Mobile

Stoop aims to improve your news diet with an easy way to find and read newsletters

Posted by | Apps, Media, Mobile, Startups, Stoop | No Comments

Stoop is looking to provide readers with what CEO Tim Raybould described as “a healthier information diet.”

To do that, it’s launched an iOS and Android app where you can browse through different newsletters based on category, and when you find one you like, it will direct you to the standard subscription page. If you provide your Stoop email address, you’ll then be able to read all your favorite newsletters in the app.

“The easiest way to describe it is: It’s like a podcast app but for newsletters,” Raybould said. “It’s a big directory of newsletters, and then there’s the side where you can consume them.”

Why newsletters? Well, he argued that they’re one of the key ways for publishers to develop a direct relationship with their audience. Podcasts are another, but he said newsletters are “an order of magnitude more important” because you can convey more information with the written word and there are lower production costs.

That direct relationship is obviously an important one for publishers, particularly as Facebook’s shifting priorities have made it clear that they need to “establish the right relationship [with] readers, as opposed to renting someone else’s audience.” But Raybould said it’s better for readers too, because you’ll spend your time on journalism that’s designed to provide value, not just attract clicks: “You will find you use the newsfeed less and consume more of your content directly from the source.”

“Most content [currently] is distributed through a third party, and that software is choosing what to surface next — not based on the quality of the content, but based on what’s going to keep people scrolling,” he added. “Trusting an algorithm with what you’re going to read next is like trusting a nutritionist who’s incentivized based on how many chips you eat.”

Stoop Discover

So Raybould is a fan of newsletters, but he said the current system is pretty cumbersome. There’s no one place where you can find new newsletters to read, and you may also hesitate to subscribe to another one because it “crowds out your personal inbox.” So Stoop is designed to reduce the friction, making it easy to subscribe to and read as many newsletters as your heart desires.

Raybould said the team has already curated a directory of around 650 newsletters (including TechCrunch’s own Daily Crunch) and the list continues to grow. Additional features include a “shuffle” option to discover new newsletters, plus the ability to share a newsletter with other Stoop users, or to forward it to your personal address.

The Stoop app is free, with Raybould hoping to eventually add a premium plan for features like full newsletter archives. He’s also hoping to collaborate with publishers — initially, most publishers will probably treat Stoop readers as just another set of subscribers, but Raybould said the company could provide access to additional analytics and also make signing up easier with the app’s instant subscribe option.

And the company’s ambitions go beyond newsletters. Raybould said Stoop is the first consumer product from a team with a larger mission to help publishers — they’re also working on OpenBundle, a bundled subscription initiative with a planned launch in 2019 or 2020.

“The overarching thing that is the same is the OpenBundle thesis and the Stoop thesis,” he said. “Getting publishers back in the role of delivering content directly to the audience is the antidote to the newsfeed.”

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Facebook Messenger is building a ‘Watch Videos Together’ feature

Posted by | Airtime, Apps, co-watching, Facebook, facebook messenger, Facebook Video, Mobile, Social, TC | No Comments

Netflix and chill from afar? Facebook Messenger is now internally testing simultaneous co-viewing of videos. That means you and your favorite people could watch a synchronized video over group chat on your respective devices while discussing or joking about it. This “Watch Videos Together” feature could make you spend more time on Facebook Messenger while creating shared experiences that are more meaningful and positive for well-being than passively zombie-viewing videos solo. This new approach to Facebook’s Watch Party feature might feel more natural as part of messaging than through a feed, Groups or Events post.

The feature was first spotted in Messenger’s codebase by Ananay Arora, the founder of deadline management app Timebound as well as a mobile investigator in the style of frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. The code he discovered describes Messenger allowing you to “tap to watch together now” and “chat about the same videos at the same time” with chat thread members receiving a notification that a co-viewing is starting. “Everyone in this chat can control the video and see who’s watching,” the code explains.

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch that this is an “internal test” and that it doesn’t have any more to share right now. But other features originally discovered in Messenger’s code, like contact syncing with Instagram, have eventually received official launches.

Watch Party exists on Facebook, but could be more popular as a chat feature

A fascinating question this co-viewing feature brings up is where users will find videos to watch. It might just let you punch in a URL from Facebook or share a video from there to Messenger. The app could put a new video browsing option into the message composer or Discover tab. Or, if it really wanted to get serious about chat-based co-viewing, Facebook could allow the feature to work with video partners, ideally YouTube.

Co-viewing of videos could also introduce a new revenue opportunity for Messenger. It might suggest sponsored videos, such as recent movie trailers. Or it could simply serve video ads between a queue of videos lined up for co-viewing. Facebook has recently been putting more pressure on its subsidiaries like Messenger and Instagram to monetize as News Feed ad revenue growth slows due to plateauing user growth and limited News Feed ad space.

Other apps like YouTube’s Uptime (since shut down) and Facebook’s first president Sean Parker’s Airtime (never took off) have tried and failed to make co-watching a popular habit. The problem is that coordinating these synced-up experiences with friends can be troublesome. By baking simultaneous video viewing directing into Messenger, Facebook could make it as seamless as sharing a link.

