Messenger

TikTok tops 2 billion downloads

Posted by | Android, Apple, Apps, bytedance, China, Code Against COVID-19, Facebook, Google Play Store, instagram, Media, Messenger, Mobile, Social, tiktok, WhatsApp | No Comments

TikTok, the widely popular video sharing app developed by one of the world’s most valued startups (ByteDance), continues to grow rapidly despite suspicion from the U.S. as more people look for ways to keep themselves entertained amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The global app and its Chinese version, called Douyin, have amassed over 2 billion downloads on Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store, mobile insight firm Sensor Tower said Wednesday.

TikTok is the first app after Facebook’s marquee app, WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger to break past the 2 billion downloads figure since January 1 of 2014, a Sensor Tower official told TechCrunch. (Sensor Tower began its app analysis on that date.)

A number of apps from Google, the developer of Android, including Gmail and YouTube, have amassed over 5 billion downloads, but they ship pre-installed on most Android smartphones and tables.

TikTok’s 2 billion download milestone, a key metric to assess an app’s growth, comes five months after it surpassed 1.5 billion downloads.

In the quarter that ended on March 31, TikTok was downloaded 315 million times — the highest number of downloads for any app in a quarter and — surpassing its previous best of 205.7 million downloads in Q4 2018. Facebook’s WhatsApp, the second most popular app by volume of downloads, amassed nearly 250 million downloads in Q1 this year, Sensor Tower told TechCrunch.

As the app gains popularity, it is also clocking more revenue. Users have spent about $456.7 million on TikTok to date, up from $175 million five months ago. Much of this spending — about 72.3% — has happened in China. Users in the United States have spent about $86.5 million on the app, making the nation the second most important market for TikTok from the revenue standpoint.

Craig Chapple, a strategist at Sensor Tower, said that not all the downloads are as organic as TikTok, which launched outside of China in 2017 and has engaged in a “large user acquisition campaign.” But he attributed some of the surge in downloads to the COVID-19 outbreak that has driven more people than ever to look for new apps.

India, TikTok’s largest international market, accounts for 30.3% of the app’s downloads, according to Sensor Tower. The app has been downloaded 611 million times in the world’s second largest internet market.

From a platform’s standpoint, 75.5% of all of TikTok’s downloads have occurred through Google Play Store. But the vast majority of spending has come from users on Apple’s ecosystem ($435.3 million of $456 million).

TikTok’s parent firm ByteDance, which was valued at $75 billion two years ago, counts Bank of China, Bank of America, Barclays Bank, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, UBS, SoftBank Group, General Atlantic, and Sequoia Capital China among some of its investors.

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Facebook to launch ‘virtual dating’ over Messenger for Facebook Dating users

Posted by | bumble, coronavirus, COVID-19, dating, eharmony, Facebook, Facebook Dating, Hinge, IAC, Match Group, Messenger, Mobile, operating systems, Social, social media, social network, Software, TC, Tinder, Video, video dating, world wide web | No Comments

Facebook will soon allow users to go on “virtual dates,” the company announced today. The social network is planning to introduce a new video calling feature that will allow users of its Facebook Dating service to connect and video call over Messenger, as an alternative to going on a real-world date. This sort of feature is much in demand amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced people to stay home and practice social distancing.

But for online dating apps, which aim to connect people in the real world, it’s a significant challenge for their business.

For the time being, government lockdowns have limited the places where online daters could meet up for their first date. Restaurants, malls, bars and other retail establishments are closed across regions impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. But even when those restrictions lift, many online dating app users will be wary of meeting up with strangers for those first-time, getting-to-know-you dates. Video chat offers a safer option to explore potential connections with their matches.

When the new Facebook Dating feature goes live, online daters will be able to invite a match to a virtual date. The recipient can either choose to accept or decline the offer via a pop-up that appears.

If they accept, the Facebook Dating users will be connected in a video chat powered by Facebook Messenger in order to get to know one another.

As the feature is still being developed, Facebook declined to share more specific details about how it will work, in terms of privacy and security features.

