payments

Amazon now sells flight tickets in India

Posted by | Amazon, amazon pay, Android, Asia, Booking.com, Google, india, MakeMyTrip, payments, Paytm, Transportation, zomato | No Comments

Indians can already use Amazon to pay for their mobile bills and borrow money to purchase items, but now there’s more. This week, the e-commerce giant quietly introduced an additional feature to its shopping site: flight tickets.

Amazon has partnered with local travel service ClearTrip to add a flight-booking option to its payment service — Amazon Pay — in India, according to an FAQ posted on its website. The feature, first spotted by news outlet Skift, is available on its Indian website and app.

The addition of plane ticketing underscores Amazon’s growing interest in expanding its payment service in India, which is both one of its fastest-growing markets and a country it uses to test new ideas.

Since launching Amazon Pay in India in late 2016, the company has added myriad features to the service. Amazon Pay today allows Indians to top up their phones, purchase cable TV subscriptions and pay for electricity and water bills. Last month, Amazon announced support for peer-to-peer (P2P) money transfers for users of its Android app. Amazon also plans to soon let users order food from its website, local media reported last month.

The company has also inked deals with other top firms such as movie ticketing site BookMyShow, food delivery startup Swiggy and bus-ticketing startup Redbus to embed Amazon Pay into many popular Indian services. To spur its adoption, the company has offered cashback incentives to those who checkout using Amazon Pay.

The flight ticketing option is not much different. The company is promising a one-time cashback of up to Rs 2,000 ($28.20) for each first booking.

The push comes as many local companies in India and those that operate in the nation begin to mold their apps into so-called super apps. Top mobile wallet service Paytm has expanded to add a number of financial services, including as of this week a credit card, in recent years. India’s ride-hailing service Ola also entered the credit card business this week.

Truecaller, an app that lets users screen for spam calls, has added messaging and payment features in India. The bundling often seems big names work together. For example, Paytm recently partnered with Zomato to test a food-ordering option on the mobile wallet app, a source with knowledge of the partner told TechCrunch.

Amazon’s interest in a flight-ticketing option in India should also help its partner ClearTrip gain a larger foothold in the nation. The company competes with giant MakeMyTrip, Booking.com and Paytm . Google also offers flights in India, though, at the moment, that is limited to search. When it comes to transactions, users are directed to ticketing websites to complete their purchase.

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India’s ride-hailing firm Ola is now in the credit card business, too

Posted by | Asia, Bhavish Aggarwal, Finance, go-jek, india, Mobile, ola money, payments, Paytm, Startups, Uber, visa | No Comments

A day after India’s largest wallet app Paytm entered the credit card business, local ride-hailing giant Ola is following suit. Ola has inked a deal with state-run SBI and Visa to issue as many as 10 million credit cards in the next three and a half years, it said today.

The move will help Visa and SBI (State Bank of India) acquire more customers in India, where most transactions are still bandied out over cash. For Ola, which rivals Uber in India, the foray into credit cards represents a new avenue to monetize its customers, as TechCrunch previously reported.

With about 150 million users availing more than 2 million rides on its platform each day, Ola is sitting on a mountain of data about its users’ financial power and spends. With the card, dubbed Ola Money-SBI Credit Card, the mobility firm is also offering several discounts and savings to retain its loyal customer base.

Ola, which is nearing $6 billion in valuation and counts SoftBank and Naspers among its investors, said it will offer its credit card holders “highest cashback and rewards” in the form of Ola Money that could be redeemed for Ola rides, as well as flight and hotel bookings. There will be 7% percent cashback on cab spends, 5% on flight bookings, 20% on domestic hotel bookings (6% on international hotel bookings), 20% on more than 6,000 restaurants and 1% on all other spends.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Nitin Gupta, CEO of Ola financial services, claimed that the company was offering “five times rewards to customers” in comparison to average credit card companies. “Also, the card is a first of its kind offering that can be managed digitally through the Ola App. We are committed to creating an inclusive ecosystem where mobility and financial services go hand in hand in leading growth and development,” he said. Ola said it has already rolled out the card to some users and will invite other eligible customers to avail it.

“Mobility spends form a significant wallet share for users and we see a huge opportunity to transform their payments experience with this solution. With over 150 million digital-first consumers on our platform, Ola will be a catalyst in driving India’s digital economy with cutting edge payment solutions,” Bhavish Aggarwal, co-founder and CEO of Ola, said in a statement.

Why credit cards?

Ola appears to be following the playbook of Grab and Go-Jek, two ride-hailing services in Southeast Asian markets that have ventured into a number of businesses in recent years. Both Grab and Go-Jek offer loans, remittance and insurance to their riders, while the former also maintains its own virtual credit card. Interestingly, Uber, which also offers a credit card in some markets, has no such play in India.

The move will allow Ola to look beyond ride-hailing and food delivery, two businesses that appear to have hit a saturation point in India, said Satish Meena, an analyst with research firm Forrester.

In recent years, Ola has started to explore financial services. It offers riders “micro-insurance” that covers a range of risks, including loss of baggage and medical expenses. The company said earlier this year, it has sold more than 20 million insurances to customers. Using Ola Money to facilitate cashbacks also underscores Ola’s push to increase the adoption of its mobile wallet, which, according to estimates, lags Paytm and several other wallet and UPI payment apps.

The company has also made a major push in the electric vehicles business, which it spun off as a separate company earlier this year. In March, its EV business raised $300 million from Hyundai and Kia. The company has said that it plans to offer one million EVs by 2022. Its other EV programs include a pledge to add 10,000 rickshaws for use in cities.

