Apps

Apple Business Chat drives in-seat drink ordering at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland

Posted by | Apple, Apple Business Chat, Apps, chatbots, imessage, Mobile | No Comments

With LeBron James hundreds of miles west plying his trade for the Los Angeles Lakers these days, Cleveland Cavalier fans haven’t had a lot to cheer about this season — but Aramark (the stadium food and beverage vendor) and the Cavs have teamed up with Apple Business Chat to let fans order drinks right from their seats.

It’s a nifty system, first introduced to Phillies fans last summer. In this iteration, Cleveland fans can access a menu, order drinks and get them delivered directly to their seats using iMessage on their iPhones.

You start by opening the Camera app and scanning the QR code on your seat back. That brings up a prompt in Messages to “Hit send to start your order.” From there, you can interact with the order bot to order your beverages. To make it easier, you access a menu and make your selections.

When you’re finished, the bot prompts you for your seat number. You pay for your order with Apple Pay, and the beverages will be delivered directly to you without having to miss any of the game action.

It’s not clear how long you have to wait for the drinks to be delivered, but it beats standing in long lines and brings an entirely digital ordering process to fans. Kevin Kearney, district manager for Aramark’s Sports and Entertainment division, sees this as a way to integrate the mobile experience into the fan experience at the game in a highly accessible way.

“The integration of Apple Business Chat with the ordering process is not only fan-friendly and easily accessible, it’s reflective of fans’ changing expectations and behaviors and we’re looking forward to Cavs and Monsters (Cleveland’s AHL affiliate) fans giving it a try,” Kearney said in a statement.

The program is being piloted for the remainder of the season as the teams and Aramark see how the process works and how fans like using it. It may not take away the sting of LeBron leaving town, but it is a convenient way to get drinks while taking in a game.

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CoParenter helps divorced parents settle disputes using AI and human mediation

Posted by | AI, android apps, Apps, artifical intelligence, artificial intelligence, children, divorce, iOS apps, kids, Mobile, parenting, parents, Startups | No Comments

A former judge and family law educator has teamed up with tech entrepreneurs to launch an app they hope will help divorced parents better manage their co-parenting disputes, communications, shared calendar and other decisions within a single platform. The app, called coParenter, aims to be more comprehensive than its competitors, while also leveraging a combination of AI technology and on-demand human interaction to help co-parents navigate high-conflict situations.

The idea for coParenter emerged from co-founder Hon. Sherrill A. Ellsworth’s personal experience and entrepreneur Jonathan Verk, who had been through a divorce himself.

Ellsworth had been a presiding judge of the Superior Court in Riverside County, California for 20 years and a family law educator for 10. During this time, she saw firsthand how families were destroyed by today’s legal system.

“I witnessed countless families torn apart as they slogged through the family law system. I saw how families would battle over the simplest of disagreements like where their child will go to school, what doctor they should see and what their diet should be — all matters that belong at home, not in a courtroom,” she says.

Ellsworth also notes that 80 percent of the disagreements presented in the courtroom didn’t even require legal intervention — but most of the cases she presided over involved parents asking the judge to make the co-parenting decision.

As she came to the end of her career, she began to realize the legal system just wasn’t built for these sorts of situations.

She then met Jonathan Verk, previously EVP Strategic Partnerships at Shazam and now coParenter CEO. Verk had just divorced and had an idea about how technology could help make the co-parenting process easier. He already had on board his longtime friend and serial entrepreneur Eric Weiss, now COO, to help build the system. But he needed someone with legal expertise.

That’s how coParenter was born.

The app, also built by CTO Niels Hansen, today exists alongside a whole host of other tools built for different aspects of the co-parenting process.

That includes those apps designed to document communication, like OurFamilyWizard, Talking Parents, AppClose and Divvito Messenger; those for sharing calendars, like Custody Connection, Custody X Exchange and Alimentor; and even those that offer a combination of features like WeParent, 2houses, SmartCoparent and Fayr, among others.