Facebook is not the first online dating service to pivot to video as a result of the pandemic. But many rival dating apps were adopting video features well before the coronavirus struck, as well.

Bumble, for example, has offered voice and video calling in its app for roughly a year. The feature there works like a normal phone call or Apple’s FaceTime. However, users don’t have to share their phone number or other private information, like an email address, which makes it safer.

The company says use of the feature has spiked over the last two months as users embrace virtual dating.

Meanwhile, Match Group has more recently rolled out video across a number of the dating apps it operates.

This month, the Match app added video chat that allows users who have already matched to connect over video calls. Match-owned Hinge also rolled out a “Dating from Home” prompt and is preparing its own live video date feature, as well, Match says. Plenty of Fish (PoF), another Match property, launched live-streaming in March, giving singles a new way to hang out with friends and potential matches.

Match Group’s flagship app Tinder has not yet embraced live video dates, but still offers a way for users to add video to their profiles. The company couldn’t comment on whether or not video dating was in the works for Tinder, but in the post-COVID era, it would be almost bizarre to not offer such feature.

Other dating apps have also launched video dating, including eHarmony and a number of lesser-known dating apps hoping to now gain traction for their video dating concepts.

Facebook says the feature will roll out in the months ahead and will be available everywhere Facebook Dating is available.

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Facebook launches an experimental app for messaging close friends via Apple Watch

Posted by | apple watch apps, Apps, Facebook, kit, messaging, Messenger, Mobile, npe team, Social | No Comments

Facebook’s internal R&D group has today launched a new app that lets you keep up with your close friends via your Apple Watch. The app is called Kit, or Keep in Touch, and works using a combination of QR codes and Facebook’s existing Messenger service.

According to Kit’s App Store description, you get started with the app by first scanning a QR code on your watch or by entering in an access code at fb.com/devices. You then select the Messenger contact you want to stay in touch with using Kit.

The app allows you to send a variety of messages with just one tap, including voice recordings, emoji, location sharing, scribbles and even dictation input — similar to how using iMessage from your Apple Watch works today. However, these messages are being sent over Facebook’s own Messenger service, not SMS or iMessage.

The new app also allows you to receive and respond to notifications and read your contact’s messages to you.

The idea behind the app is to allow users to stay in touch without having to pick up their phone, the App Store description explains.

While Facebook’s Messenger already offers support for Apple Watch, Kit is focused more on keeping up with close contacts only– a significant other, best friend, or family member, for example. That allows it to offer a different user interface and experience from Messenger on Apple Watch, where you have to navigate on a tiny screen to read and respond to your messages.

Kit is the latest from Facebook’s internal R&D division, NPE Team, which tests out new app concepts and rapidly iterates. So far, the NPE Team has put out a variety of new social apps like meme creator Whale, conversational app Bump, music app Aux, video app Hobbi, and most recently, Tuned, an app for couples. But only a few remain available today, as Facebook had said previously that the NPE Team apps that don’t find an audience will be quickly shut down.

To date, the NPE Team apps have launched new social experiences that weren’t tied to Facebook’s existing products. Kit, however, ties into Messenger — a move that could help it gain more of an audience, as it can tap into Messenger’s over a billion users. In addition, Kit could prove especially useful in the COVID-19 era, as people are trying not to touch their smartphones while out in public and wearing gloves. Instead, they could respond to critical messages from their close friends or family over Kit, without having to use their phone.

Kit is also notable for being the first of Facebook’s NPE Team apps to launch on Apple Watch.

Facebook doesn’t typically comment on its NPE Team experiments, and will instead point back to its original announcement that said availability would depend on the app.

According to data from Apptopia, the app hasn’t ranked yet on the App Store charts, as it’s still new. It appears to be only offered in Canada, at present.

Kit is a free download for iOS, but is for Apple Watch only.

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WhatsApp introduces new limit on message forwards to fight spread of misinformation

Posted by | Android, Apps, coronavirus, COVID-19, Covid19, Facebook, instagram, Messenger, Social, Stan Chudnovsky, TC, WhatsApp | No Comments

WhatsApp is imposing additional restriction on how frequently a message can be shared on its platform in its latest effort to curtail the spread of misinformation.