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FCC approval of Europe’s Galileo satellite signals may give your phone’s GPS a boost

Posted by | FCC, Gadgets, galileo, Government, gps, Mobile, Satellites, Space | No Comments

The FCC’s space-focused meeting today had actions taken on SpaceX satellites and orbital debris reduction, but the decision most likely to affect users has to do with Galileo . No, not the astronomer — the global positioning satellite constellation put in place by the E.U. over the last few years. It’s now legal for U.S. phones to use, and a simple software update could soon give your GPS signal a major bump.

Galileo is one of several successors to the Global Positioning System that’s been in use since the ’90s. But because it is U.S.-managed and was for a long time artificially limited in accuracy to everyone but U.S. military, it should come as no surprise that European, Russian and Chinese authorities would want their own solutions. Russia’s GLONASS is operational and China is hard at work getting its BeiDou system online.

The E.U.’s answer to GPS was Galileo, and the 26 (out of 30 planned) satellites making up the constellation offer improved accuracy and other services, such as altitude positioning. Test satellites went up as early as 2005, but it wasn’t until 2016 that it began actually offering location services.

A Galileo satellite launch earlier this year.

Devices already existed that would take advantage of Galileo signals — all the way back to the iPhone 6s, the Samsung Galaxy S7 and many others from that era forward. It just depends on the wireless chip inside the phone or navigation unit, and it’s pretty much standard now. (There’s a partial list of smartphones supporting Galileo here.)

When a company sells a new phone, it’s much easier to just make a couple million of the same thing rather than make tiny changes like using a wireless chipset in U.S. models that doesn’t support Galileo. The trade-off in savings versus complexity of manufacturing and distribution just isn’t worthwhile.

The thing is, American phones couldn’t use Galileo because the FCC has regulations against having ground stations being in contact with foreign satellites. Which is exactly what using Galileo positioning is, though of course it’s nothing sinister.

If you’re in the U.S., then, your phone likely has the capability to use Galileo but it has been disabled in software. The FCC decision today lets device makers change that, and the result could be much-improved location services. (One band not very compatible with existing U.S. navigation services has been held back, but two of the three are now available.)

Interestingly enough, however, your phone may already be using Galileo without your or the FCC’s knowledge. Because the capability is behind a software lock, it’s possible that a user could install an app or service bringing it into use. Perhaps you travel to Europe a lot and use a French app store and navigation app designed to work with Galileo and it unlocked the bands. There’d be nothing wrong with that.

Or perhaps you installed a custom ROM that included the ability to check the Galileo signal. That’s technically illegal, but the thing is there’s basically no way for anyone to tell! The way these systems work, all you’d be doing is receiving a signal illegally that your phone already supports and that’s already hitting its antennas every second — so who’s going to report you?

It’s unlikely that phone makers have secretly enabled the Galileo frequencies on U.S. models, but as Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel pointed out in a statement accompanying the FCC action, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening:

If you read the record in this proceeding and others like it, it becomes clear that many devices in the United States are already operating with foreign signals. But nowhere in our record is there a good picture of how many devices in this country are interacting with these foreign satellite systems, what it means for compliance with our rules, and what it means for the security of our systems. We should change that. Technology has gotten ahead of our approval policies and it’s time for a true-up.

She isn’t suggesting a crackdown — this is about regulation lagging behind consumer tech. Still, it is a little worrying that the FCC basically has no idea, and no way to find out, how many devices are illicitly tuning in to Galileo signals.

Expect an update to roll out to your phone sometime soon — Galileo signals will be of serious benefit to any location-based app, and to public services like 911, which are now officially allowed to use the more accurate service to determine location.

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Facebook Messenger starts rolling out Unsend; here’s how it works

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, facebook messenger, Facebook unsend, Mark Zuckerberg, Mobile, Social, Stan Chudnovsky, TC | No Comments

Facebook secretly retracted messages sent by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, TechCrunch reported seven months ago. Now for the first time, Facebook Messenger users will get the power to unsend too so they can remove their sent messages from the recipient’s inbox. Messages can only be unsent for the first 10 minutes after they’re delivered so that you can correct a mistake or remove something you accidentally pushed, but you won’t be able to edit ancient history. Formally known as “Remove for Everyone,” the button also leaves a “tombstone” indicating a message was retracted. And to prevent bullies from using the feature to cover their tracks, Facebook will retain unsent messages for a short period of time so if they’re reported, it can review them for policy violations.

The Remove feature rolls out in Poland, Bolivia, Colombia and Lithuania today on Messenger for iOS and Android. A Facebook spokesperson tells me the plan is to roll it out globally as soon as possible, though that may be influenced by the holiday App Store update cut-off. In the meantime, it’s also working on more unsend features, potentially including the ability to preemptively set an expiration date for specific messages or entire threads.

“The pros are that users want to be in control . . . and if you make a mistake you can correct it. There are a lot of legitimate use cases out there that we wanted to enable,” Facebook’s head of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky tells me in an exclusive interview. But conversely, he says, “We need to make sure we don’t open up any new venues for bullying. We need to make sure people aren’t sending you bad messages and then removing them because if you report them and the messages aren’t there we can’t do anything.”

