of half a year ago, only had around 1M active users from pure downloads.

Its strategy on this front is to target Android device makers to preload Fleksy as the default keyboard.

ThingThing’s business model is a revenue share on any suggestions the keyboard converts, which it argues represent valuable leads for brands — given the level of contextual intention. It is also intending to charge brands that want to be preloaded on the Fleksy keyboard by default.

Again, though, a revenue share model requires substantial scale to work. Not least because brands will need to see evidence of scale to buy into the Fleksyapps’ vision.

Plante isn’t disclosing active users of the Fleksy keyboard right now. But says he’s confident they’re on track to hit 30M-35M active users this year — on account of around ten deals he says are in the pipeline with device makers to preload Fleksy’s keyboard. (Palm was an early example, as we reported last year.)

The carrot for OEMs to join the Fleksyapps party is they’re cutting them in on the revenue share from user interactions with branded keyboard apps — playing to device makers’ needs to find ways to boost famously tight hardware margins.

“The fact that the keyboard can monetize and provide value to the phone brands — this is really massive for them,” argues Plante. “The phone brands can expect revenue flowing in their bank account because we give the brands distribution and the handset manufacturer will make money and we will make money.”

It’s a smart approach, and one that’s essentially only possible because Google’s own Gboard keyboard doesn’t come preloaded on the majority of Android devices. (Exceptions include its own Pixel brand devices.) So — unusually for a core phone app on Android — there’s a bit of an open door where the keyboard sits, instead of the usual preloaded Google wares. And that’s an opportunity.

Markets wise, ThingThing is targeting OEMs in all global regions with its Fleksy pitch — barring China (which Plante readily admits it too complex for a small startup to sensibly try jumping at).

Apps vs tech giants

In its stamping ground of Europe there are warm regulatory winds blowing too: An European Commission antitrust intervention last year saw Google hit with a $5BN fine over anti-competitive practices attached to its Android platform — forcing the company to change local licensing terms.

That antirust decision means mobile makers finally have the chance to unbundle Google apps from devices they sell in the region.

Which translates into growing opportunities for OEMs to rethink their Android strategies. Even as Google remains under pressure not to get in the way by force feeding any more of its wares.

Really, a key component of this shift is that device makers are being told to think, to look around and see what else is out there. For the first time there looks to be a viable chance to profit off of Android without having to preload everything Google wants.

“For us it’s a super good sign,” says Plante of the Commission decision. “Every monopolistic situation is a problem. And the market needs to be fragmented. Because if not we’re just going to lose innovation. And right now Europe — and I see good progress for the US as well — are trying to dismantle the imposed power of those big guys. For the simple evolution of human being and technology and the future of us.”

“I think good things can happen,” he adds. “We’re in talks with handset manufacturers who are coming into Europe and they want to be the most respectful of the market. And with us they have this reassurance that you have a good partner that ensures there’s a revenue stream, there’s a business model behind it, there’s really a strong use-case for users.

“We can finally be where we always wanted to be: A choice, an alternative. But having Google imposing its way since start — and making sure that all the direct competition of Google is just a side, I think governments have now seen the problem. And we’re a winner of course because we’re a keyboard.”

But what about iOS? Plante says the team has plans to bring what they’re building with Fleksy to Apple’s mobile platform too, in time. But for now they’re fully focusing efforts on Android — to push for scale and execute on their vision of staking their claim to be the independent keyboard platform.

Apple has supported third party keyboards on iOS for years. Unfortunately, though, the experience isn’t great — with a flaky toggle to switch away from the default Apple keyboard, combined with heavy system warnings about the risks of using third party keyboards.

Meanwhile the default iOS keyboard ‘just works’ — and users have loads of extra features baked by default into Apple’s native messaging app, iMessage.

Clearly alternative keyboards have found it all but impossible to build any kind of scale in that iOS pincer.

“iOS is coming later because we need to focus on these distribution deals and we need to focus on the brands coming into the platform. And that’s why iOS right now we’re really focusing for later. What we can say is it will come later,” says Plante, adding: “Apple limits a lot keyboards. You can see it with other keyboard companies. It’s the same. The update cycle for iOS keyboard is really, really, really slow.”

Plus, of course, Fleksy being preloaded as a default keyboard on — the team hopes — millions of Android devices is a much more scalable proposition vs just being another downloadable app languishing invisibly on the side lines of another tech giant’s platform.

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Gaming clips service Medal has bought Donate Bot for direct donations and payments

Posted by | api, bot, computing, discord, e-commerce, freeware, Gaming, M&A, operating systems, Patreon, PayPal, Shopify, social media platforms, Software, Steam, subscription services, TC, Twitter | No Comments

The Los Angeles-based video gaming clipping service Medal has made its first acquisition as it rolls out new features to its user base.