But the team at coParenter argues that their app covers all aspects of co-parenting, including communication, documentation, calendar and schedule sharing, location-based tools for pickup and drop-off logging, expense tracking and reimbursements, schedule change requests, tools for making decisions on day-to-day parenting choices like haircuts, diet, allowance, use of media, etc. and more.

Notably, coParenter also offers a “solo mode” — meaning you can use the app even if the other co-parent refuses to do the same. This is a key feature that many rival apps lack.

However, the biggest differentiator is how coParenter puts a mediator of sorts in your pocket.

The app begins by using AI, machine learning and sentiment analysis technology to keep conversations civil. The tech will jump in to flag curse words, inflammatory phrases and offensive names to keep a heated conversation from escalating — much like a human mediator would do when trying to calm two warring parties.

When conversations take a bad turn, the app will pop up a warning message that asks the parent if they’re sure they want to use that term, allowing them time to pause and think. (If only social media platforms had built features like this!)

 

When parents need more assistance, they can opt to use the app instead of turning to lawyers.

The company offers on-demand access to professionals as both monthly ($12.99/mo – 20 credits, or enough for two mediations) or yearly ($119.99/year – 240 credits) subscriptions. Both parents can subscribe for $199.99/year, each receiving 240 credits.

“Comparatively, an average hour with a lawyer costs between $250 and upwards of $500, just to file a single motion,” Ellsworth says.

These professionals are not mediators, but are licensed in their respective fields — typically family law attorneys, therapists, social workers or other retired bench officers with strong conflict resolution backgrounds. Ellsworth oversees the professionals to ensure they have the proper guidance.

All communication between the parent and the professional is considered confidential and not subject to admission as evidence, as the goal is to stay out of the courts. However, all the history and documentation elsewhere in the app can be used in court, if the parents do end up there.

The app has been in beta for nearly a year, and officially launched this January. To date, coParenter claims it has already helped to resolve more than 4,000 disputes and more than 2,000 co-parents have used it for scheduling. Indeed, 81 percent of the disputing parents resolved all their issues in the app, without needing a professional mediator or legal professional, the company says.

CoParenter is available on both iOS and Android.

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Huawei has built an Android alternative in case US tensions increase

Posted by | Android, Apps, Google, huawei | No Comments

Tensions between the U.S. and Huawei show no sign of easing. Last week, the electronics giant announced that it has filed a lawsuit against the government over an “unconstitutional” ban on its products. Meanwhile, earlier this week, the U.S. threatened German intelligence over the country’s use of Huawei 5G products.

The company has understandably been prepping for a further downturn in relations by building its own in-house alternative to Android. The backup was noted by Huawei mobile head Richard Yu, following a year of rumors around the mobile OS.

“We have prepared our own operating system; if it turns out we can no longer use [Android], we will be ready and have our plan B,” the exec said.

Huawei began building the software in earnest after a U.S. ban on ZTE. The use of software and hardware from U.S. companies like Google and Qualcomm in Chinese smartphones has led to increasing tariffs on both sides.

In addition to concerns over ties to the Chinese government, Huawei has also been hit over its alleged skirting of Iranian tariffs. That landed the company’s CFO Meng Wanzhou in a Canadian jail. Of course, all of this hasn’t slowed Huawei’s global growth. The company saw a 50 percent jump in revenue in spite of mounting concerns.

We’ve reached out to Huawei for further confirmation.

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YouTube Music and YouTube Premium come to India

Posted by | Apps, india, Media, Mobile, Music, streaming music, streaming service, YouTube, YouTube Music, YouTube Premium | No Comments

YouTube Music is coming to the next critical battlefield for streaming music services: India. The company announced this week it’s launching its ad-supported version of YouTube Music for free in the country, as well as YouTube Music Premium, its subscription that offers background listening, offline downloads and an ad-free experience for ₹99 a month.