Zuckerberg did it; soon you can, too

Facebook first informed TechCrunch it would build an unsend feature back in April after I reported that six sources told me some of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook messages had been silently removed from the inboxes of recipients, including non-employees with no tombstone left in their place. We saw that as a violation of user trust and an abuse of the company’s power, given the public had no way to unsend their own messages.

Facebook claimed this was to protect the privacy of its executives and the company’s trade secrets, telling me that “After Sony Pictures’ emails were hacked in 2014 we made a number of changes to protect our executives’ communications. These included limiting the retention period for Mark’s messages in Messenger.” But it seems likely that Facebook also wanted to avoid another embarrassing situation like when Zuckerberg’s old instant messages from 2004 leaked. One damning exchange saw Zuckerberg tell a friend “if you ever need info about anyone at harvard . . . just ask . . . i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns.” “what!? how’d you manage that one?”  the friend replied. “People just submitted it . .  i don’t know why . . . they ‘trust me’ . . . dumb fucks” Zuckerberg replied.

The company told me it was actually already working on an Unsend button for everyone, and wouldn’t delete any more executives’ messages until it launched. Chudnovsky tells me he felt like “I wish we launched this sooner” when the news broke. But then six months went by without progress or comment from Facebook before TechCrunch broke the news that tipster Jane Manchun Wong had spotted Facebook prototyping the Remove feature. Then a week ago, Facebook Messenger’s App Store release notes accidentally mentioned that a 10-minute Unsend button was coming soon.

So why the seven-month wait? Especially given Instagram already allows users to unsend messages no matter how old? “The reason why it took so long is because on the server side, it’s actually much harder. All the messages are stored on the server, and that goes into the core transportation layer of our how our messaging system was built,” Chudnovsky explains. “It was hard to do given how we were architected, but we were always worried about the integrity concerns it would open up.” Now the company is confident it’s surmounted the engineering challenge to ensure an Unsent message reliably disappears from the recipient.

“The question becomes ‘who owns that message?’ Before that message is delivered to your Messenger app, it belongs to me. But when it actually arrives, it probably belongs to both of us,” Chudnovsky pontificates.

How Facebook Messenger’s “Remove for Everyone” button works

Facebook settled on the ability to let you remove any kind of message — including text, group chats, photos, videos, links and more — within 10 minutes of sending. You can still delete any message on just your side of the conversation, but only messages you sent can be removed from their recipients. You can’t delete from someone else what they sent you, the feature’s PR manager Kat Chui tells me. And Facebook will keep a private copy of the message for a short while after it’s deleted to make sure it can review if it’s reported for harassment.

To use the unsend feature, tap and hold on a message you sent, then select “Remove.” You’ll get options to “Remove for Everyone” which will retract the message, or “Remove for you,” which replaces the old delete option and leaves the message in the recipient’s inbox. You’ll get a warning that explains “You’ll permanently remove this message for all chat members. They can see that you removed a message and still report it.” If you confirm the removal, a line of text noting “you [or the sender’s name] removed a message” (known as a tombstone) will appear in the thread where the message was. If you want to report a removed message for abuse or another issue, you’ll tap the person’s name, scroll to “Something’s Wrong” and select the proper category such as harassment or that they were pretending to be someone else.

Why the 10-minute limit specifically? “We looked at how the existing delete functionality works. It turns out that when people are deleting messages because it’s a mistake or they sent something they didn’t want to send, it’s under a minute. We decided to extend it to 10, but decided we didn’t need to do more,” Chudnovsky reveals.

He says he’s not sure if Facebook’s security team will now resume removing executive messages. However, he stresses that the Unsend button Facebook is launching “is definitely not the same feature” as what was used on Zuckerberg’s messages. If Facebook wanted to truly respect its users, it would at least insert the tombstone when it erases old messages from executives.

Messenger is also building more unsend functionality. Taking a cue from encrypted messaging app Signal’s customizable per thread expiration date feature, Chudnovsky tells me “hypothetically, if I want all the messages to be deleted after six months, they get purged. This is something that can be set up on a per thread level,” though Facebook is still tinkering with the details. Another option would be for Facebook to extend to all chats the per message expiration date option from its encrypted Secret messages feature.

“It’s one of those things that feels very simple on the surface. And it would be very easy if the servers were built one way or another from the very beginning,” Chudnovsky concludes. “But it’s one of those things philosophically and technologically that once you get to the scale of 1.3 billion people using it, changing from one model to another is way more complicated.” Hopefully in the future, Facebook won’t give its executives extrajudicial ways to manipulate communications… or at least not until it’s sorted out the consequences of giving the public the same power.

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Uber launches rider loyalty Rewards like credits & upgrades 9 cities

Posted by | Apps, Collaborative Consumption, eCommerce, loyalty program, Mobile, payments, Startups, TC, Transportation, Uber, Uber Eats | No Comments

Uber’s new loyalty program incentivizes you not to check Lyft or the local competitor. Riders earn points for all the money they spend on Uber and Uber Eats that score them $5 credits, upgrades to nicer cars, access to premium support and even flexible cancellations that waive the fee if they rebook within 15 minutes.