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India’s largest mobile wallet company Paytm now offers a credit card

Posted by | alibaba, Asia, Berkshire Hathaway, citibank, Finance, india, Mobile, Online lending, payments, Paytm, Softbank, Uber, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, warren buffett, zomato | No Comments

Paytm, India’s largest mobile wallet app, has branched out to several businesses in recent years as threat from Google and Facebook grows. On Tuesday, it added another category to the list: credit cards.

The firm, operated by One97 Communications, today unveiled Paytm First Credit Card with lofty benefits as it races to bulk up its financial offerings. The cards, issued by Citi Bank, will be the first in the country to offer unlimited, one percent cashback on purchases, Paytm claimed in a statement. The company is hoping to rope in about 25 million credit card customers in the coming months.

The penetration of credit cards remains very low in India with under 50 million people possessing one. With people conducting most of their businesses through cash in the nation, banks have little understanding of a customer’s credit history and score. And it also doesn’t help that banks in India are still wary of issuing credit cards to those who don’t perfectly fit the traditional blue collar job.

But why is a company that made its name through a mobile payment wallet open to its customers engaging with credit card companies? Paytm itself is struggling to grow its business and retain existing customers. Some of its recent major bets haven’t exactly paid off. Its ecommerce business Paytm Mall remains tiny despite bleeding money.

Yo! The First. Paytm First. pic.twitter.com/5kAxozc2IH

— Vijay Shekhar (@vijayshekhar) May 13, 2019

But more importantly, payments itself has become a commoditized space. Users park their money in Paytm and do transactions from there. Paytm makes money from this accumulated sum. This business flourished for years, especially in the months after the Indian government invalidated much of the cash in the nation. But then the government launched its own payment infrastructure called UPI, which removes the need for a middleman.

This has made payments more convenient for users, who are increasingly jumping ship. UPI apps such as PhonePe that have emerged in the last two and a half years now see more transactions than wallet apps. To make matter worse for Paytm, Google and Facebook — two companies that have larger userbase in India — have entered the payments space. Google Pay reached 100 million installs on Google Play Store recently, and WhatsApp plans a nation-wide roll out of its payment feature in India later this year.

So Paytm is now expanding its financial offerings and credit card play fits well in it. With more than 200 million active users, Paytm rivals banks on both the number of customers and volume of transaction it processes.

“Our new offering is designed to bring utmost flexibility to our customers in their digital payment options and will help spur large-ticket cashless payments,” Vijay Shekhar Sharma, chairman and CEO of One97 Communications said in a statement.

Backed by SoftBank, Alibaba, and most recently Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, Paytm has the capital to spur the adoption of its new credit card. As part of the package, Paytm’s credit card holders will be able to avail dining, shopping, travel and other offers that Citi Bank provides to its privilege customers. In the first four months of issuing a card, the company will offer its customers discounts worth Rs 10,000 ($142) on spending of Rs 10,000.

Paytm First Credit Card will work both in India and elsewhere and support contactless transactions. Like any other credit card, customers will be able to pay back a sum in multiple monthly instalments. Paytm First Credit Card will charge users a nominal fee of Rs 500 ($7.1) that will be waived off if their spendings through the card exceeds Rs 50,000 ($710) in a year.

If the gamble works, Paytm will be able to retain some customers and convince many to do big-ticket transactions. For Citi Bank, this partnership is just an easy ploy to acquire some customers.

In the meantime, Paytm continues to aggressively expand its financial offerings. In recent years, it has launched a digital payments bank, and has started to offer prepaid Forex cards for international purchases. It also lets customers buy gold, and employers issue food allowance wallets for their staff. Last year, the company announced Paytm Money to facilitate purchase of mutual funds.

Earlier this year, the company launched Paytm First, a subscription bundle that includes access to subscriptions from other services such as Zomato, Uber, Gaana, and Eros Now. In an interview with TechCrunch late last month, Paytm’s Sharma said payments is the moat around which you can build a number of services. “Now that’s a business model… payment itself can’t make you money.”

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India’s most popular services are becoming super apps

Posted by | Apps, Asia, China, Cloud, Developer, Facebook, Finance, Flipkart, food, Foodpanda, Gaana, Gaming, grab, haptik, hike, india, MakeMyTrip, Media, Microsoft, microsoft garage, Mobile, Mukesh Ambani, mx player, payments, Paytm, paytm mall, reliance jio, saavn, SnapDeal, Social, Startups, Tapzo, Tencent, Times Internet, Transportation, Truecaller, Uber, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, WeChat | No Comments

Truecaller, an app that helps users screen strangers and robocallers, will soon allow users in India, its largest market, to borrow up to a few hundred dollars.

The crediting option will be the fourth feature the nine-year-old app adds to its service in the last two years. So far it has added to the service the ability to text, record phone calls and mobile payment features, some of which are only available to users in India. Of the 140 million daily active users of Truecaller, 100 million live in India.

The story of the ever-growing ambition of Truecaller illustrates an interesting phase in India’s internet market that is seeing a number of companies mold their single-functioning app into multi-functioning so-called super apps.

Inspired by China

This may sound familiar. Truecaller and others are trying to replicate Tencent’s playbook. The Chinese tech giant’s WeChat, an app that began life as a messaging service, has become a one-stop solution for a range of features — gaming, payments, social commerce and publishing platform — in recent years.

WeChat has become such a dominant player in the Chinese internet ecosystem that it is effectively serving as an operating system and getting away with it. The service maintains its own “app store” that hosts mini apps. This has put it at odds with Apple, though the iPhone-maker has little choice but to make peace with it.

For all its dominance in China, WeChat has struggled to gain traction in India and elsewhere. But its model today is prominently on display in other markets. Grab and Go-Jek in Southeast Asian markets are best known for their ride-hailing services, but have begun to offer a range of other features, including food delivery, entertainment, digital payments, financial services and healthcare.