The company has acquired the Discord -based donations and payments service Donate Bot to enable direct payments and other types of transactions directly on its site.

Now, the company is rolling out a service to any Medal user with more than 100 followers, allowing them to accept donations, subscriptions and payments directly from their clips on mobile, web, desktop and through embedded clips, according to a blog post from company founder Pim De Witte.

For now, and for at least the next year, the service will be free to Medal users — meaning the company won’t take a dime of any users’ revenue made through payments on the platform.

For users who already have a storefront up with Patreon, Shopify, Paypal.me, Streamlabs or ko-fi, Medal won’t wreck the channel — integrating with those and other payment processing systems.

Through the Donate Bot service any user with a discord server can generate a donation link, which can be customized to become more of a customer acquisition funnel for teams or gamers that sell their own merchandise.

Webhooks API gives users a way to add donors to various list or subscription services or stream overlays, and the Donate Bot is directly linked with Discord Bot List and Discord Server List as well, so you can accept donations without having to set up a website.

In addition, the company updated its social features, so clips made on Medal can ultimately be shared on social media platforms like Twitter and Discord — and the company is also integrated with Discord, Twitter and Steam in a way to encourage easier signups.

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Amazon stops selling stick-on Dash buttons

Posted by | Amazon, amazon dash, api, button, connected objects, Dash, dash button, Dash Replenishment, e-commerce, eCommerce, Gadgets, Germany, Internet of Things, IoT, voice assistant | No Comments

Amazon has confirmed it has retired physical stick-on Dash buttons from sale — in favor of virtual alternatives that let Prime Members tap a digital button to reorder a staple product.

It also points to its Dash Replenishment service — which offers an API for device makers wanting to build internet-connected appliances that can automatically reorder the products they need to function, be it cat food, batteries or washing power — as another reason why physical Dash buttons, which launched back in 2015 (costing $5 a pop), are past their sell-by date.

Amazon says “hundreds” of IoT devices capable of self-ordering on Amazon have been launched globally to date by brands including Beko, Epson, illy, Samsung and Whirlpool, to name a few.

So why press a physical button when a digital one will do? Or, indeed, why not do away with the need to push a button all and just let your gadgets rack up your grocery bill all by themselves while you get on with the importance business of consuming all the stuff they’re ordering?

You can see where Amazon wants to get to with its “so customers don’t have to think at all about restocking” line. Consumption that entirely removes the consumer’s decision-making process from the transactional loop is quite the capitalist wet dream. Though the company does need to be careful about consumer protection rules as it seeks to excise friction from the buying process.

The e-commerce behemoth also claims customers are “increasingly” using its Alexa voice assistant to reorder staples, such as via the Alexa Shopping voice shopping app (Amazon calls it “hands-free shopping”) that lets people inform the machine about a purchase intent and it will suggest items to buy based on their Amazon order history.

Albeit, it offers no actual usage metrics for Alexa Shopping. So that’s meaningless PR.

A less flashy but perhaps more popular option than “hands-free shopping,” which Amazon also says has contributed to making physical Dash buttons redundant, is its Subscribe & Save program.

This “lets customers automatically receive their favorite items every month,” as Amazon puts it. It offers an added incentive of discounts that kick in if the user signs up to buy five or more products per month. But the mainstay of the sales pitch is convenience with Amazon touting time saved by subscribing to “essentials” — and time saved from compiling boring shopping lists once again means more time to consume the stuff being bought on Amazon…

In a statement about retiring physical Dash buttons from global sale on February 28, Amazon also confirmed it will continue to support existing Dash owners — presumably until their buttons wear down to the bare circuit board from repeat use.

“Existing Dash Button customers can continue to use their Dash Button devices,” it writes. “We look forward to continuing support for our customers’ shopping needs, including growing our Dash Replenishment product line-up and expanding availability of virtual Dash Buttons.”

So farewell then clunky Dash buttons. Another physical push-button bites the dust. Though plastic-y Dash buttons were quite unlike the classic iPhone home button — always seeming temporary and experimental rather than slick and coolly reassuring. Even so, the end of both buttons points to the need for tech businesses to tool up for the next wave of contextually savvy connected devices. More smarts, and more controllable smarts is key.

Amazon’s statement about “shifting focus” for Dash does not mention potential legal risks around the buttons related to consumer rights challenges — but that’s another angle here.

In January a court in Germany ruled Dash buttons breached local e-commerce rules, following a challenge by a regional consumer watchdog that raised concerns about T&Cs that allow Amazon to substitute a product of a higher price or even a different product entirely than what the consumer had originally selected. The watchdog argued consumers should be provided with more information about price and product before taking the order — and the judges agreed — though Amazon said it would seek to appeal.