Uber Rewards launches today in nine cities before rolling out to the whole U.S. in the next few months, with points for scooters and bikes coming soon. And as a brilliant way to get people excited about the program, it retroactively counts your last six months of Uber activity to give you perks as soon as you sign up for free for Uber Rewards. You’ll see the new Rewards bar on the homescreen of your app today if you’re in Miami, Denver, Tampa, New York, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Atlanta, San Diego or anywhere in New Jersey, as Uber wanted to test with a representative sample of the U.S.

The loyalty program ties all of the company’s different transportation and food delivery options together, encouraging customers to stick with Uber across a suite of solutions instead of treating it as interchangeable with alternatives. “As people use Uber more and more in their everyday, we wanted to find a way to reward them for choosing Uber,” says Uber’s director of product for riders Nundu Janakiram. “International expansion is top of mind for us,” adds Holly Ormseth, Uber Rewards’ product manager.

As for the drivers, “They absolutely get paid their full rate,” Ormseth explains. “We understand that offering the benefits has a cost to Uber but we think of it as an investment,” says Janakiram.

So how much Ubering earns you what perks? Let’s break it down:

In Uber Rewards you earn points by spending money to reach different levels of benefits. Points are earned during six-month periods, and if you reach a level, you get its perks for the remainder of that period plus the whole next period. You earn 1 point per dollar spent on UberPool, Express Pool and Uber Eats; 2 points on UberX, Uber XL and Uber Select; and 3 points on Uber Black and Black SUV. You’ll see your Uber Rewards progress wheel at the bottom of the homescreen fill up over time.

Blue: $5 credits

The only Uber perk that doesn’t reset at the end of a period is that you get $5 of Uber Cash for every 500 points earned regardless of membership level. “Even as a semi-frequent Uber Rewards member you’ll get these instant benefits,” Janakiram says. Blue lets you treat Uber like a video game where you’re trying to rack up points to earn an extra life. To earn 500 points, you’d need about 48 UberPool trips, 6 Uber Xs and 6 Uber Eats orders.

Gold: Flexible cancellations

Once you hit 500 points, you join Uber Gold and get flexible cancellations that refund your $5 cancellation fee if you rebook within 15 minutes, plus priority support Gold is for users who occasionally take Uber but stick to its more economical options. “The Gold level is all about being there when things aren’t going exactly right,” Janakiram explains. To earn 500 points in six months, you’d need to take about 2 UberPools per week, one Uber X per month and one Uber Eats order per month.

Platinum: Price protection

At 2,500 points you join Uber Platinum, which gets you the Gold benefits plus price protection on a route between two of your favorite places regardless of traffic or surge. And Platinum members get priority pickups at airports. To earn 2,500 points, you’d need to take UberX 4 times per week and order Uber Eats twice per month. It’s designed for the frequent user who might rely on Uber to get to work or play.

Diamond: Premium support & upgrades

At 7,500 points, you get the Gold and Platinum benefits plus premium support with a dedicated phone line and fast 24/7 responses from top customer service agents. You get complimentary upgrade surprises from UberX to Uber Black and other high-end cars. You’ll be paired with Uber’s highest-rated drivers. And you get no delivery fee on three Uber Eats orders every six months. Reaching 7,500 points would require UberX 8 times per week, Uber Eats once per week and Uber Black to the airport once per month. Diamond is meant usually for business travelers who get to expense their rides, or people who’d ditched car ownership for ridesharing.

Keeping everyone happily riding

Uber spent the better part of last year asking users through surveys and focus groups what they’d want in a loyalty program. It found that customers wanted to constantly earn rewards and make their dollar go further, but use the perks when they wanted. The point was to avoid situations where riders says, “Oh I’ve been an Uber user for years. When something goes wrong, I feel like I’m being treated like everyone else,” Janakiram tells me. When riders think they’re special, they stick around.

One big missing feature here is a Rewards calculator. Uber could better gamify earning its perks if there was an easy way to see how many more monthly or total rides it would take to reach the next level. It’d be great to have a few little sliders you could drag around to see if I just take Uber X, how many of my average length trips would it take to level up.

Uber managed to beat Lyft to the loyalty game. Lyft just announced that its rewards program would roll out in December, allowing you to earn discounts and upgrades. But Southeast Asia’s Grab transportation service started testing a loyalty program back in late 2016 where you could manually redeem points for discounts. While Uber’s rewards are more predictable and automatic, it does seem to have cribbed Grab’s rewards period mechanic where you keep your perks through the end of the next cycle. We’ll see if Uber mistakenly gave too much away and will have to reduce the perks like Grab did, pissing off its most loyal riders.

One risk of the program is that Uber might make users at lower tiers or who don’t even qualify for Gold feel like second-class citizens of the app. “One thing that’s important is that we don’t want to make the experience for people who are not in these levels poor in any sense,” Janakiram notes. “It’s not like 80 percent of people will suddenly get priority airport pickups, but we do want to monitor very closely to make sure we’re not harming the service more broadly.”