The proliferation of low-cost smartphones and mobile data in India, thanks in part to Google and Facebook, has helped tens of millions of Indians come online in recent years, with mobile the dominant platform. The number of internet users has already exceeded 500 million in India, up from some 350 million in mid-2015. According to some estimates, India may have north of 625 million users by year-end.

This has fueled the global image of India, which is both the fastest growing internet and smartphone market. Naturally, local apps in India, and those from international firms that operate here, are beginning to replicate WeChat’s model.

Founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Paytm Vijay Shekhar Sharma speaks during the launch of Paytm payments Bank at a function in New Delhi on November 28, 2017 (AFP PHOTO / SAJJAD HUSSAIN)

Leading that pack is Paytm, the popular homegrown mobile wallet service that’s valued at $18 billion and has been heavily backed by Alibaba, the e-commerce giant that rivals Tencent and crucially missed the mobile messaging wave in China.

Commanding attention

In recent years, the Paytm app has taken a leaf from China with additions that include the ability to text merchants; book movie, flight and train tickets; and buy shoes, books and just about anything from its e-commerce arm Paytm Mall . It also has added a number of mini games to the app. The company said earlier this month that more than 30 million users are engaging with its games.

Why bother with diversifying your app’s offering? Well, for Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and CEO of Paytm, the question is why shouldn’t you? If your app serves a certain number of transactions (or engagements) in a day, you have a good shot at disrupting many businesses that generate fewer transactions, he told TechCrunch in an interview.

At the end of the day, companies want to garner as much attention of a user as they can, said Jayanth Kolla, founder and partner of research and advisory firm Convergence Catalyst.

“This is similar to how cable networks such as Fox and Star have built various channels with a wide range of programming to create enough hooks for users to stick around,” Kolla said.

“The agenda for these apps is to hold people’s attention and monopolize a user’s activities on their mobile devices,” he added, explaining that higher engagement in an app translates to higher revenue from advertising.

Paytm’s Sharma agrees. “Payment is the moat. You can offer a range of things including content, entertainment, lifestyle, commerce and financial services around it,” he told TechCrunch. “Now that’s a business model… payment itself can’t make you money.”

Big companies follow suit

Other businesses have taken note. Flipkart -owned payment app PhonePe, which claims to have 150 million active users, today hosts a number of mini apps. Some of those include services for ride-hailing service Ola, hotel booking service Oyo and travel booking service MakeMyTrip.

Paytm (the first two images from left) and PhonePe offer a range of services that are integrated into their payments apps

What works for PhonePe is that its core business — payments — has amassed enough users, Himanshu Gupta, former associate director of marketing and growth for WeChat in India, told TechCrunch. He added that unlike e-commerce giant Snapdeal, which attempted to offer similar offerings back in the day, PhonePe has tighter integration with other services, and is built using modern architecture that gives users almost native app experiences inside mini apps.

When you talk about strategy for Flipkart, the homegrown e-commerce giant acquired by Walmart last year for a cool $16 billion, chances are arch rival Amazon is also hatching similar plans, and that’s indeed the case for super apps.

In India, Amazon offers its customers a range of payment features such as the ability to pay phone bills and cable subscription through its Amazon Pay service. The company last year acquired Indian startup Tapzo, an app that offers integration with popular services such as Uber, Ola, Swiggy and Zomato, to boost Pay’s business in the nation.

Another U.S. giant, Microsoft, is also aboard the super train. The Redmond-based company has added a slew of new features to SMS Organizer, an app born out of its Microsoft Garage initiative in India. What began as a texting app that can screen spam messages and help users keep track of important SMSs recently partnered with education board CBSE in India to deliver exam results of 10th and 12th grade students.

This year, the SMS Organizer app added an option to track live train schedules through a partnership with Indian Railways, and there’s support for speech-to-text. It also offers personalized discount coupons from a range of companies, giving users an incentive to check the app more often.

Like in other markets, Google and Facebook hold a dominant position in India. More than 95% of smartphones sold in India run the Android operating system. There is no viable local — or otherwise — alternative to Search, Gmail and YouTube, which counts India as its fastest growing market. But Google hasn’t necessarily made any push to significantly expand the scope of any of its offerings in India.

India is the biggest market for WhatsApp, and Facebook’s marquee app too has more than 250 million users in the nation. WhatsApp launched a pilot payments program in India in early 2018, but is yet to get clearance from the government for a nationwide rollout. (It isn’t happening for at least another two months, a person familiar with the matter said.) In the meanwhile, Facebook appears to be hatching a WeChatization of Messenger, albeit that app is not so big in India.

Ride-hailing service Ola too, like Grab and Go-Jek, plans to add financial services such as credit to the platform this year, a source familiar with the company’s plans told TechCrunch.

“We have an abundance of data about our users. We know how much money they spend on rides, how often they frequent the city and how often they order from restaurants. It makes perfect sense to give them these valued-added features,” the person said. Ola has already branched out of transport after it acquired food delivery startup Foodpanda in late 2017, but it hasn’t yet made major waves in financial services despite giving its Ola Money service its own dedicated app.

The company positioned Ola Money as a super app, expanded its features through acquisition and tie ups with other players and offered discounts and cashbacks. But it remains behind Paytm, PhonePe and Google Pay, all of which are also offering discounts to customers.

Integrated entertainment

Super apps indeed come in all shapes and sizes, beyond core services like payment and transportation — the strategy is showing up in apps and services that entertain India’s internet population.

MX Player, a video playback app with more than 175 million users in India that was acquired by Times Internet for some $140 million last year, has big ambitions. Last year, it introduced a video streaming service to bolster its app to grow beyond merely being a repository. It has already commissioned the production of several original shows.

