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Why is Facebook doing robotics research?

Posted by | artificial intelligence, Facebook, Gadgets, hardware, robotics, robots, science, Social, TC | No Comments

It’s a bit strange to hear that the world’s leading social network is pursuing research in robotics rather than, say, making search useful, but Facebook is a big organization with many competing priorities. And while these robots aren’t directly going to affect your Facebook experience, what the company learns from them could be impactful in surprising ways.

Though robotics is a new area of research for Facebook, its reliance on and bleeding-edge work in AI are well known. Mechanisms that could be called AI (the definition is quite hazy) govern all sorts of things, from camera effects to automated moderation of restricted content.

AI and robotics are naturally overlapping magisteria — it’s why we have an event covering both — and advances in one often do the same, or open new areas of inquiry, in the other. So really it’s no surprise that Facebook, with its strong interest in using AI for a variety of tasks in the real and social media worlds, might want to dabble in robotics to mine for insights.

What then could be the possible wider applications of the robotics projects it announced today? Let’s take a look.

Learning to walk from scratch

“Daisy,” the hexapod robot

Walking is a surprisingly complex action, or series of actions, especially when you’ve got six legs, like the robot used in this experiment. You can program in how it should move its legs to go forward, turn around, and so on, but doesn’t that feel a bit like cheating? After all, we had to learn on our own, with no instruction manual or settings to import. So the team looked into having the robot teach itself to walk.

This isn’t a new type of research — lots of roboticists and AI researchers are into it. Evolutionary algorithms (different but related) go back a long way, and we’ve already seen interesting papers like this one:

By giving their robot some basic priorities like being “rewarded” for moving forward, but no real clue how to work its legs, the team let it experiment and try out different things, slowly learning and refining the model by which it moves. The goal is to reduce the amount of time it takes for the robot to go from zero to reliable locomotion from weeks to hours.

What could this be used for? Facebook is a vast wilderness of data, complex and dubiously structured. Learning to navigate a network of data is of course very different from learning to navigate an office — but the idea of a system teaching itself the basics on a short timescale given some simple rules and goals is shared.

Learning how AI systems teach themselves, and how to remove roadblocks like mistaken priorities, cheating the rules, weird data-hoarding habits and other stuff is important for agents meant to be set loose in both real and virtual worlds. Perhaps the next time there is a humanitarian crisis that Facebook needs to monitor on its platform, the AI model that helps do so will be informed by the auto-didactic efficiencies that turn up here.

Leveraging “curiosity”

Researcher Akshara Rai adjusts a robot arm in the robotics AI lab in Menlo Park (Facebook)

This work is a little less visual, but more relatable. After all, everyone feels curiosity to a certain degree, and while we understand that sometimes it kills the cat, most times it’s a drive that leads us to learn more effectively. Facebook applied the concept of curiosity to a robot arm being asked to perform various ordinary tasks.

Now, it may seem odd that they could imbue a robot arm with “curiosity,” but what’s meant by that term in this context is simply that the AI in charge of the arm — whether it’s seeing or deciding how to grip, or how fast to move — is given motivation to reduce uncertainty about that action.

That could mean lots of things — perhaps twisting the camera a little while identifying an object gives it a little bit of a better view, improving its confidence in identifying it. Maybe it looks at the target area first to double check the distance and make sure there’s no obstacle. Whatever the case, giving the AI latitude to find actions that increase confidence could eventually let it complete tasks faster, even though at the beginning it may be slowed by the “curious” acts.

What could this be used for? Facebook is big on computer vision, as we’ve seen both in its camera and image work and in devices like Portal, which (some would say creepily) follows you around the room with its “face.” Learning about the environment is critical for both these applications and for any others that require context about what they’re seeing or sensing in order to function.

Any camera operating in an app or device like those from Facebook is constantly analyzing the images it sees for usable information. When a face enters the frame, that’s the cue for a dozen new algorithms to spin up and start working. If someone holds up an object, does it have text? Does it need to be translated? Is there a QR code? What about the background, how far away is it? If the user is applying AR effects or filters, where does the face or hair stop and the trees behind begin?

If the camera, or gadget, or robot, left these tasks to be accomplished “just in time,” they will produce CPU usage spikes, visible latency in the image and all kinds of stuff the user or system engineer doesn’t want. But if it’s doing it all the time, that’s just as bad. If instead the AI agent is exerting curiosity to check these things when it senses too much uncertainty about the scene, that’s a happy medium. This is just one way it could be used, but given Facebook’s priorities it seems like an important one.

Seeing by touching

Although vision is important, it’s not the only way that we, or robots, perceive the world. Many robots are equipped with sensors for motion, sound and other modalities, but actual touch is relatively rare. Chalk it up to a lack of good tactile interfaces (though we’re getting there). Nevertheless, Facebook’s researchers wanted to look into the possibility of using tactile data as a surrogate for visual data.