The Facebook -owned instant messaging service said today that any message that has been forwarded five or more times will now face a new limit that will prevent a user from forwarding it to more than one chat (contact) at a time.

A spokesperson told TechCrunch that WhatsApp will roll out this change to users worldwide today.

Today’s move builds on WhatsApp’s effort from last year when it limited users from forwarding a message to more than five users at once. The service, used by more than 2 billion users, said the move allowed it to reduce the volume of message forwards globally by 25%.

The end-to-end encryption on WhatsApp — which the company is fighting for in several markets — prevents it from reading the content of a message, so it relies on metadata of a message to gauge its spread.

“Is all forwarding bad? Certainly not,” the company wrote in a blogpost today. “However, we’ve seen a significant increase in the amount of forwarding which users have told us can feel overwhelming and can contribute to the spread of misinformation. We believe it’s important to slow the spread of these messages down to keep WhatsApp a place for personal conversation.”

More than a dozen deaths in recent years — several in WhatsApp’s biggest market, India — have been linked to viral circulation of misinformation on Facebook’s service.

Facebook has moved to take several efforts in recent weeks as the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic. Last month, it announced free developer tools for Messenger to combat COVID-19, and introduced an info centre atop of the news feed to prominently showcase reliable information.

Additionally, the company is also working with nonprofit organizations such as the WHO to build helplines, and has committed to donate millions of dollars. The World Health Organization’s helpline on Messenger and WhatsApp has already reached more than 10 million users, days after its launch. The Indian government also launched a helpdesk bot on WhatsApp last month.

But the vast reach of Facebook has also attracted scammers. “Unfortunately, scammers may try to take advantage of people’s vulnerability and generosity during this time,” wrote Stan Chudnovsky, VP of Messenger.

WhatsApp has also been testing a feature on the beta version of its Android app that gives users the ability to quickly comb through the web with the text or video they have received for more context.

Images credit: @shrinivassg

A spokesperson said the platform plans to roll out this feature in the near future.

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WhatsApp hits 2 billion users, up from 1.5 billion 2 years ago

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, instagram, Media, Messenger, Mobile, NSO Group, Vahan, WhatsApp, Will Cathcart, Y Combinator | No Comments

WhatsApp, the most popular messaging app, revealed today just how big it has become. The Facebook -owned app said it has amassed two billion users, up from 1.5 billion it revealed two years ago. It also remains free of ads and does not charge its users any fee.

The announcement today makes WhatsApp only the second app from Facebook to join the two-billion-users club. (Facebook’s marquee app has 2.5 billion users.) In an earnings call in late January, Facebook also noted that that there were 2.26 billion users that opened either Facebook, Messenger, Instagram or WhatsApp each day, up from 2.2 billion last quarter. The family of apps sees 2.89 billion total monthly users, up 9% year-over-year.

WhatsApp, founded 11 years ago and sold to Facebook for $19 billion six years ago, took the opportunity today to reiterate that it is committed to providing end-to-end encryption to its customers all over the globe — a crucial feature lauded by security experts everywhere but something that many governments are increasingly trying to contest.

“Strong encryption acts like an unbreakable digital lock that keeps the information you send over WhatsApp secure, helping protect you from hackers and criminals. Messages are only kept on your phone, and no one in between can read your messages or listen to your calls, not even us. Your private conversations stay between you,” WhatsApp wrote in a blog post.

Among the governments that are attempting to force WhatsApp into dropping encryption is India (which happens to be WhatsApp’s largest market, with 400 million users), Australia and the U.S.

Will Cathcart, the chief executive of WhatsApp, has said in the past that the messaging platform will fight for the privacy of its users. This was on display last October, when WhatsApp filed a suit in federal court accusing Israeli mobile surveillance maker NSO Group of creating an exploit that was used hundreds of times to hack into targets’ phones.