In recent months, it has also integrated Gaana, the largest local music streaming app that is also owned by Times Internet. Now its parent company, which rivals Google and Facebook on some fronts, is planning to add mini games to MX Player, a person familiar with the matter said, to give it additional reach and appeal.

Some of these apps, especially those that have amassed tens of millions of users, have a real shot at diversifying their offerings, analyst Kolla said. There is a bar of entry, though. A huge user base that engages with a product on a daily basis is a must for any company if it is to explore chasing the super app status, he added.

Indeed, there are examples of companies that had the vision to see the benefits of super apps but simply couldn’t muster the requisite user base. As mentioned, Snapdeal tried and failed at expanding its app’s offerings. Messaging service Hike, which was valued at more than $1 billion two years ago and includes WeChat parent Tencent among its investors, added games and other features to its app, but ultimately saw poor engagement. Its new strategy is the reverse: to break its app into multiple pieces.

“In 2019, we continue to double down on both social and content but we’re going to do it with an evolved approach. We’re going to do it across multiple apps. That means, in 2019 we’re going to go from building a super app that encompasses everything, to Multiple Apps solving one thing really well. Yes, we’re unbundling Hike,” Kavin Mittal, founder and CEO of Hike, wrote in an update published earlier this year.

It remains unclear how users are responding to the new features on their favorite apps. Some signs suggest, however, that at least some users are embracing the additional features. Truecaller said it is seeing tens of thousands of users try the payment feature for the first time each day. It’s also being used to send 3 billion texts a month.

And Reliance Jio, of course

Regardless, the race is still on, and there are big horses waiting to enter to add further competition.

Reliance Jio, a subsidiary of conglomerate Reliance Industry that is owned by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, is planning to introduce a super app that will host more than 100 features, according to a person familiar with the matter. Local media first reported the development.

It will be fascinating to see how that works out. Reliance Jio, which almost single-handedly disrupted the telecom industry in India with its low-cost data plans and free voice calls, has amassed tens of millions of users on the bouquet of apps that it offers at no additional cost to Jio subscribers.

Beyond that diverse selection of homespun apps, Reliance has also taken an M&A-based approach to assemble the pieces of its super app strategy.

It bought music streaming service Saavn last year and quickly integrated it with its own music app JioMusic. Last month, it acquired Haptik, a startup that develops “conversational” platforms and virtual assistants, in a deal worth more than $100 million. It already has the user bases required. JioTV, an app that offers access to over 500 TV channels; and JioNews, an app that additionally offers hundreds of magazines and newspapers, routinely appear among the top apps in Google Play Store.

India’s super app revolution is in its early days, but the trend is surely one to keep an eye on as the country moves into its next chapter of internet usage.

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Apple introduces its own credit card, the Apple Card

Posted by | Apple, Apple Card, Apple Media Event 2019, Finance, Gadgets, payments, TC | No Comments

Today, Apple announced… a credit card. The Apple Card is designed for the iPhone and will work with the Wallet app. You sign up from your iPhone and you can use it with Apple Pay in just a few minutes.

Before introducing the card, Apple CEO Tim Cook shared a few numbers about Apple Pay. This year, Apple Pay will reach 10 billion transactions. By the end of this year, Apple Pay will be available in more than 40 countries.

Retail acceptance of Apple Pay is always growing. In the U.S., 70 percent of businesses accept Apple Pay. But it’s higher in some countries — Australia is at 99 percent acceptance, for instance.

But let’s talk about the Apple Card. After signing up, you control the Apple Card from the Wallet app. When you tap on the card, you can see your last transactions, how much you owe and how much money you spent on each category.

You can tap on a transaction and see the location in a tiny Apple Maps view. Every time you make an Apple Pay transaction, you get 2 percent in cash back. You don’t have to wait until the end of the month, as your cash is credited every day. For Apple purchases, you get 3 percent back.

As previously rumored, Apple has partnered with Goldman Sachs and Mastercard to issue the card. Apple doesn’t know what you bought, where you bought it and how much you paid for it. And Goldman Sachs promises that it won’t sell your data for advertising or marketing.

When it comes to the fine print, there are no late fees, no annual fees, no international fees and no over-limit fees. If you can’t pay back your credit card balance, you can start a multi-month plan — Apple tries to clearly define the terms of the plan. You can contact customer support through text messages in the Messages app.

The Apple Card isn’t limited to a virtual card. You get a physical titanium card with a laser-etched name. There’s no card number, no CVV code, no expiration date and no signature on the card. You have to use the Wallet app to get that information. Physical transactions are eligible to 1 percent in daily cash.

When it comes to security, you’ll get a different credit card number for each of your devices. It is stored securely and you can access the PIN code using Face ID or your fingerprint. Find more details on security in our separate post.

The card will be available this summer for customers in the U.S.

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Gig workers need health & benefits — Catch is their safety net

Posted by | Apps, Catch, Collaborative Consumption, eCommerce, Finance, funding, Fundings & Exits, Health, Khosla Ventures, Kindred Ventures, Mobile, nyca partners, payments, Personnel, Recent Funding, Startups, Talent, TC, Y Combinator | No Comments

One of the hottest Y Combinator startups just raised a big seed round to clean up the mess created by Uber, Postmates and the gig economy. Catch sells health insurance, retirement savings plans and tax withholding directly to freelancers, contractors, or anyone uncovered. By building and curating simplified benefits services, Catch can offer a safety net for the future of work.

“In order to stay competitive as a society, we need to address inequality and volatility. We think Catch is the first step to offering alternatives to the mandate that benefits can only come from an employer or the government,” writes Catch co-founder and COO Kristen Tyrrell. Her co-founder and CEO Andrew Ambrosino, a former Kleiner Perkins design fellow, stumbled onto the problem as he struggled to juggle all the paperwork and programs companies typically hire an HR manager to handle. “Setting up a benefits plan was a pain. You had to become an expert in the space, and even once you were, executing and getting the stuff you needed was pretty difficult.” Catch does all this annoying but essential work for you.