If you think about it, that’s perfectly normal — people with visual impairments use touch to navigate their surroundings or acquire fine details about objects. It’s not exactly that they’re “seeing” via touch, but there’s a meaningful overlap between the concepts. So Facebook’s researchers deployed an AI model that decides what actions to take based on video, but instead of actual video data, fed it high-resolution touch data.

Turns out the algorithm doesn’t really care whether it’s looking at an image of the world as we’d see it or not — as long as the data is presented visually, for instance as a map of pressure on a tactile sensor, it can be analyzed for patterns just like a photographic image.

What could this be used for? It’s doubtful Facebook is super interested in reaching out and touching its users. But this isn’t just about touch — it’s about applying learning across modalities.

Think about how, if you were presented with two distinct objects for the first time, it would be trivial to tell them apart with your eyes closed, by touch alone. Why can you do that? Because when you see something, you don’t just understand what it looks like, you develop an internal model representing it that encompasses multiple senses and perspectives.

Similarly, an AI agent may need to transfer its learning from one domain to another — auditory data telling a grip sensor how hard to hold an object, or visual data telling the microphone how to separate voices. The real world is a complicated place and data is noisier here — but voluminous. Being able to leverage that data regardless of its type is important to reliably being able to understand and interact with reality.

So you see that while this research is interesting in its own right, and can in fact be explained on that simpler premise, it is also important to recognize the context in which it is being conducted. As the blog post describing the research concludes:

We are focused on using robotics work that will not only lead to more capable robots but will also push the limits of AI over the years and decades to come. If we want to move closer to machines that can think, plan, and reason the way people do, then we need to build AI systems that can learn for themselves in a multitude of scenarios — beyond the digital world.

As Facebook continually works on expanding its influence from its walled garden of apps and services into the rich but unstructured world of your living room, kitchen and office, its AI agents require more and more sophistication. Sure, you won’t see a “Facebook robot” any time soon… unless you count the one they already sell, or the one in your pocket right now.

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Instagram’s IGTV copies TikTok’s AI, Snapchat’s design

Posted by | Apps, instagram, Instagram IGTV, instagram video, Mobile, Snapchat, Snapchat Discover, Social, Startups, TC, tiktok | No Comments

Instagram conquered Stories, but it’s losing the battle for the next video formats. TikTok is blowing up with an algorithmically suggested vertical one-at-a-time feed featuring videos of users remixing each other’s clips. Snapchat Discover’s 2 x infinity grid has grown into a canvas for multi-media magazines, themed video collections and premium mobile TV shows.

Instagram’s IGTV…feels like a flop in comparison. Launched a year ago, it’s full of crudely cropped and imported viral trash from around the web. The long-form video hub that lives inside both a homescreen button in Instagram as well as a standalone app has failed to host lengthier must-see original vertical content. Sensor Tower estimates that the IGTV app has just 4.2 million installs worldwide, with just 7,700 new ones per day — implying less than half a percent of Instagram’s billion-plus users have downloaded it. IGTV doesn’t rank on the overall charts and hangs low at No. 191 on the US – Photo & Video app charts, according to App Annie.

Now Instagram has quietly overhauled the design of IGTV’s space inside its main app to crib what’s working from its two top competitors. The new design showed up in last week’s announcements for Instagram Explore’s new Shopping and IGTV discovery experiences. At the time, Instagram’s product lead on Explore Will Ruben told us that with the redesign, “the idea is this is more immersive and helps you to see the breadth of videos in IGTV rather than the horizontal scrolling interface that used to exist,” but the company declined to answer follow-up questions about it.

IGTV has ditched its category-based navigation system’s tabs like “For You”, “Following”, “Popular”, and “Continue Watching” for just one central feed of algorithmically suggested videos — much like TikTok. This affords a more lean-back, ‘just show me something fun’ experience that relies on Instagram’s AI to analyze your behavior and recommend content instead of putting the burden of choice on the viewer.

IGTV has also ditched its awkward horizontal scrolling design that always kept a clip playing in the top half of the screen. Now you’ll scroll vertically through a 2 x infinity grid of recommended clips in what looks just like a Snapchat Discover feed. Once you get past a first video that auto-plays up top, you’ll find a full-screen grid of things to watch. You’ll only see the horizontal scroller in the standalone IGTV app, or if you tap into an IGTV video, and then tap the Browse button for finding a next clip while the last one plays up top.

Instagram seems to be trying to straddle the designs of its two competitors. The problem is that TikTok’s one-at-a-time feed works great for punchy, short videos that get right to the point. If you’re bored after five seconds you swipe to the next. IGTV’s focus on long-form means its videos might start too slowly to grab your attention if they were auto-played full-screen in the feed rather than being chosen by a viewer. But Snapchat makes the most of the two previews per row design IGTV has adopted because professional publishers take the time to make compelling cover thumbnail images promoting their content. IGTV’s focus on independent creators means fewer have labored to make great cover images, so viewers have to rely on a screenshot and caption.