Overall, Uber managed to pick perks that seem helpful without making me wonder why these features aren’t standard for everyone. Even if it takes a short-term margins hit, if Uber can dissuade people from ever looking beyond its app, the lifetime value of its customers should easily offset the kickbacks.

[Disclosure: Uber’s Janakiram and I briefly lived in the same three-bedroom apartment five years ago, though I’d already agreed to write about the redesign when I found out he was involved.]

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Jam City signs mobile game development deal with Disney

Posted by | Entertainment, Gaming, jam city, Mobile, Startups, the walt disney company | No Comments

Mobile gaming company Jam City is announcing a multi-year deal to create mobile games based on Pixar and Walt Disney Animation characters and films.

As part of the agreement, Jam City is taking over development of the match-three puzzle game Disney Emoji Blitz, which launched in 2016. Jam City says that everyone at Disney’s Glendale game studio who’s affected by this will be offered new jobs at the company to continue working on the title.

The first new game, meanwhile, will be based on the upcoming sequel to “Frozen” (that’s right, there’s going to be a “Frozen 2”), though the companies aren’t revealing any details, like the type of gameplay or the release date.

“While our licensing business for Disney Animation and Pixar games has grown over the last year and we have several top developers creating Disney games, this deal with Jam City represents a significant long-term opportunity for our games business and for the future slate of Disney and Pixar games,” said Kyle Laughlin, Disney’s senior vice president of games and interactive experiences, in a statement.

Jam City was founded in 2009 by Chris DeWolfe (who previously cofounded and served as CEO of MySpace) and former Fox executive Josh Ygaudo. It was initially focused on social games and was known as MindJolt before becoming the Social Gaming Network (named after a company it acquired) and then rebranding again two years ago as Jam City.

While Jam City has created its own games like Cookie Jam and Panda Pop, it’s also been releasing titles based on well-known franchises and intellectual property, such as “Snoopy Pop” and “Marvel Avengers Academy.” Earlier this year, it launched “Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery,” a game that allows players to enroll in J.K. Rowling’s famous school for wizards and features the voices of several actors from the films.

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Facebook Lasso app lead Brady Voss leaves for Netflix right after launch

Posted by | Apps, Brady Voss, Facebook, Mobile, Netflix, Personnel, Social, Talent, TC, tiktok, Video | No Comments

Facebook Lasso has a steep uphill climb ahead as it hopes to chase the musical video app it cloned, China’s TikTok (which merged with Musically). Lasso lets you overlay popular songs on 15-second clips of you lip syncing, dancing or just being silly — kind of like Vine with a soundtrack. It’s off to a slow start since launching Friday, having failed to reach the overall app download charts as it falls from No. 169 to No. 217 on the U.S. iOS Photo and Video App chart, according to App Annie. Sensor Tower estimates Lasso has been downloaded fewer than 10,000 times across both iOS and Android.

Forme Facebook Lead Product Designer Brady Voss

And now one of the Lasso team’s bosses, Brady Voss, is leaving Facebook for a job at Netflix. He’d spent five years as a lead product designer at Facebook working on standalone apps like Hello and major feature launches like Watch, Live, 360 video and the social network’s smart TV app. He previously designed products for TiVo and Microsoft’s Xbox.

“After five life-changing years at Facebook, my last day will be this Friday, 11/16,” Voss wrote on Facebook. “Following our launch of our new app, Lasso, a project I’ve been working on for a while now, the timing works well to explore what’s coming next…. As for what’s next? I have accepted a position at Netflix in Los Gatos, California.” A Facebook spokesperson responded that “Yes, I can confirm that Brady is leaving Facebook.”

Voss added some color about joining Facebook, noting, “There was actually a discussion about whether or not I’d be a great culture fit because I wore a tie to my interviews–which is funny because we don’t believe dressing like that is what enables people to bring their best everyday. Thankfully, they saw past the common clichés–because suits and ties are not me.” As for Facebook’s troubles, he wrote that “I was even there for the big freak out moments along the way–we’ll keep them unnamed 🙃”, which could refer to his work on Facebook Live that spawned big problems with real-time broadcasts of violence and self-harm.

While it’s reasonable for anyone to want a change of pace after five years, especially after the brutal year Facebook’s had in the press, his departure just a week after Lasso’s launch doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence in the app’s trajectory. It might have been a sensible stopping point haven gotten the app out the door, but you’d also think that if Lasso had a real shot at popularity, he’d have wanted to stick around to oversee that growth.

Lasso’s first rodeo

TechCrunch first broke the news last month that Lasso was in development, citing Voss as one of the team’s heads. But in the meantime, the world’s highest valued private startup ByteDance managed to push its TikTok app past Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube on the download charts. It’s now at No. 5 on the U.S. iOS overall charts and No. 1 in Photo and Video. Facebook seems to have shooed Lasso out a little prematurely before losing more ground, given it lacks many of the augmented reality features and filters found in Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok .

Facebook Lasso

TechCrunch asked the company for some more details about the Lasso roadmap. A spokesperson told me that Facebook will be evolving Lasso and adding new features with time, and may test a feature for uploading videos instead of being restricted to shooting them in-app right now. Voss’ departure post includes a “Made With Lasso” video featuring an augmented reality effect with him conjuring Facebook Like thumbs-ups out of his hand. [Update: He tells me he added this in AfterEffects, but it shows that Facebookers think AR should be part of Lasso.]

As for monetization, Facebook tells me there are no plans to show ads right now. Typically, Facebook tries to build products to have hundreds of millions of users before it potentially endangers growth by layering in revenue generators. I asked if users might be able to pay their favorite video creators with tips, and the company says that while that’s not currently available, it hopes to explore ways to allow creators to earn money in the future. Instagram said the same thing about IGTV when it launched in June, and we still haven’t heard anything on that front. Facebook likely won’t be able to lure creators to new platforms with smaller audiences than their main channels unless it’s going to let them earn money there.

If Facebook is truly serious about challenging TikTok, it may need to build closer ties between Lasso and Instagram. Facebook left its previous standalone video apps like Slingshot and Poke out to dry, eventually shuttering them after providing little cross-promotion. Given the teen audience Lasso craves is already on Instagram, it will be fascinating to see if former VP of News Feed Adam Mosseri, who’s now running Instagram, will insert some links to Lasso. A Facebook spokesperson says that Facebook may investigate promoting Lasso on its other apps down the line.

And one final concern regarding Lasso is that Facebook isn’t doing much to prevent underage kids below 13 from getting on the app. Tweens flocked to Musically, leading to some worrisome content. Ten-year-old girls in revealing clothing singing along to the scandalous lyrics of pop songs frequently populated the Musically leaderboard. That prompted me to question Musically CEO Alex Zhu onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt London 2015 about whether his app violated the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) that prohibits online services from collecting photos or videos of kids under 13. He denied wrongdoing with flimsy excuses, claiming parents were always aware of what kids were doing, and stormed out of the backstage area after our talk.

So I asked Facebook how it would prevent such issues on Lasso, where all content is public and adults can follow children. A spokesperson told me that you need a Facebook or Instagram account to sign up for Lasso, and those services require people to be 13 older. But “require” isn’t exactly the right word. It asks people to state they’re of age, but doesn’t do anything to confirm that. Lasso does have a report button for flagging inappropriate content, and the company claims to be taking privacy and safety seriously.

But if the tech giants are going to build apps purposefully designed for young audiences, asking for kids to merely promise they’re old enough to join may not be sufficient.

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Google’s Project Fi gets an improved VPN service

Posted by | Android, Google, Mobile, project fi, Security, virtual private networks, vpn, wi-fi, wireless, wireless service | No Comments

Google’s Project Fi wireless service is getting a major update today that introduces an optional always-on VPN service and a smarter way to switch between Wi-Fi and cellular connections.

By default, Fi already uses a VPN service to protect users when they connect to the roughly two million supported Wi-Fi hotspots. Now, Google is expanding this to cellular connections, as well. “When you enable our enhanced network, all of your mobile and Wi-Fi traffic will be encrypted and securely sent through our virtual private network (VPN) on every network you connect to, so you’ll have the peace of mind of knowing that others can’t see your online activity,” the team writes in today’s announcement.

Google notes that the VPN also shields all of your traffic from Google itself and that it isn’t tied to your Google account or phone number.

The VPN is part of what Google calls its “enhanced network” and the second part of this announcement is that this network now also allows for a faster switch between Wi-Fi and mobile networks. When you enable this — and both of these features are currently in beta and only available on Fi-compatible phones that run Android Pie — your phone will automatically detect when your Wi-Fi connection gets weaker and fill in those gaps with cellular data. The company says that in its testing, this new system reduces a user’s time without a working connection by up to 40 percent.

These new features will start rolling out to Fi users later this week. They are off by default, so you’ll have to head to the Fi Network Tools in the Project Fi app and turn them on to get started. One thing to keep in mind here: Google says your data usage will likely increase by about 10 percent when you use the VPN.

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Open sourcing analysis, plus US, China and HQ2

Posted by | Amazon, Asia, Government, hq2, Mobile, new york city, oppo, Tencent, washington DC, WeChat, WhatsApp, Xiaomi | No Comments

The big news today is that — finally — we have Amazon’s selection of cities for its dual second headquarters (Northern Virginia and NYC). Then some notes on China. But first, semiconductors and open sourcing analysis.

We are experimenting with new content forms at TechCrunch. This is a rough draft of something new — provide your feedback directly to the authors: Danny at danny@techcrunch.com or Arman at Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com if you like or hate something here.

Pivot: Future of semiconductors, chips, AI, etc.

Last week, I focused on SoftBank’s debt and Form D filings by startups. On Friday, I asked what I should start to analyze next. There were several feedback hotspots, but the one that popped out to me was around next-generation chips and the battle for dominance at the hardware layer.

As a software engineer, I know almost nothing about silicon (the beauty of abstraction). But it is clear that the future of all kinds of workflows will increasingly be driven by capabilities at the hardware/silicon level, particularly in future applications like artificial intelligence, machine learning, AR/VR, autonomous driving and more. Furthermore, China and other countries are spending billions to go after the leaders in this space, such as Nvidia and Intel. Startups, funding, competition, geopolitics — we’ve got it all here.