Now Catch is getting its first press after piloting its product with tens of thousands of users. TechCrunch caught wind of its highly competitive seed round closing, and Catch confirms it has raised $5.1 million at a $20.5 million post-money valuation co-led by Khosla Ventures, Kindred Ventures, and NYCA Partners. This follow-up to its $1 million pre-seed will fuel its expansion into full heath insurance enrollment, life insurance and more. Catch is part of a growing trend that sees the best Y Combinator startup fully funded before Demo Day even arrives.

“Benefits, as a system built and provided by employers, created the mid-century middle class. In the post-war economic boom, companies offering benefits in the form of health insurance and pensions enabled familial stability that led to expansive growth and prosperity,” recalls Tyrrell, who was formerly the director of product at student debt repayment benefits startup FutureFuel.io. “Emboldened by private-sector growth (and apparent self-sufficiency), the 1970s and 80s saw a massive shift in financial risk management from the government to employers. The public safety net contracted in favor of privatized solutions. As technological advances progressed, employers and employees continued to redefine what work looked like. The bureaucratic and inflexible benefits system was unable to keep up. The private safety net crumbled.”

That problem has ballooned in recent years with the advent of the on-demand economy, where millions become Uber drivers, Instacart shoppers, DoorDash deliverers and TaskRabbits. Meanwhile, the destigmatization of remote work and digital nomadism has turned more people into permanent freelancers and contractors, or full-time employees without benefits. “A new class of worker emerged: one with volatile, complex income streams and limited access to second-order financial products like automated savings, individual retirement plans, and independent health insurance. We entered the new millennium with rot under the surface of new opportunity from the proliferation of the internet,” Tyrrell declares. “The last 15 years are borrowed time for the unconventional proletariat. It is time to come to terms and design a safety net that is personal, portable, modern and flexible. That’s why we built Catch.”

Catch co-founders Andrew Ambrosino and Kristen Tyrrell

Currently Catch offers the following services, each with their own way of earning the startup revenue:

  • Health Explorer lets users compare plans from insurers and calculate subsidies, while Catch serves as a broker collecting a fee from insurance providers
  • Retirement Savings gives users a Catch robo-advisor compatible with IRA and Roth IRA, while Catch earns the industry standard 1 basis point on saved assets
  • Tax Withholding provides an FDIC-insured Catch account that automatically saves what you’ll need to pay taxes later, while Catch earns interest on the funds
  • Time Off Savings similarly lets you automatically squirrel away money to finance “paid” time off, while Catch earns interest

These and the rest of Catch’s services are curated through its Guide. You answer a few questions about which benefits you have and need, connect your bank account, choose which programs you want and get push notifications whenever Catch needs your decisions or approvals. It’s designed to minimize busy work so if you have a child, you can add them to all your programs with a click instead of slogging through reconfiguring them all one at a time. That simplicity has ignited explosive growth for Catch, with the balances it holds for tax withholding, time off and retirement balances up 300 percent in each of the last three months.

In 2019 it plans to add Catch-branded student loan refinancing, vision and dental enrollment plus payments via existing providers, life insurance through a partner such as Ladder or Ethos and full health insurance enrollment plus subsidies and premium payments via existing insurance companies like Blue Shield and Oscar. And in 2020 it’s hoping to build out its own blended retirement savings solution and income-smoothing tools.

If any of this sounds boring, that’s kind of the point. Instead of sorting through this mind-numbing stuff unassisted, Catch holds your hand. Its benefits Guide is available on the web today and it’s beta testing iOS and Android apps that will launch soon. Catch is focused on direct-to-consumer sales because “We’ve seen too many startups waste time on channels/partnerships before they know people truly want their product and get lost along the way,” Tyrrell writes. Eventually it wants to set up integrations directly into where users get paid.

Catch’s biggest competition is people haphazardly managing benefits with Excel spreadsheets and a mishmash of healthcare.gov and solutions for specific programs. Twenty-one percent of Americans have saved $0 for retirement, which you could see as either a challenge to scaling Catch or a massive greenfield opportunity. Track.tax, one of its direct competitors, charges a subscription price that has driven users to Catch. And automated advisors like Betterment and Wealthfront accounts don’t work so well for gig workers with lots of income volatility.

So do the founders think the gig economy, with its suppression of benefits, helps or hinders our species? “We believe the story is complex, but overall, the existing state of the gig economy is hurting society. Without better systems to provide support for freelance/contract workers, we are making people more precarious and less likely to succeed financially.”

When I ask what keeps the founders up at night, Tyrrell admits “The safety net is not built for individuals. It’s built to be distributed through HR departments and employers. We are very worried that the products we offer aren’t on equal footing with group/company products.” For example, there’s a $6,000/year IRA limit for individuals while the corporate equivalent 401k limit is $19,000, and health insurance is much cheaper for groups than individuals.

To surmount those humps, Catch assembled a huge list of angel investors who’ve built a range of financial services, including NerdWallet founder Jake Gibson, Earnest founders Louis Beryl and Ben Hutchinson, ANDCO (acquired by Fiverr) founder Leif Abraham, Totem founder Neal Khosla, Commuter Club founder Petko Plachkov, Playable (acquired by Stripe) founder Tad Milbourn and Synapse founder Bruno Faviero. It also brought on a wide range of venture funds to open doors for it. Those include Urban Innovation Fund, Kleiner Perkins, Y Combinator, Tempo Ventures, Prehype, Loup Ventures, Indicator Ventures, Ground Up Ventures and Graduate Fund.