Instagram is prototyping a number of other features to boost engagement across its app, as discovered by reverse-engineering specialist and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. Those include options to blast a direct message to all your Close Friends at once but in individual message threads, see a divider between notifications and likes you have or haven’t seen, or post a Chat sticker to Stories that lets friends join a group message thread about that content. And to better compete with TikTok, it may let you add lyrics stickers to Stories that appear word-by-word in sync with Instagram’s licensed music soundtrack feature, and share Music Stories to Facebook. What we haven’t seen is any cropping tool for IGTV that would help users reformat landscape videos. The vertical-only restriction keeps lots of great content stuck outside IGTV, or letterboxed with black, color-matched backgrounds, or meme-style captions with the video as just a tiny slice in the middle.

When I spoke with Instagram co-founder and ex-CEO Kevin Systrom last year a few months after IGTV’s launch, he told me, “It’s a new format. It’s different. We have to wait for people to adopt it and that takes time . . . Everything that is great starts small.”

But to grow large, IGTV needs to demonstrate how long-form portrait mode video can give us a deeper look at the nuances of the influencers and topics we care about. The company has rightfully prioritized other drives like safety and well-being with features that hide bullies and deter overuse. But my advice from August still stands despite all the ground Instagram has lost in the meantime. “Concentrate on teaching creators how to find what works on the format and incentivizing them with cash and traffic. Develop some must-see IGTV and stoke a viral blockbuster. Prove the gravity of extended, personality-driven vertical video.” Until the content is right, it won’t matter how IGTV surfaces it.

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Facebook changes algorithm to promote worthwhile & close friend content

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, Facebook News Feed, Mobile, Policy, Social, TC | No Comments

Facebook is updating the News Feed ranking algorithm to incorporate data from surveys about who you say are your closest friends and which links you find most worthwhile. Today Facebook announced it’s trained new classifiers based on patterns linking these surveys with usage data so it can better predict what to show in the News Feed. The change could hurt Pages that share clickbait and preference those sharing content that makes people feel satisfied afterwards.

For close friends, Facebook surveyed users about which people they were closest too. It then detected how this matches up with who you are tagged in photos with, constantly interact with, like the same post and check in to the same places as, and more. That way if it recognizes those signals about other people’s friendships, it can be confident those are someone’s closest friends they’ll want to see the most of. You won’t see more friend content in total, but more from your best pals instead of distant acquaintances.

A Facebook News Feed survey from 2016, shared by Varsha Sharma

For worthwhile content, Facebook conducted surveys via News Feed to find out which links people said were good uses of their time. Facebook then detected which types of link posts, which publishers and how much engagement the posts got and matched that to survey results. This then lets it determine that if a post has a similar style and engagement level, it’s likely to be worthwhile and should be ranked higher in the feed.

The change aligns with CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent comments declaring that Facebook’s goal isn’t total time spent, but time well spent with meaningful content you feel good about. Most recently, that push has been about demoting unsafe content. Last month Facebook changed the algorithm to minimize clickbait and links to crappy ad-filled sites that receive a disproportionately high amount of their traffic from Facebook. It cracked down on unoriginality by hiding videos ripped off from other creators, and began levying harsher demotions to repeat violators of its policies. And it began to decrease the distribution of “borderline content” on Facebook and Instagram that comes close to but doesn’t technically break its rules.

While many assume Facebook just juices News Feed to be as addictive in the short-term as possible to keep us glued to the screen and viewing ads, that would actually be ruinous for its long-term business. If users leave the feed feeling exhausted, confused and unfulfilled, they won’t come back. Facebook’s already had trouble with users ditching its text-heavy News Feed for more visual apps like Instagram (which it luckily bought) and Snapchat (which it tried to). While demoting clickbait and viral content might decrease total usage time today, it could preserve Facebook’s money-making ability for the future while also helping to rot our brains a little less.

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Instagram adds Stories to Explore tab. Here’s how to get on it

Posted by | Apps, instagram, Instagram algorithm, Instagram Explore, Instagram Stories, Mobile, Social, TC | No Comments

Instagram’s pivot to Stories continues with an overhaul of Explore designed to let users dig deeper into their niche interests. Stories are now eligible to show up in the Explore tab for the first time, giving creators a way to get discovered through their intimate, silly, behind-the-scenes content instead of just their manicured feed posts. Since Stories themselves don’t get Likes, Instagram will personalize which Stories you see on Explore by showing accounts similar to ones you do Like and Follow. We’ve got more tips on how the Explore Stories algorithm works below.