“Strong encryption is a necessity in modern life. We will not compromise on security because that would make people less safe. For even more protection, we work with top security experts, employ industry leading technology to stop misuse as well as provide controls and ways to report issues — without sacrificing privacy,” the company said today.

The two-billion milestone is a big feat for WhatsApp, which gained immense popularity without any marketing in developing markets such as India, where calls and texts were fairly expensive for most people. There is no app in India today that has a greater penetration than WhatsApp, for instance.

But even as WhatsApp has amassed all the users in the world, it is still struggling to make any substantial contribution to Facebook’s bottom line. In recent years, WhatsApp has introduced tools for businesses to connect with their customers. But something even more interesting has happened in the meantime.

Scores of startups in developing markets today are building businesses around WhatsApp. Vahan, a Y Combinator-backed startup, uses WhatsApp to help delivery startups find blue-collar workers. Digi-Prex, a Hyderabad-based startup, runs an eponymous online subscription pharmacy to serve patients with chronic diseases. Patients share their prescription with Digi-Prex through WhatsApp and the startup’s workers then deliver the medication to them on a recurring cycle.

I think the next justdial will be built on top of @whatsapp … especially for India (or other markets where WhatsApp is big)

anyone working on this?

— miten sampat (@miten) February 11, 2020

But this immense popularity has also created other challenges for WhatsApp. The platform has been used to spread false information that has resulted in gruesome fatalities in real world. WhatsApp has rushed to make product changes and run campaigns to educate users, but it’s a long battle.

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Russia’s push back against big tech has major consequences for Apple

Posted by | Android, Apple, Column, Developer, donald trump, Google, hardware, huawei, LinkedIn, Messenger, Moscow, Pavel Durov, Policy, pornhub, privacy, russia, smart device, Tim Cook, Turkey, Twitter | No Comments
Josh Nadeau
Contributor

Josh Nadeau is a Canadian journalist based in St. Petersburg who covers the intersection of Russia, technology and culture. He has written for The Economist, Atlas Obscura and The Outline.

Last month, Donald Trump took to Twitter to criticize Apple for not unlocking two iPhones belonging to the Pensacola shooter, another volley in the struggle between big tech and the world’s governing bodies. But even the White House’s censure pales in comparison to the Kremlin’s ongoing plans. Apple, as the timing would have it, also happens to be in Vladimir Putin’s sights.

The company’s long-running policy of not preloading third-party software onto its devices is coming up against a new piece of Russian legislation requiring every smart device to be sold with certain applications already installed, many of which are produced by the government. Inside the country, the policy has even been called the zakon protiv Apple, or the “law against Apple,” for how it disproportionately affects the tech giant. While the law was passed last November, the Russian Federal Antimonopoly Service released the full list of apps only last week.

These regulations form the latest move in what’s turning out to be one of the largest national campaigns for digital control outside of Asia. These laws have been steadily accumulating since 2014 and are described as a way of consolidating sovereignty over the digital space — threatening to push companies out of the country if they fail to comply. Apple, for instance, will have to choose by July 1 whether maintaining access to the Russian market is worth making a revolutionary change in their policy. The same choice is given to any company wishing to do business in the country.

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Messenger Kids adds expanded parental controls, details how much kids’ data Facebook collects

Posted by | Apps, chat, children, Facebook, kids, messaging, Messenger, Messenger Kids, Mobile, privacy, Security, Social | No Comments

Facebook’s messaging app for families with children, Messenger Kids, is being updated today with new tools and features to give parents more oversight and control over their kids’ chats. Now, parents will be able to see who a child is chatting with and how often, view recent photos and videos sent through chat, access the child’s reported and block list, remotely log out of the app on other devices and download the child’s chats, images and videos, both sent and received. The company is also introducing a new blocking mechanism and has updated the app’s Privacy Policy to include additional information about data collection, use and deletion practices.

The Messenger Kids app was first introduced in late 2017 as a way to give kids a way to message friends and family with parental oversight. It arrived at a time when kids were already embracing messaging — but were often doing so on less controlled platforms, like Kik, which attracted predators. Messenger Kids instead allows the child’s parents to determine who the child can chat with and when, through built-in parental controls.