Hopefully the fact that there are three lead investors and so many more in the round won’t mean that none feel truly accountable to oversee the company. With 80 million Americans lacking employer-sponsored benefits and 27 million without health insurance and median job tenure down to 2.8 years for people ages 25 to 34 leading to more gaps between jobs, our workforce is vulnerable. Catch can’t operate like a traditional software startup with leniency for screw-ups. If it can move cautiously and fix things, it could earn labor’s trust and become a fundamental piece of the welfare stack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Instagram’s fundraiser stickers could lure credit card numbers

Posted by | Apps, charity, eCommerce, instagram, Instagram Stickers, Instagram Stories, Mobile, non-profits, payments, Philanthropy, Social, TC | No Comments

Mark Zuckerberg recently revealed that commerce is a huge part of the 2019 road map for Facebook’s family of apps. But before people can easily buy things from Instagram etc., Facebook needs their credit card info on file. That’s a potentially lucrative side effect of Instagram’s plan to launch a Fundraiser sticker in 2019. Facebook’s own Donate buttons have raised $1 billion, and bringing them to Instagram’s 1 billion users could do a lot of good while furthering Facebook’s commerce strategy.

New code and imagery dug out of Instagram’s Android app reveals how the Fundraiser stickers will allow you to search for nonprofits and add a Donate button for them to your Instagram Story. After you’ve donated to something once, Instagram could offer instant checkout on stuff you want to buy using the same payment details.

Back in 2013 when Facebook launched its Donate button, I suggested that it could add a “remove credit card after checkout” option to its fundraisers if it wanted to make it clear that the feature was purely altruistic. Facebook never did that. You still need to go into your payment settings or click through the See Receipt option after donating and then edit your account settings to remove your credit card. We’ll see if Instagram is any different. We’ve also asked whether Instagrammers will be able to raise money for personal causes, which would make it more of a competitor to GoFundMe — which has sadly become the social safety net for many facing healthcare crises.

Facebook mentioned at its Communities Summit earlier this month that it’d be building Instagram Fundraiser stickers, but the announcement was largely overshadowed by the company’s reveal of new Groups features. This week, TechCrunch tipster Ishan Agarwal found code in the Instagram Android app detailing how users will be able search for nonprofits or browse collections of Suggested charities and ones they follow. They can then overlay a Donate button sticker on their Instagram Story that their followers can click through to contribute.

We then asked reverse-engineering specialist Jane Manchun Wong to take a look, and she was able to generate the screenshots seen above that show a green heart icon for the Fundraiser sticker plus the nonprofit search engine. A Facebook spokespeople tells me that “We are in early stages and working hard to bring this experience to our community . . . Instagram is all about bringing you closer to the people and things you love, and a big part of that is showing support for and bringing awareness to meaningful communities and causes. Later this year, people will be able to raise money and help support nonprofits that are important to them through a donation sticker in Instagram Stories. We’re excited to bring this experience to our community and will share more updates in the coming months.”

Zuckerberg said during the Q4 2018 earnings call last month that “In Instagram, one of the areas I’m most excited about this year is commerce and shopping . . . there’s also a very big opportunity in basically enabling the transactions and making it so that the buying experience is good.” Streamlining those transactions through saved payment details means more people will complete their purchase rather than abandoning their cart. Facebook CFO David Wehner noted on the call that “Continuing to build good advertising products for our e-commerce clients on the advertising side will be a more important contributor to revenue in the foreseeable future.” Even though Facebook isn’t charging a fee on transactions, powering higher commerce conversion rates convinces merchants to buy more ads on the platform.

With all the talk of envy spiraling, phone addiction, bullying and political propaganda, enabling donations is at least one way Instagram can prove it’s beneficial to the world. Snapchat lacks formal charity features, and Twitter appears to have ended its experiment allowing nonprofits to tweet donate buttons. Despite all the flack Facebook rightfully takes, the company has shown a strong track record with philanthropy that mirrors Zuckerberg’s own $47 billion commitment through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. And if having some relatively benign secondary business benefit speeds companies toward assisting nonprofits, that’s a trade-off we should be willing to embrace.

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Amazon, Western Union debut PayCode to sell goods in emerging markets and let shoppers pay in cash

Posted by | alibaba, Amazon, Asia, developing markets, eCommerce, emerging markets, Finance, Mobile, payments, qr code, TC, western union | No Comments

While Amazon has been methodical (read: a little slow) in launching local versions of its site for various global markets, it has now embarked on a secondary track to snag more business outside the 14 countries where it has built out full operations.

Amazon has partnered with Western Union to set up a service called PayCode, which lets people shop and pay for Amazon items using local currencies that would not have been accepted on the site before, starting with services in 10 countries: Chile, Columbia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Peru, Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand.

Specifically, shoppers in these markets will now be able to go into Western Union outposts and pay for their Amazon purchases in cash, which also means that payment cards or other virtual payment methods will also not be required to buy from Amazon — one of the barriers to expanding the service up to now into more emerging economies, where card and bank account penetration is much lower than in developed markets like the U.S. and Europe.

“Amazon is committed to enabling customers anywhere in the world to shop on Amazon.com, and a big part of that is to allow customers to pay for their cross-border online purchases in a way that is most convenient for them,” said Ben Volk, director, Payment Acceptance and Experience at Amazon, in a statement. “Amazon PayCode leverages the reach of Western Union to make cross-border online shopping a reliable and convenient experience for customers who do not have access to international credit cards, or prefer to pay in cash.”