In addition, YouTube Premium, which extends offline play, background listening and the removal of ads across YouTube, is also launching in India. This will include access to YouTube Original programming like Cobra Kai, BTS: Burn The Stage and others, and ships with the Music Premium subscription for ₹129 (rupees) per month.

This is not Google’s first entry into the streaming music market in India. The company already operates Google Play Music — and now, those subscribers will gain access to YouTube Music as part of their subscription, the company says.

India is a key market for streaming services because of its sizable population of 1.3 billion people, many of whom are still coming online for the first time. (Only some 483 million are active internet users today).

Already, Apple and Amazon operate their music services in the region in addition to local players like Gaana, Saavn and others. Spotify also made an India launch a strategic focus this year.

However, Spotify’s entry into India has been complicated by a licensing dispute with Warner Music (WMG’s Warner/Chappell publishing arm, specifically). That conflict led to Spotify arriving in the market without some of today’s biggest artists, like Cardi B. and Ed Sheeran. The case has been ugly: Warner sued Spotify asking for an emergency injunction; Spotify then accused Warner of “abusive behavior;” and Warner called Spotify a “liar.”

Despite its legal troubles, Spotify hit 1 million users in India within a week of launching. That bodes well for its potential when it gets through the legal battles.

Unlike Spotify, YouTube Music is fully licensed as it enters the region — a potential competitive advantage for the time being. It also has a deal with Samsung where Galaxy S10 owners can gain four months of YouTube Premium/YouTube Music Premium for free. (But Spotify has a deeper Samsung partnership, involving preinstalls and Bixby integrations.)

For YouTube, a win in India is needed, as its streaming music service hasn’t picked up traction to date.

To some extent, that’s because YouTube users know they can get to music videos for free, but it also has to do with Google’s baffling strategy in operating two separate brands around music. Apple doesn’t make this mistake. It leverages the power of its platform to promote its only music service, Apple Music.

That may have gotten it into trouble, though — today, Spotify filed a complaint with the European Commission over the “Apple tax” levied on its rivals and its restrictive rules.

Google has said it plans to merge its two music services at some point, but for now the split likely leads to confusion.

“India is where the multi-lingual music scene thrives,” said Lyor Cohen, global head of Music, YouTube, in a statement. “It’s interesting to note how Indian artists have consistently claimed top spots over the last few months in the Global YouTube Top Artists chart. With YouTube Music, we are hoping to bring the best in global and Indian music to millions of fans across India, and give them an immersive music experience, with the magic of music on YouTube,” he added.

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TwitSnap? Twitter launches new camera feature to demote text

Posted by | Apps, Media, Mobile, Snapchat, Social, TC | No Comments

Twitter is rolling out the redesign to its camera feature TechCrunch reported on a month ago that’s designed to let you capture photos, videos and live footage and connect them to global conversations. Starting today, when you swipe left from the Twitter timeline, you’ll get the new camera that’s no longer buried in the tweet composer. After you capture some media (no uploads for now), you can overlay a location, hashtag or some words on a colored label. But what’s really special is that Twitter will show this media in a larger, more immersive format in the feed with the imagery appearing before the text in your tweet.

Twitter isn’t launching Stories or some dedicated feed of photos to rival Instagram. But it wants to become a more real-time lens on the world rather than just an interpretation of it through people’s words. The enhanced camera could get more people shooting media, which could make Twitter more accessible to new users daunted by walls of text. More visual content also makes it easier to slip more visual ads into the feed.

See it? Tweet it! Our updated camera is just a swipe away, so you get the shot fast. Rolling out to all of you over the next few days. pic.twitter.com/moOEFO2nQq

— Twitter (@Twitter) March 13, 2019

Twitter tells me it’s not giving tweets created with the camera an algorithmic boost in the main timeline. But a spokesperson told me its combined human and technology curation team may seek to spotlight Twitter Camera tweets in the Whats Happening section about live events in the Explore tab. We’ll see if media organizations and brands try to take advantage of the new camera to stand out in the feed.