In our household, for example, it became a convenient tool for chatting with relatives, like grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, as well as a few trusted friends, whose parents I knew well.

But when it came time to review the chats, a lot of scrolling back was involved.

The new Messenger Kids features will help with the oversight aspects for those parents who allow their kids to online chat. That decision, of course, is a personal one. Some parents don’t want their kids to have smartphones and outright ban apps, particularly ones that allow interactions. Others, myself included, believe that teaching kids to navigate the online world is part of your parental responsibility. And despite Facebook’s reputation, there aren’t other chat apps offering these sort of parental controls — or the convenience of being able to add everyone in your family to a child’s chat list with ease. (After all, grandma and grandpa are already on Facebook and Messenger, but getting them to download new apps remains difficult.)

In the updated app, parents will be able to see who a child has been chatting with, and whether that’s text or video chat, over the past 30 days. This can save parents’ time, as they may not feel the need to review chat with trusted family members, for instance, so can redirect their focus and energy on reviewing the chats with friends. A log of images will help parents to see if all images and videos being sent and received are appropriate, and remove them or block them if not.

Parents also can now see if a child has blocked or reported a user in the app, or if they’ve unblocked them. This could be useful for identifying those problematic friends — the kind who sometimes cause trouble, but are later forgiven, then unblocked. (Anyone who’s dealt with tween-age drama can attest to the fact that there’s one in every group!) By gaining access to this information, parents can sit down with the child to talk about when to take that step and block someone, and when a disagreement with a friend can instead be worked out. These are decisions that a child will have to make on their own one day, so being able to use this as a teaching moment is useful.

With the update, unblocking is supported and parents are still able to review chats with blocked contacts. However, blocked contacts will remain visible to one another and will stay in shared group chats. They just aren’t able to message one-on-one. Kids are warned if they return to or are added to chats with blocked contacts. (If parents want a full block, they can just remove the blocked contact from the child’s contact list, as before.)

Remote device logout lets you make sure the child is logged out of Messenger Kids on devices you can’t physically access and control — like a misplaced phone. And the option to download the child’s information, similar to Facebook’s feature, lets you download a copy of everything — messages, images and videos. This could be a way to preserve their chat history when the child outgrows the app.

The Messenger Kids’ privacy policy was updated, as well, to better detail the information being collected. The app also attempts to explain this in plain language to the kids, using cute photos. In reality, parents should read the policy for themselves and make a decision, accordingly.

The app collects a lot of information — including names, profile photos, demographic details (gender and birthday), a child’s connection to parents, contacts’ information (like most frequent contacts), app usage information, device attributes and unique identifiers, data from device settings (like time zones or access to camera and photos), network information and information provided from things like bug reports or feedback/contact forms.

To some extent, this information is needed to help the app properly operate or to alert parents about a child’s activities. But the policy includes less transparent language about the collected information being used to “evaluate, troubleshoot, improve, create, and develop our products” or being shared with other Facebook Companies. There’s a lot of wiggle room there for extensive data collection on Facebook’s part. Service providers offering technical infrastructure and support, like a content delivery network or customer service, may also gain access to collected information, but must adhere to “strict data confidentiality and security obligations,” the policy claims, without offering further details on what those are.

Despite its lengthiness, the policy leaves plenty of room for Facebook to collect private information and share it. If you have a Facebook account, you’ve already agreed to this sort of “deal with the devil” for yourself, in order to benefit from Facebook’s free service. But parents need to strongly consider if they’re comfortable making the same decision for their children.

The policy also describes things Facebook plans to roll out later, when Messenger Kids is updated to support older kids. As kids enter tween to teen years, parents may want to loosen the reigns a bit. The new policy will cover those changes, as well.

It’s unfortunate that the easiest tool, and the one with the best parental controls, is coming from Facebook. The market is ripe for a disruptor in the kids’ space, but there’s not enough money in that, apparently. Facebook, of course, sees the potential of getting kids hooked early and can invest in a product that isn’t directly monetized. Few companies can afford to do this, but Apple would be the best to take Facebook on in this area.