While it’s not clear whether or not that legal challenge contributed to Amazon’s decision to shutter Dash, it’s clear that virtual Dash buttons offer more opportunities for displaying additional information prior to a purchase than a screen-less physical Dash button. They also are more easily adaptable to any tightening legal requirements across different markets.

The demise of the physical Dash was reported earlier by CNET.

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Medal.tv’s clipping service allows gamers to share the moments of their digital lives

Posted by | api, Casual Game, computing, fortnite, gamer, Gaming, Initial Capital, instagram, makers fund, medal.tv, Netherlands, online gaming, Recent Funding, Ridge Ventures, Roblox, satellite imagery, serial entrepreneur, Startups, TC, Twitch, WhatsApp | No Comments

As online gaming becomes the new social forum for living out virtual lives, a new startup called Medal.tv has raised $3.5 million for its in-game clipping service to capture and share the Kodak moments and digital memories that are increasingly happening in places like Fortnite or Apex Legends.

Digital worlds like Fortnite are now far more than just a massively multiplayer gaming space. They’re places where communities form, where social conversations happen and where, increasingly, people are spending the bulk of their time online. They even host concerts — like the one from EDM artist Marshmello, which drew (according to the DJ himself) roughly 10 million players onto the platform.

While several services exist to provide clips of live streams from gamers who broadcast on platforms like Twitch, Medal.tv bills itself as the first to offer clipping services for the private games that more casual gamers play among friends and far-flung strangers around the world.

“Essentially the next generation is spending the same time inside games that we used to playing sports outside and things like that,” says Medal.tv’s co-founder and chief executive, Pim DeWitte. “It’s not possible to tell how far it will go. People will capture as many if not more moments for the reason that it’s simpler.”

The company marks a return to the world of gaming for DeWitte, a serial entrepreneur who first started coding when he was 13 years old.

Hailing from a small town in the Netherlands called Nijmegen, DeWitte first reaped the rewards of startup success with a gaming company called SoulSplit. Built on the back of his popular YouTube channel, the SoulSplit game was launched with DeWitte’s childhood friend, Iggy Harmsen, and a fellow online gamer, Josh Lipson, who came on board as SoulSplit’s chief technology officer.

At its height, SoulSplit was bringing in $1 million in revenue and employed roughly 30 people, according to interviews with DeWitte.

The company shut down in 2015 and the co-founders split up to pursue other projects. For DeWitte that meant a stint working with Doctors Without Borders on an app called MapSwipe that would use satellite imagery to better locate people in the event of a humanitarian crisis. He also helped the nonprofit develop a tablet that could be used by doctors deployed to treat Ebola outbreaks.

Then in 2017, as social gaming was becoming more popular on games like Fortnite, DeWitte and his co-founders returned to the industry to launch Medal.tv.

It initially started as a marketing tool to get people interested in playing the games that DeWitte and his co-founders were hoping to develop. But as the clipping service took off, DeWitte and co. realized they potentially had a more interesting social service on their hands.

“We were going to build a mobile app and were going to load a bunch of videos of people playing games and then we we’re going to load videos of our games,” DeWitte says. 

The service allows users to capture the last 15 seconds of gameplay using different recording mechanisms based on game type. Medal.tv captures gameplay on a device and users can opt-in to record sound as well.

It is programmed so that it only records the game,” DeWitte says. “There is no inbound connection. It only calls for the API [and] all of the things that would be somewhat dangerous from a privacy perspective are all opt-in.”

There are roughly 30,000 users on the platform every week and around 15,000 daily active users, according to DeWitte. Launched last May, the company has been growing between 5 percent and 10 percent weekly, according to DeWitte. Typically, users are sharing clips through Discord, WhatsApp and Instagram direct messages, DeWitte said.

In addition to the consumer-facing clipping service, Medal also offers a data collection service that aggregates information about the clips that are shared by Medal’s users so game developers and streamers can get a sense of how clips are being shared across which platform.

“We look at clips as a form of communication and in most activity that we see, that’s how it’s being used,” says DeWitte.

But that information is also valuable to esports organizations to determine where they need to allocate new resources.

“Medal.tv Metrics is spectacular,” said Peter Levin, chairman of the Immortals esports organization, in a statement. “With it, any gaming organization gains clear, actionable insights into the organic reach of their content, and can build a roadmap to increase it in a measurable way.”

The activity that Medal was seeing was impressive enough to attract the attention of investors led by Backed VC and Initial Capital. Ridge Ventures, Makers Fund and Social Starts participated in the company’s $3.5 million round as well, with Alex Brunicki, a founding partner at Backed, and Matteo Vallone, principal at Initial, joining the company’s board.