When you swipe left on the timeline, you’ll see a Snapchat-style camera shutter button that records photos with a tap and looping videos up to two minutes long if you hold. A mini-swipe over and you can record video or audio-only live broadcasts without any Periscope branding (will that app just become Twitter Live?). Twitter will then recommend hashtags based on big nearby events and other signals, or you can add your own as well as a location and text. You can choose between six colors for the TV news-style chyron overlayed on those tags that help Twitter route the content into the imagery carousels for its different What’s Happening sections.

For now, there are no stickers, filters, light enhancements or other creative tools in the Twitter camera the way there is in the image uploader in the tweet composer (which conveniently also hosts a shortcut to the new camera). Twitter tells me it wants to focus on tags that will pipe content into the right conversations instead of beautifying the media. That’s a different tack than YouTube, which just started rolling out augmented reality face filters.

Historically, Twitter has been extremely slow to launch product changes for fear of disturbing its long-time loyalists. But Twitter tells me it’s turning over a new leaf and pushing the new camera out the door even with rough edges so it can start getting feedback and iterating. That’s much closer to how Facebook builds than the Twitter we’re used to. The move aligns with the recent release of Twitter’s beta prototype app twttr that launched this week. Twitter seems to finally understand that waiting to perfect each feature and being scared to experiment has left Twitter behind its rivals.

People who love Twitter can’t find the same hellscape of constant conversation anywhere else, and the new camera probably won’t change that. But shifting toward visual communication without debasing itself to chase the Stories trend could make Twitter more comfortable for a world that increasingly talks through images.

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Blind users can now explore photos by touch with Microsoft’s Seeing AI

Posted by | accessibility, Apps, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, Blindness, Computer Vision, Disabilities, machine learning, Microsoft, Mobile | No Comments

Microsoft’s Seeing AI is an app that lets blind and limited-vision folks convert visual data into audio feedback, and it just got a useful new feature. Users can now use touch to explore the objects and people in photos.

It’s powered by machine learning, of course, specifically object and scene recognition. All you need to do is take a photo or open one up in the viewer and tap anywhere on it.

“This new feature enables users to tap their finger to an image on a touch-screen to hear a description of objects within an image and the spatial relationship between them,” wrote Seeing AI lead Saqib Shaikh in a blog post. “The app can even describe the physical appearance of people and predict their mood.”

Because there’s facial recognition built in as well, you could very well take a picture of your friends and hear who’s doing what and where, and whether there’s a dog in the picture (important) and so on. This was possible on an image-wide scale already, as you can see in this image:

But the app now lets users tap around to find where objects are — obviously important to understanding the picture or recognizing it from before. Other details that may not have made it into the overall description may also appear on closer inspection, such as flowers in the foreground or a movie poster in the background.

In addition to this, the app now natively supports the iPad, which is certainly going to be nice for the many people who use Apple’s tablets as their primary interface for media and interactions. Lastly, there are a few improvements to the interface so users can order things in the app to their preference.

Seeing AI is free — you can download it for iOS devices here.

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Google’s new voice recognition system works instantly and offline (if you have a Pixel)

Posted by | Apps, artificial intelligence, Gadgets, gboard, Google, Mobile, natural language processing, nlp, Speech Recognition | No Comments

Voice recognition is a standard part of the smartphone package these days, and a corresponding part is the delay while you wait for Siri, Alexa or Google to return your query, either correctly interpreted or horribly mangled. Google’s latest speech recognition works entirely offline, eliminating that delay altogether — though of course mangling is still an option.

The delay occurs because your voice, or some data derived from it anyway, has to travel from your phone to the servers of whoever operates the service, where it is analyzed and sent back a short time later. This can take anywhere from a handful of milliseconds to multiple entire seconds (what a nightmare!), or longer if your packets get lost in the ether.

Why not just do the voice recognition on the device? There’s nothing these companies would like more, but turning voice into text on the order of milliseconds takes quite a bit of computing power. It’s not just about hearing a sound and writing a word — understanding what someone is saying word by word involves a whole lot of context about language and intention.