Arman and I are now diving deeper into this space. We will start to post once we have some interesting things to share, but if you have ideas, opinions, companies or investments in this space: tell us about them, as we are all ears: danny@techcrunch.com and Arman.tabatabai@techcrunch.com.

Open-source analysis at TechCrunch

Since I launched this daily “column” last week, I have included the text near the top that “We are experimenting with new content forms at TechCrunch.” One of those forms is what might be called open-source journalism. Definitions are fuzzy, but I take it to mean working “in the open” — allowing you, the audience of this column, to engage in not just feedback around finalized and published posts, but to actually affect the entire process of analysis, from sourcing and ideation to data science and writing.

I am thankful to work at a publication like TechCrunch where my readers are often working in the exact sectors that I am writing about. When I wrote about Form Ds last week, a number of startup attorneys reached out with their own thoughts and analysis, and also explained key aspects of how the law is changing around SEC disclosure for startups. That’s really powerful, and I want to apply it to as many fields as possible.

This thesis is ultimately intentional — now I have to operationalize it. There aren’t good tools (yet!) that I know of that allow for easy sharing of data and notes that don’t rely on a hacked-together set of Google Docs and GitHub. But I’m exploring the stack, and will publish more things publicly as we have them.

Amazon HQ2 — the future of corporate relations with cities

Amazon’s long process for selecting an HQ2 is finally over, and the official answer is two: Northern Virginia and NYC. Tons of words have been spilled about the search, and I am sure even more analysis will strike today about what put those two locations over the top.

To me, the key for mayors is to start using these reverse searches (where a company seeks a city and not vice versa) as leverage to actually get resources to fund infrastructure and other critical services.

This is a theme that I discussed about a year ago:

Take Boston’s bid for GE’s new headquarters. Yes, the city offered property tax rebates of about $25 million , but GE’s move also pushed the state to fund a variety of infrastructure improvements, including the Northern Avenue bridge and new bike lanes. That bridge adds a critical path for vehicles and pedestrians in Boston’s central business district, yet has gone unfunded for years.

Ideally, governments could debate, vote, and then fund these sorts of infrastructure projects and community improvements. The reality is that without a time-sensitive forcing function like a reverse RFP process, there is little hope that cities and states will make progress on these sorts of projects. The debates can literally go on forever in American democracy.

So if you are a mayor or economic planning official, use these processes as tools to get stuff done. Use the allure of new jobs and tax revenues to spur infrastructure spending and get a rezoning through a recalcitrant city council. Use that “prosperity bomb” to upgrade old parts of the urban landscape and prepare the city for the future. A healthier, more humane city can be just around the corner.

Take DC. The city has seen one of the best-run Metro systems deteriorate to abysmal levels over the past few years due to a complete dumpster fire of organizational design (the DC transit agency WMATA is funded by inconsistent revenue sources that ensure it will never be sustainable). Here is an opportunity to use Amazon’s announcement to get the tax framework and operations figured out to ensure that real estate, transportation and other critical urban infrastructure are designed effectively.

China’s mobile internationalization

Timothy Allen/Getty Images

Talking about second headquarters, the technology industry clearly has separated into poles, one based around the United States and the other based around China. Two articles I read recently gave good insights of the benefits and challenges for China in this world.

The first is from Sam Byford writing at The Verge, who investigates the native OS options that Chinese consumers receive from companies like Xiaomi, Huawei, Oppo and others. The headline is much more shrill than the text, so don’t let that frighten you.

Byford provides an overview of the lineage of Chinese mobile OSes, and also notes that what might look like design gaffes in Western consumer eyes might be critical needs for Chinese buyers:

But what is true today is that not all Chinese phone software is bad. And when it is bad from a Western perspective, it’s often bad for very different reasons than the bad Android skins of the past. Yes, many of these phones make similar mistakes with overbearing UI decisions — hello, Huawei — and yes, it’s easy to mock some designs for their obvious thrall to iOS. But these are phones created in a very different context to Android devices as we’ve previously understood them.

The article is perhaps a tad long for what it is, but Byford’s key viewpoint should be repeated as a mantra by any person connected to the technology sector today: “The Chinese phone market is a spiraling behemoth of innovation and audacity, unlike anything we’ve ever seen. If you want to be on board with the already exciting hardware, it’s worth trying to understand the software.”

Of course, while China may be a huge country, its leading technology companies do want to globalize and expand their user bases outside of the Middle Kingdom’s borders. That may well be a challenging proposition.

Writing at Factor Daily, Shadma Shaikh dives into the failure of WeChat to break into the Indian market. The product lessons learned by WeChat’s owner Tencent could be applied to any Silicon Valley company — cultural knowledge and appropriate product design are key to entering overseas markets.

Shaikh gives a couple of examples:

Another design feature in the app allowed users to look up and send add-friend requests to WeChat users nearby. During initial onboarding when users were just checking app’s features, many would tap the “people nearby” feature, which would switch on location sharing by default – including with strangers. Once location sharing with strangers was switched on, it wasn’t very intuitive to turn it off.