In terms of what they will be able to buy, people can shop across the breadth of the Amazon marketplace, but Amazon notes that they will only be able to use PayCode if it’s offered as an option at checkout (which will only happen in the markets where PayCode is supported); if the item that is chosen is “export eligible,” and if the item’s value “exceeds the maximum value allowed for use on this payment type” — although Amazon doesn’t appear to specify what that maximum value is. Once you complete the purchase online (or possibly more likely, on mobile), you get a “PayCode” QR code that you will have 48 hours to take to a Western Union to pay for the goods; otherwise your order gets cancelled.

The deal between Amazon and Western Union was initially announced last October, with very little detail and fanfare. The PayCode name then appeared to leak out a month later around what appeared to be a test in India (where it has not launched… yet). Today was the first time that the companies unveiled the first launch countries.

PayCode is a significant advance for Amazon as it seeks to step up to the next level of being a global e-commerce powerhouse to compete against the likes of Alibaba.

The latter company has made a lot of inroads to work in a wider array of markets beyond its home base of China, specifically tapping into a long tail of supply from its home market and demand for those goods abroad. Alibaba is also taking care of business when it comes to making more seamless transactions related to those trades. Just today, its financial services affiliate Ant Financial announced that it would acquire U.K.’s WorldFirst, which provides foreign money transfer for businesses and individuals, for a price that we heard from sources was in the region of $700 million.

Amazon currently operates 15 Amazon websites globally: in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Spain and Turkey. (It appears also to have a Prime-only site in Singapore.) Up to now, these would have been the only countries where Amazon would offer goods in local currencies.

Adding a new tranche of countries using PayCode will potentially massively expand how many people can shop on Amazon without Amazon going through the steps of setting up full-fledged operations in those countries to serve those consumers and sellers. (Or, this being Amazon, this would be a key way for the company to start testing the waters to figure out which market might do best with a full-fledged store.) Over time, you might imagine that Amazon might extend PayCode to markets where it has sites, too, to give shoppers more flexibility in how they pay for goods for themselves or that they are buying for others.

It’s a big market opportunity. Amazon cites estimates from Forrester Research that say cross-border shopping will represent 20 percent of e-commerce by 2022, accounting for $630 billion.

For Western Union, this is a potentially big partnership, too.

Today, PayCode allows people to use Western Union to act as a physical pay station for their Amazon goods, giving Western Union a small cut on those transactions. But you might imagine how this could evolve over time, where remittances sent from family members abroad via Western Union — a very common use of remittance networks — might immediately get redeemed to cover purchases on Amazon.

Similarly, Western Union is working closer with MPesa, the African mobile wallet service that lets people essentially use their phone top-up account as a payment account, and you could imagine how this too could get incorporated into the PayCode experience to facilitate buying and paying on devices, without having to go into Western Union shops and use actual cash.

“We’re helping to unlock access to Amazon.com for customers who need and want items that can only be found online in many parts of the world,” said Khalid Fellahi, SVP and General Manager of Western Union Digital, in a statement. “This is a great example of two global brands innovating and collaborating to bring customers more convenience and choice. In a world where cross-border buyers and sellers are often located on different continents and in completely different financial ecosystems, our platform is ideally suited to solving the complexity of collecting local currency and converting it into whatever currency merchants need on the other end.”

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Apple fails to block porn & gambling ‘Enterprise’ apps

Posted by | Apple, Apps, Developer, Entertainment, Gambling, Gaming, Mobile, payments, Policy, pornography, TC, WTF | No Comments

Facebook and Google were far from the only developers openly abusing Apple’s Enterprise Certificate program meant for companies offering employee-only apps. A TechCrunch investigation uncovered a dozen hardcore pornography apps and a dozen real-money gambling apps that escaped Apple’s oversight. The developers passed Apple’s weak Enterprise Certificate screening process or piggybacked on a legitimate approval, allowing them to sidestep the App Store and Cupertino’s traditional safeguards designed to keep iOS family-friendly. Without proper oversight, they were able to operate these vice apps that blatantly flaunt Apple’s content policies.

The situation shows further evidence that Apple has been neglecting its responsibility to police the Enterprise Certificate program, leading to its exploitation to circumvent App Store rules and forbidden categories. For a company whose CEO Tim Cook frequently criticizes its competitors for data misuse and policy fiascos like Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica, Apple’s failure to catch and block these porn and gambling demonstrates it has work to do itself.

Porn apps PPAV and iPorn (iP) continue to abuse Apple’s Enterprise Certificate program to sidestep the App Store’s ban on pornography. Nudity censored by TechCrunch

 

TechCrunch broke the news last week that Facebook and Google had broken the rules of Apple’s Enterprise Certificate program to distribute apps that installed VPNs or demanded root network access to collect all of a user’s traffic and phone activity for competitive intelligence. That led Apple to briefly revoke Facebook and Google’s Certificates, thereby disabling the companies’ legitimate employee-only apps, which caused office chaos.

Apple issued a fiery statement that “Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple. Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case to protect our users and their data.” Meanwhile, dozens of prohibited apps were available for download from shady developers’ websites.

Apple offers a lookup tool for finding any business’ D-U-N-S number, allowing shady developers to forge their Enterprise Certificate application

The problem starts with Apple’s lax standards for accepting businesses to the enterprise program. The program is for companies to distribute apps only to their employees, and its policy explicitly states “You may not use, distribute or otherwise make Your Internal Use Applications available to Your Customers.” Yet Apple doesn’t adequately enforce these policies.

Developers simply have to fill out an online form and pay $299 to Apple, as detailed in this guide from Calvium. The form merely asks developers to pledge they’re building an Enterprise Certificate app for internal employee-only use, that they have the legal authority to register the business, provide a D-U-N-S business ID number and have an up to date Mac. You can easily Google a business’ address details and look up their D-U-N-S ID number with a tool Apple provides. After setting up an Apple ID and agreeing to its terms of service, businesses wait one to four weeks for a phone call from Apple asking them to reconfirm they’ll only distribute apps internally and are authorized to represent their business.