Your phone could do it, for sure, but it wouldn’t be much faster than sending it off to the cloud, and it would eat up your battery. But steady advancements in the field have made it plausible to do so, and Google’s latest product makes it available to anyone with a Pixel.

Google’s work on the topic, documented in a paper here, built on previous advances to create a model small and efficient enough to fit on a phone (it’s 80 megabytes, if you’re curious), but capable of hearing and transcribing speech as you say it. No need to wait until you’ve finished a sentence to think whether you meant “their” or “there” — it figures it out on the fly.

So what’s the catch? Well, it only works in Gboard, Google’s keyboard app, and it only works on Pixels, and it only works in American English. So in a way this is just kind of a stress test for the real thing.

“Given the trends in the industry, with the convergence of specialized hardware and algorithmic improvements, we are hopeful that the techniques presented here can soon be adopted in more languages and across broader domains of application,” writes Google, as if it is the trends that need to do the hard work of localization.

Making speech recognition more responsive, and to have it work offline, is a nice development. But it’s sort of funny considering hardly any of Google’s other products work offline. Are you going to dictate into a shared document while you’re offline? Write an email? Ask for a conversion between liters and cups? You’re going to need a connection for that! Of course this will also be better on slow and spotty connections, but you have to admit it’s a little ironic.

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Instagram founders say losing autonomy at Facebook meant “winning”

Posted by | anti-trust, Apps, elizabeth warren, Facebook, instagram, Kevin Systrom, M&A, mike krieger, Mobile, Policy, regulation, Social, SXSW, TC | No Comments

Rather than be sore about losing independence within Facebook, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom told me it was an inevitable sign of his app’s triumph. Today at South By South West, Systrom and fellow co-founder Mike Krieger sat down for their first on-stage talk together since leaving Facebook in September. They discussed their super hero origin stories, authenticity on social media, looming regulation for big tech, and how they’re exploring what they’ll do next.

Krieger grew up hitting “view source” on websites while Systrom hacked on AOL booter programs that would kick people off instant messenger, teaching both how code could impact real people. As Instagram grew popular, Krieger described the “incredi-bad” feeling of fighting server fires and trying to keep the widely loved app online even if that meant programming in the middle of a sushi restaurant or camping retreat. He once even revived Instagram while drunk in the middle of the night, and woke up with no memory of the feat, confused about who’d fixed the problem. The former Instagram CTO implored founders not to fall into the “recruiting death spiral” where you’re too busy to recruit which makes you busier which makes you too busy to recruit…

But thankfully, the founders were also willing to dig into some tougher topics than their scrappy startup days.

Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger (from left) drive to Palo Alto to raise their Series A, circa January 2011

Independence vs Importance.

“In some ways, there being less autonomy is a function of Instagram winning. If Instagram had just been this niche photo app for photographers, we probably would be working on that app for 20 year. Instead what happened was it got better and better and better, and it improved, and it got to a size where it was meaningfully important to this company” Systrom explained. “If this thing gets to that scale that we want it to get to which is why we’re doing this deal, the autonomy will eventually not be there as much because it’s so important. So in some ways it’s just an unavoidable thing if you’re successful. So you can choose, do you want to be unsuccessful and small and have all the autonomy in the world, or no?”

AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 11: Mike Krieger speaks onstage at Interactive Keynote: Instagram Founders Kevin Systrom & Mike Krieger with Josh Constine during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin Convention Center on March 11, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW)

Krieger followed up that “I think if you study . . . all the current companies, the ones that succeed internally eventually have become so important to the acquiring company that it’s almost irresponsible to not be thinking about what are the right models for integration. The advice I generally give is, ‘are you okay with that if you succeed?’ And if you’re not then you shouldn’t do the deal.” If the loss of autonomy can’t be avoided, they suggest selling to a rocket ship that will invest in and care for your baby rather than shift priorities.