Apple’s iMessage is a large, secure and private platform — but it lacks these advanced parental controls, as well as the other bells and whistles (like built-in AR filters) that make the Messenger Kids app fun. Critically, it doesn’t work across non-Apple devices, which will always be a limiter when it comes to finding an app that the extended family can use together.

To be clear, there is no way to stop Facebook from vacuuming up the child’s information except to delete the child’s Messenger Kids Account through the Facebook Help Center. So consider your choices wisely.

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The consumer version of BBM is shutting down on May 31

Posted by | Android, apple-app-store, BBM, BlackBerry, computing, emtek, encryption, Google Play Store, imessage, Instant Messaging, messaging apps, Messenger, microsoft windows, Mobile, operating systems, private, research-in-motion, smartphone, smartphones, SMS, technology, WhatsApp, Windows Live Messenger | No Comments

It might be time to move on from BBM. The consumer version of the BlackBerry Messenger will shut down on May 31. Emtek, the Indonesia-based company that partnered with BlackBerry in 2016, just announced the closure. It’s important to note, BBM will still exist and BlackBerry today revealed a plan to open its enterprise-version of BBM to general consumers.

Starting today, BBM Enterprise will be available through the Google Play Store and eventually from the Apple App Store. The service will be free for one year and after that, $2.49 for six months of service. This version of the software, like the consumer version, still features group chats, voice and video calls and the ability to edit and retract messages.

As explained by BlackBerry, BBMe features end-to-end encryption:

BBMe can be downloaded on any device that uses Android, iOS, Windows or MAC operating systems. The sender and recipient each have unique public/private encryption and signing keys. These keys are generated on the device by a FIPS 140-2 certified cryptographic library and are not controlled by BlackBerry. Each message uses a new symmetric key for message encryption. Additionally, TLS encryption between the device and BlackBerry’s infrastructure protects BBMe messages from eavesdropping or manipulation.

BBM is one of the oldest smartphone messaging services. Research in Motion, BlackBerry’s original name, released the messenger in 2005. It quickly became a selling point for BlackBerry devices. BBM wasn’t perfect and occasionally crashed, but it was a robust, feature-filled messaging app when most of the world was still using SMS. Eventually, with the downfall of RIM and eventually BlackBerry, BBM fell behind iMessage, WhatsApp and other independent messaging platforms. Emtek’s partnership with BlackBerry was supposed to bring the service into the current age, but some say the consumer version ended up bloated with games, channels and ads. BlackBerry’s BBMe lacks a lot of those extra features, so consumers might find it a better platform for communicating.

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Snap is channeling Asia’s messaging giants with its move into gaming

Posted by | alibaba, Apps, Asia, Australia, Bitmoji, Canada, China, computing, e-commerce, epic games, Evan Spiegel, Facebook, food, France, game developers, Gaming, instagram, Instant Messaging, Japan, josh constine, Kakao, Los Angeles, messaging apps, Messenger, nhn japan, Nintendo, operating systems, player, Snap, Snapchat, Social, social media, social network, Software, Southeast Asia, Startups, Tencent, United Kingdom, United States, WeChat, WhatsApp | No Comments

Snap is taking a leaf out of the Asian messaging app playbook as its social messaging service enters a new era.

The company unveiled a series of new strategies that are aimed at breathing fresh life into the service that has been ruthlessly cloned by Facebook across Instagram, WhatsApp and even its primary social network. The result? Snap has consistently lost users since going public in 2017. It managed to stop the rot with a flat Q4, but resting on its laurels isn’t going to bring back the good times.

Snap has taken a three-pronged approach: extending its stories feature (and ads) into third-party apps and building out its camera play with an AR platform, but it is the launch of social games that is the most intriguing. The other moves are logical, and they fall in line with existing Snap strategies, but games is an entirely new category for the company.

It isn’t hard to see where Snap found inspiration for social games — Asian messaging companies have long twinned games and chat — but the U.S. company is applying its own twist to the genre.

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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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