With just a few lies on the phone and web plus some Googleable public information, sketchy developers can get approved for an Apple Enterprise Certificate.

Real-money gambling apps openly advertise that they have iOS versions available that abuse the Enterprise Certificate program

Given the number of policy-violating apps that are being distributed to non-employees using registrations for businesses unrelated to their apps, it’s clear that Apple needs to tighten the oversight on the Enterprise Certificate program. TechCrunch found thousands of sites offering downloads of “sideloaded” Enterprise apps, and investigating just a sample uncovered numerous abuses. Using a standard un-jailbroken iPhone. TechCrunch was able to download and verify 12 pornography and 12 real-money gambling apps over the past week that were abusing Apple’s Enterprise Certificate system to offer apps prohibited from the App Store. These apps either offered streaming or pay-per-view hardcore pornography, or allowed users to deposit, win and withdraw real money — all of which would be prohibited if the apps were distributed through the App Store.

A whole screen of prohibited sideloaded porn and gambling apps TechCrunch was able to download through the Enterprise Certificate system

In an apparent effort to step up policy enforcement in the wake of TechCrunch’s investigation into Facebook and Google’s Enterprise Certificate violations, Apple appears to have disabled some of these apps in the past few days, but many remain operational. The porn apps that we discovered which are currently functional include Swag, PPAV, Banana Video, iPorn (iP), Pear, Poshow and AVBobo, while the currently functional gambling apps include RD Poker and RiverPoker.

The Enterprise Certificates for these apps were rarely registered to company names related to their true purpose. The only example was Lucky8 for gambling. Many of the apps used innocuous names like Interprener, Mohajer International Communications, Sungate and AsianLiveTech. Yet others seemed to have forged or stolen credentials to sign up under the names of completely unrelated but legitimate businesses. Dragon Gaming was registered to U.S. gravel supplier CSL-LOMA. As for porn apps, PPAV’s certificate is assigned to the Nanjing Jianye District Information Center, Douyin Didi was licensed under Moscow motorcycle company Akura OOO, Chinese app Pear is registered to Grupo Arcavi Sociedad Anonima in Costa Rica and AVBobo covers its tracks with the name of a Fresno-based company called Chaney Cabinet & Furniture Co.

You can see a full list of the policy-violating apps we found:

Apple refused to explain how these apps slipped into the Enterprise Certificate app program. It declined to say if it does any follow-up compliance audits on developers in the program or if it plans to change admission process. An Apple spokesperson did provide this statement, though, indicating it will work to shut down these apps and potentially ban the developers from building iOS products entirely:

“Developers that abuse our enterprise certificates are in violation of the Apple Developer Enterprise Program Agreement and will have their certificates terminated, and if appropriate, they will be removed from our Developer Program completely. We are continuously evaluating the cases of misuse and are prepared to take immediate action.”

TechCrunch asked Guardian Mobile Firewall’s security expert Will Strafach to look at the apps we found and their Certificates. Strafach’s initial analysis of the apps didn’t find any glaring evidence that the apps misappropriate data, but they all do violate Apple’s Certificate policies and provide content banned from the App Store. “At the moment, I have noticed that action is slower regarding apps available from an independent website and not these easy-to-scrape app directories” that occasionally crop up offering centralized access to a plethora of sideloaded apps.

Porn app AVBobo uses an Enterprise Certificate registered to Fresno’s Chaney Cabinet & Furniture Co

Strafach explained how “A significant number of the Enterprise Certificates used to sign publicly available apps are referred to informally as ‘rogue certificates’ as they are often not associated with the named company. There are no hard facts to confirm the manner in which these certificates originate, but the result of the initial step is that individuals will gain control of an Enterprise Certificate attributable to a corporation, usually China/HK-based. Code services are then sold quietly on Chinese language marketplaces, resulting in sometimes 5 to 10 (or more) distinct apps being signed with the same Enterprise Certificate.” We found Sungate and Mohajer Certificates were farmed out for use by multiple apps in this way.

“In my experience, Enterprise Certificate signed apps available on independent websites have not been harmful to users in a malicious sense, only in the sense that they have broken the rules,” Strafach notes. “Enterprise Certificate signed apps from these Chinese ‘helper’ tools, however, have been a mixed bag. Zoe example, in multiple cases, we have noticed such apps with additional tracking and adware code injected into the original now-repackaged app being offered.”

Porn apps like Swag openly advertise their availability on iOS

Interestingly, none of the off-limits apps we discovered asked users to install a VPN like Google Screenwise, let alone root network access like Facebook Research. TechCrunch reported this month that both apps had been paying users to snoop on their private data. But the iOS versions were banned by Apple after we exposed their policy violations, and Apple also caused chaos at Facebook and Google’s offices by temporarily shutting down their employee-only iOS apps too. The fact that these two U.S. tech giants were more aggressive about collecting user data than shady Chinese porn and gambling apps is telling. “This is a cat-and-mouse game,” Strafach concluded regarding Apple’s struggle to keep out these apps. But given the rampant abuse, it seems Apple could easily add stronger verification processes and more check-ups to the Enterprise Certificate program. Developers should have to do more to prove their apps’ connection with the Certificate holder, and Apple should regularly audit certificates to see what kind of apps they’re powering.

Back when Facebook missed Cambridge Analytica’s abuse of its app platform, Cook was asked what he’d do in Mark Zuckerberg’s shoes. “I wouldn’t be in this situation” Cook frankly replied. But if Apple can’t keep porn and casinos off iOS, perhaps Cook shouldn’t be lecturing anyone else.

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