Asked if seeing his net worth ever feels surreal, Systrom said  money doesn’t make you happy and “I don’t really wake up in the morning and look at my bank account.” I noted that’s the convenient privilege of having a big one.

The pair threw cold water on the idea that being forced to earn more money drove them out of the company. “I remember having this series of conversations with Mark and other folks at Facebook and they’re like ‘You guys just joined, do not worry about monetization, we’ll figure this out down the road.’ And it actually came a lot more from us saying “1. It’s important for us to be contributing to the overall Fb Inc . . . and 2. Each person who joins before you have ads is a person you’re going to have to introduce ads to.” Systrom added that “to be clear, we were the ones pushing monetization, not the other way around, because we believed Instagram has to make money somehow. It costs a lot to run . . . We pushed hard on it so that we would be a successful unit within Facebook and I think we got to that point, which is really good.”

But from 2015 to 2016, Instagram’s remaining independence fueled a reinvention of its app with non-square photos, the shift to the algorithm, and the launch of Stories. On having to challenge the fundamental assumptions of a business, “You’ve got maybe a couple years of relevance when you build a product. If you don’t reinvent it every quarter or every year, then you fall out of relevance and you go away.”

That last launch was inspired by wanting to offer prismatic identity where people could share non-highlights that wouldn’t haunt them. But also, Systrom admits that “Honestly a big reason why was that for a long time, people’s profiles were filled with Snapchat links and it was clear that people were trying to bridge the two products. So by bringing the two products [Feed and Stories] into one place, we gave consumers what they wanted.” Though when I asked anyone in the crowd who was still mad about the algorithm to hiss, SXSW turned into a snake pit.

Regulating Big Tech

With Systrom and Krieger gone, Facebook is moving forward with plans to more tightly integrate Instagram with Facebook and WhatsApp. That includes unifying their messaging system, which some say is designed to make Facebook’s apps harder to break up with anti-trust regulation. What does Systrom think of the integration? “The more people that are available to talk with, the more useful the platform becomes. And I buy that thesis . . . Whether or not they will in fact want to talk to people on different platforms, I can’t tell the future, so I don’t know” Systrom said.

AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 11: Josh Constine, Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom speak onstage at Interactive Keynote: Instagram Founders Kevin Systrom & Mike Krieger with Josh Constine during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin Convention Center on March 11, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW)

Krieger recommended Facebook try to prove users want that cross-app messaging before embarking on a giant engineering challenge of merging their backends. When I asked if Systrom ever had a burning desire to Instagram Direct message a WhatsApp user, he admitted “Personally, no.” But in a show of respect and solid media training, he told his former employer “Bravo for making a big bet and going for it.”

Then it was time for the hardest hitting question: their thoughts on Presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to regulate big tech and roll back Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram. “Do we get our job back?” Systrom joked, trying to diffuse the tension. Krieger urged more consideration of downstream externalities, and specificity on what problem a break up fixes. He wants differentiation between regulating Facebook’s acquisitions, Amazon white-labeling and selling products, and Apple’s right to run the only iOS App Store.

Acquisition vs Competition

“We live in a time where I think the anger against big tech has increased ten-fold — whether that’s because the property prices in your neighborhood have gone up, whether it’s because you don’t like Russian meddling in elections — there are a long list of reasons people are angry at tech right now and some of them I think are well-founded” Systrom confirmed. “That doesn’t mean that the answer is to break all the companies up. Breaking companies up is a very specific prescription for a very specific problem. If you want to fix economic issues there are ways of doing that. If you want to fix Russian meddling there are ways of doing that. Breaking up a company doesn’t fix those problems. That doesn’t mean that companies shouldn’t be broken up if they get too big and they’re monopolies and they cause problems, but being big in and of itself is not a crime.”

attends Interactive Keynote: Instagram Founders Kevin Systrom & Mike Krieger with Josh Constine during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin Convention Center on March 11, 2019 in Austin, Texas

Systrom then took a jab at Warren’s tech literacy, saying “part of what’s surprised me is that generally the policy is all tech should be broken up, and that feels to me again not nuanced enough and it shows me that the understanding of the problem isn’t there. I think it’s going to take a more nuanced proposal, but my fear is that something like a proposal to break up all tech is playing on everyone’s current feeling of anti-tech rather than doing what I think politicians should do which is address real problems and give real solutions.”