“Women used to get a lot of unwarranted messages from men, which was a major turn off and many of them left the platform,” Gupta says. “China probably didn’t have this stalking problem.”

And

In China, where the internet was cheaper than in India in 2012, sending video files of, say, 4 MB was not a challenge. WhatsApp compresses a 5 MB photo to 40 kilobytes. WeChat did not compress the files and took many minutes and data to send and receive media files.

Internationalization will never be easy, but the lessons that Silicon Valley has slowly learned over the past two decades will need to be learned again by Chinese companies if they want to export their software to other countries.

Reading Docket

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Snapchat launches Bitmoji merch and comic strips starring your avatar

Posted by | Apps, Bitmoji, bitstrips, eCommerce, Genies, Mobile, snap inc, Snap Store, Snapchat, Social, TC | No Comments

Snapchat is doubling down on its biggest differentiator by turning its personalized avatar Bitmoji into a revenue stream and a new source of content. Snapchat is launching a Bitmoji merchandise store you can customize with you and your friends’ cartoonified faces, Bitmoji Stories comic strips featuring you and friends’ avatars in fun scenes and a new Friendship profile that collects all the content you and a friend have saved from your Snap message thread.

The new features could help earn Snapchat money to reduce its still-massive quarterly losses, get Snap’s brand out in public and give people new ways to spend more time on Snapchat when it’s otherwise been losing users.

Snapchat, the e-commerce company

The Bitmoji merchandise store opens Thursday in the U.S. on iOS only with $2 stickers, $15 coffee mugs, $16 standard t-shirts and notebooks, $22 triblend t-shirts, $27 sweatshirts and more that users can personalize by adding their Bitmoji, one of their friends’, them and a friends’ playing together, or any two of their friends. Phone cases, towels and pillows are also available. You can access the Bitmoji store from Snap Store in the Settings menu of Snapchat’s app. Snapchat first launched its Snap Store in Ghostface Chillah logo merchandise back in February to sell Dancing Hot Dog dolls, ghost pool floats and puppy selfie-filter shirts.

The new merch could help Snap show off its name and brand, reminding people to use the app as they can’t get the true Bitmoji anywhere else. Snap could also use the revenue given that it lost $325 million last quarter and might have to take outside investment or be acquired as it may not break even before running out of cash.

Snap comics

Back before it settled on the idea of turning personalized emoji into stickers you could use in chat, Bitmoji parent company Bitstrips started as a comic strip creator. You could make an avatar and then create little scenes for them to star in. The idea was inspired by co-founder Jacob “BA” Blackstock’s school days when he and friends would draw comic strips when they were bored. Now Snap is getting back to Bitmoji’s roots.

Bitmoji Stories launch tomorrow in the U.S. A Snapchat spokesperson tells me “Bitmoji Stories will tell lighthearted stories in the form of short comic strips. Bitmoji Stories are created by Snap (from the Bitmoji content team), and will star the Snapchatter solo or with a friend.” They’ll be constantly updated with new adventures, and they’re quite reminiscent of lifelike avatar startup Genies’ scenes. By creating a new form of Discover content in-house, Snapchat could draw more time and therefore more ad views out of its audience. And because there’s no outside publisher to pay, Snapchat can keep all the ad revenue.Snap’s big competitors have largely failed to field a viable Bitmoji competitor. A year ago I wrote that “Facebook seriously needs its own Bitmoji,” and in May, we broke the news that Facebook Avatars were in the works — though the prototypes were pretty ugly. Each day Facebook delays, Bitmoji becomes more entrenched as the avatar standard. Two weeks ago, Google launched its own Gboard Mini avatars that you can automatically create with a selfie, rather than having to configure them manually like on Snapchat. But when it comes to an illustrated version of you, even tiny missteps can make you look monstrous. Plus, people love wasting time customizing avatars. Snap’s version still reigns supreme.

Besties are Snap’s best shot

And lastly, today Snapchat begins globally rolling out its Friendship profiles. Accessible by clicking on a friend’s Bitmoji (or blank avatar if they haven’t made one) from Chat, Stories, Discover or search, Snapchat says they “make it easy to find your favorite memories and the important information you’ve saved over time.” That includes, photos, videos, messages, and links saved from your otherwise ephemeral chats, plus a quick way to see that bestie on the Snap Map.

None of these features is so seismic as to change the overall momentum of Snapchat, which has been struggling lately with shrinking user counts, a battered share price and non-stop executive departures. Its VP of Content Nick Bell left yesterday. Having talked with him, he’s one of the smartest minds in modern mobile content, and Snap’s hopes to get rid of the clickbait and messy design of Discover may be more difficult without him.

The strategy of focusing on best friends is smart, though. The one thing Facebook and Instagram can’t copy is Snapchat’s tight social graph of just your closest pals. Those competitors allowed their networks to bloat with acquaintances, family and colleagues that can make people less comfortable openly sharing. Now that they’ve copied Snapchat’s Stories broadcasting to a wider audience, Snap must refocus on best friends if it wants to stay unique and turn its smaller size and graph into an asset instead of a liability.

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