“Emerging generations are experiencing moments inside games the same way we used to with sports and festivals growing up. Digital and physical identity are merging and the technology for gamers hasn’t evolved to support that,” said Brunicki in a statement.

Medal’s platform works with games like Apex Legends, Fortnite, Roblox, Minecraft and Oldschool Runescape (where DeWitte first cut his teeth in gaming).

“Friends are the main driver of game discovery, and game developers benefit from shareable games as a result. Medal.tv is trying to enable that without the complexity of streaming,” said Vallone, who previously headed up games for Google Play Europe, and now sits on the Medal board. 

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Lenovo Watch X was riddled with security bugs, researcher says

Posted by | api, Bluetooth, China, computer security, computing, encryption, Gadgets, lenovo, Password, smartwatches, spokesperson, Wearables, web server, Zhongguancun | No Comments

Lenovo’s Watch X was widely panned as “absolutely terrible.” As it turns out, so was its security.

The low-end $50 smartwatch was one of Lenovo’s cheapest smartwatches. Available only for the China market, anyone who wants one has to buy one directly from the mainland. Lucky for Erez Yalon, head of security research at Checkmarx, an application security testing company, he was given one from a friend. But it didn’t take him long to find several vulnerabilities that allowed him to change user’s passwords, hijack accounts and spoof phone calls.

Because the smartwatch wasn’t using any encryption to send data from the app to the server, Yalon said he was able to see his registered email address and password sent in plain text, as well as data about how he was using the watch, like how many steps he was taking.

“The entire API was unencrypted,” said Yalon in an email to TechCrunch. “All data was transferred in plain-text.”

The API that helps power the watch was easily abused, he found, allowing him to reset anyone’s password simply by knowing a person’s username. That could’ve given him access to anyone’s account, he said.

Not only that, he found that the watch was sharing his precise geolocation with a server in China. Given the watch’s exclusivity to China, it might not be a red flag to natives. But Yalon said the watch had “already pinpointed my location” before he had even registered his account.

Yalon’s research wasn’t just limited to the leaky API. He found that the Bluetooth-enabled smartwatch could also be manipulated from nearby, by sending crafted Bluetooth requests. Using a small script, he demonstrated how easy it was to spoof a phone call on the watch.

Using a similar malicious Bluetooth command, he could also set the alarm to go off — again and again. “The function allows adding multiple alarms, as often as every minute,” he said.

Lenovo didn’t have much to say about the vulnerabilities, besides confirming their existence.

“The Watch X was designed for the China market and is only available from Lenovo to limited sales channels in China,” said spokesperson Andrew Barron. “Our [security team] team has been working with the [original device manufacturer] that makes the watch to address the vulnerabilities identified by a researcher and all fixes are due to be completed this week.”

Yalon said that encrypting the traffic between the watch, the Android app and its web server would prevent snooping and help reduce manipulation.

“Fixing the API permissions eliminates the ability of malicious users to send commands to the watch, spoof calls, and set alarms,” he said.

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FanAI buys Waypoint Media to better track fan engagement for streaming monetization

Posted by | api, esports, FanAI, Gaming, Internet, M&A, New York, online platforms, TC, Twitch, twitch tv, video hosting, Waypoint, world wide web | No Comments

FanAI, an audience analysis platform for esports and streaming, is buying New York-based Waypoint Media to improve its analytics tools for esports players and streamers.

The deal means that Waypoint’s Twitch Middleware API and the “Raven” tracking and URL shortener will be added to FanAI’s product portfolio. The middleware tech has the ability to track every unique registered Twitch viewer so streamers can monitor average watch time, median watch time and channel engagement.

Financial terms were not disclosed, but a person with knowledge of the deal called the acquisition a significant all-cash transaction. That likely means a nice outcome for Waypoint’s backers, the New York-based investment firm Grand Central Tech.

FanAI founder and CEO Johannes Waldstein said of the acquisition, “The way they are able to turn billions of data points into workable information is like nothing else available on the market. We will be able to provide a deeper look at audiences with the new tools and having someone like Kevin join us will cement the FanAI services at the top of the industry.”

Using the Raven URL shortener, FanAI customers can follow the ways in which users browse on online platforms, the company said in a statement.

As part of the acquisition, Waypoint’s chief product officer Kevin Hsu joins FanAI as head of Engineering, the company said.

“Combining forces with FanAI is a perfect fit; we work with the same client base and have complementary solutions to the same problem. Traditionally, FanAI has focused on more static information including social and purchasing data, while Waypoint worked to gather digital movements of the audience. Combined, we can provide the best service by giving access to even more detailed and actionable data for clients,” said Hsu, in a statement.

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