The two founders then gave some pretty spurious logic for why Instagram’s acquisition helped consumers. “As someone who ran the company for how many years inside of Facebook? Six? There was a lot of competition internally even and I think better ideas came out because of it. We grew both companies not just one company. It’s really hard question. What consumer was damaged because it grew to the size that it did? I think that’s a strong argument that in fact the acquisition worked out for consumers.” That ignores the fact that if Instagram and Facebook were rivals, they’d have to compete on privacy and treating their users well. Even if they inspired each other to build more engaging products, that doesn’t address where harm to consumers has been done.

Krieger suggested that the acquisition actually spurred competition by making Instagram a role modeI. “There was a gold rush of companies being like ‘I’m going to be the Instagram of X . . . the Instagram of Audio, the Instagram of video, the Instagram of dog photos.’ You saw people start new companies and try to build them out in order to try to achieve what we’ve gotten to.” Yet no startup besides Snapchat, which had already launched, has actually grown to rival Instagram. And seeing Instagram hold its own against the Facebook empire would have likely inspired many more startups — some of which can’t find funding since investors doubt their odds against a combined Facebook and Instagram

As for what’s next for the college buddies, “we’re giving ourselves the time to get curious about things again” Krieger says. They’re still exploring so there was no big reveal about their follow-up venture. But Systrom says they built Instagram by finding the mega-trend of cameras on phones and asking what they’d want to use, “and the question is, what’s the next wave?”

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UK military veteran launches crowd-funding for Pixie app to revive local stores

Posted by | Apps, crowdcube, Crowdfunding, Europe, funding, iZettle, mastercard, Mobile, payments, pixie, Startups, sumup, TC, Worldpay | No Comments

What if, instead of sitting on your phone on the sofa ordering stuff from Amazon, you could buy the same things locally from local stores that ultimately enliven and enrich your local neighborhood? What if by doing that, you wouldn’t be walking through deserted main streets, past boarded-up shops, dark alleys and graffiti? What if someone created a marketplace for independent businesses, local events and experiences that kept the money in the local economy rather than being siphoned off into global giants who don’t care about human-scale communities?

That’s the idea behind Pixie, a new take on the “shop-local app” startup model which, although it’s been tried before, has never quite managed to take off. Perhaps Pixie will have more luck?

Here’s how it works: The Pixie app connects people to independent businesses through a curated marketplace, incentivizing them to pay through the app and get rewarded for being loyal customers. Integrated into the app is Pixie Pay, a bespoke payment solution which keeps money in local hands.

The startup has a fascinating background. Whilst serving in the British Special Forces, Pixie’s founder Greg Barden understood that his mission was also to ‘win hearts and minds’ with the local population. Whether by buying bread from the local baker in a village in Afghanistan, or coffee from the market in Baghdad, he and his soldiers could tear down even the most hostile barriers.

He also realized that when more money stayed inside these the local economies rather than being sucked away by organized crime or large scale, globalized businesses, the local economy might flourish and the risk of the societies there becoming yet again destabilized could potentially diminish.

“Whether it was stalls in the bazaars of Baghdad or small boutiques on Bath high-street, I realized independent shop owners are linchpins in their community. They add variety to the mundane and nurture community spirit. Even local guardians need protecting sometimes, which is why we created Pixie.”

The threat to independent stores from globalization and digitization isn’t just happening in Afghanistan. Across the western world, ‘Main Street’ stores are closing at a prodigious rate. In the UK over 1,500 local stores closed in 2018. (And that was BEFORE Brexit…)

Pixie has stress-tested its idea in mid-sized town in the UK, including Bath, Frome and Sherbourne, completing transactions across 250 businesses, ranging from cafes to fashion boutiques, and spinning up 5,000 app users. It’s now going on the fund-raising trail, aiming to raise £500,000 in funding through its ‘Equity for Explorers’ campaign on Crowdcube a UK-based crowd-equity platform. The total addressable market for independent business in the UK is estimated to be £31.5bn in gross transactional value.

Barden — who last year spoke about his startup life at the launch of the military tech non-profit TechVets — says: “There might be thousands of independent businesses across the UK, but at the rate the high-street is disappearing they are severely under threat. Pixie isn’t here to turn people away from the bigger players on the high-street, but create opportunities for enriching discovery. Needless to say, in a world with increasing nationalism, Brexit, Trump and — dare I say it — Amazon, we feel Pixie has a huge part to play in countering the worst aspects of globalization.”

Pixie’s revenue comes from transaction fees taken when people use its ‘Pixie Pay’ payment mechanism. The payment system is designed to bypass Visa/Mastercard at the point of sale, whilst the loyalty scheme unites independent businesses under one umbrella, so the users can earn and spend their loyalty points (as money) across the entire Pixie community. If a store using Pixie is in Australia, a person from Bath could also use their points there. This keeps the money circulating inside local, independent stores, wherever they are on the planet.

Pixie distributes its own payment terminal that sits next to whatever the business has in place to take normal card payments (iZettle etc). The cards are contactless but don’t utilise visa MasterCard. It’s literally their own e-money system. Think PayPal where users can either add money to their balance by debit card or bank and/or link a debit card to Pixie if they don’t have a balance.

Obviously this also creates it an alternative to competitors like iZettle, Square, SumUp and WorldPay, but this time specifically aimed at local independent stores, not huge national and international chains.

The third element of Pixie is its discovery marketplace that gives its community of explorers (users) the ability to discover local businesses across the Pixie footprint of stores.

I’ve seen several startups try and tackle this problem, but it may well be that Pixie, under its charismatic leader, finally has a shot at cracking this idea around local markets.

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Digital publisher Serial Box raises $4.5M

Posted by | Apps, Boat Rocker Media, Entertainment, forerunner ventures, funding, Media, Mobile, Serial Box, Startups, Uzabase | No Comments

Serial Box, a startup bringing back the tradition of serialized fiction, has raised $4.5 million in seed funding.

The company actually disclosed the funding last week when announcing a partnership to produce stories about Marvel characters, but it’s sharing more details about the round — namely, the fact that it was led by Boat Rocker Media, with participation from Forerunner Ventures, 2929 Entertainment co-founder Todd Wagner and Japanese business intelligence and media firm Uzabase.

“We carefully chose trusted partners for this round of investment,” said co-founder and CEO Molly Barton in a statement. “They see the big opportunity that we do to retool reading for the smartphone age, to take the best elements of traditional book publishing and innovate with influences from the audio, podcast, gaming and TV industries.”

Serial Box publishes stories in text and audio format, broken up into weekly episodes. The first episode of each story is free — then if you’re hooked, you can pay $1.99 for additional episodes or sign up for a season pass.

The idea of making readers and listeners wait for the next chapter of the story may seem strange. Hasn’t Netflix trained us to want to binge the full season, as soon as possible? Maybe, but anyone who has watched “Game of Thrones” week-to-week knows that there’s still immense pleasure in waiting for smaller chunks of the larger story.

Behind the scenes, the company is borrowing from the TV production model, with a showrunner leading each writing time creating the stories. Serial Box writers include popular YA/science fiction/fantasy authors Gwenda Bond, Yoon Ha Lee, Max Gladstone and Becky Chambers. And, as mentioned, the company will also be publishing stories based on Marvel characters, starting with Thor.

The company says it will launch its Android app next week, with plans for more product upgrades and content partnerships in the coming months.

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