Additionally, Instagram Explore is getting a redesigned navigation bar up to with shortcuts to Shopping and IGTV first, followed by channels for topics like Travel, Food, and Design. In a nod to how central Instagram sees Shopping and IGTV to its future, those categories will also get big square portals inset within the Explore grid. Tapping these squares or shortcuts for Shopping reveals category filters for specific proucts like Clothing, Beauty, and Home Decor. For IGTV, they pull up an new vertical scrolling IGTV discovery grid to contrast with its old horizontal scrolling carousel.

The goal is that “Explore shows you the full breath of content on Instagram that are relevant to your interests” says Instagram product lead for discovery Will Ruben. The more creators you discover through Explore, the more you have to look at on Instagram, and the more ads you end of seeiing. “These changes also signal the future direction we’ll be taking with Explore. We’re really investing in making IGTV and Shopping a big part of Explore experience. A home for Instagram’s big bets like Shopping and IGTV. We want to provide a more immersive experience so people can actively engage with content and be more specific about what they want to discover.” That should quiet questions about whether Instagram will abandon IGTV after a lackluster first year in the market.

How To Get On The Instagram Explore Tab

You’ll now start to see auto-playing Stories clips on the Explore grid. Tapping one will let you watch that Story, and then swipe through more topically similar Stories. For example, if you tap into a Story about dogs on Explore, you’ll likely see more dog Stories queued up. This seamless way to sift through content means there’s a ton of opportunity for influencers and artists to gain followers through Explore.

Instagram tells me that its algorithm is looking for several things when determining what to show on Explore. This is not an exhaustive list of signals that determine what shows up on Explore, which would also include recency and other factors. Explore is also personalized for every user, so showing up to one person doesn’t mean others will see a piece of content there too But here’s what Instagram  told us were some of inputs for deciding what Stories appear in Explore:

  1. The strongest input is what the viewer already follows and Likes in the feed. Instagram will try to show similar Stories in Explore, so if someone Likes and follows a lot of accounts you, it will show Stories from other people they Like and follow but you don’t yet
  2. Videos have the potential to be ranked higher than photos since videos auto-play in Explore and tend to get more attention, but great photos will still rank above mediocre videos
  3. Highly-visual Stories that don’t include too much text will get preference
  4. Stories with content more similar to and representative of a creator’s typical feed posts are more likely to show up on Explore
  5. Certain content types like reposts of other people’s feed posts are demoted by the algorithm
  6. Computer vision that detects what the actual content of a Story is helps Instagram show you ones similar to the content you interact with most, though this is a weaker signal than those above.

So if you’re followed and Liked by people similar to someone, and post visually-compelling video Stories without too much text that are indicative of the topics you typically post, you could earn a spot on the Explore tab.

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Twitter’s new Developer Labs offers beta access to rebuilt APIs

Posted by | Apps, Developer, Mobile, Policy, Social, TC, Twitter, twitter api, Twitter Platform, Twitter Policy | No Comments

Twitter is finally modernizing its core APIs after seven years of stagnation, and it wants early feedback from developers. That’s why today it’s launching Twitter Developer Labs, which app makers can sign up for to experiment with pre-release beta APIs. First up will be re-engineered versions of GET /Tweets and GET /Users APIs. The first functional changes will come next, including real-time streaming access to the Twitter firehose with the expansion of tweet filtering plus impressions and engagement metrics that were previously only available in its expensive enterprise API tiers. Twitter will also be adding newer features like Polls to the API.

Giving developers longer lead-times and more of a voice when it comes to rebuilding its APIs could help Twitter get more app makers paying for its premium API ($339 to $2,899 per month for just one specific API) and enterprise API tiers (even more expensive). It might also stimulate the creation of dev-made analytics, measurement and ads businesses that convince brands to spend more money on Twitter marketing. The Labs program and the first API endpoint changes will roll out in the coming weeks. To join, people can sign up for developer accounts, join an email list for updates on the Labs site, follow the TwitterDev account and start providing feedback.

Twitter’s data and enterprise solutions product manager Ian Cairns acknowledged some of the whiplash Twitter has put developers through in the past, rapidly changing strategies and restricting rate limits in ways that made developers’ businesses unsustainable. For example, last year a change broke many third-party Twitter reading clients. “There are certainly times over the years when the ways in which we’ve managed our APIS . . . have changed and we know some of those have changed in ways that have been disruptive to developers. What we’re doing with the Twitter Developer Labs program is focusing on trying to use that as a vehicle to build trust and make sure we’re having a two-way conversation and that the voice of the people who use our platform the most are driving the future.”

Twitter’s main API hasn’t been overhauled since its release in August 2012, despite a bunch of progress on enterprise and ads APIs in the meantime. The advantage of that is that the old API was optimized for backwards compatibility so developers didn’t have to constantly update their apps, allowing old utilities to survive. But that also prohibited integrating some newer features like Polls. Twitter plans to move to a more regular versioning system where breaking changes are communicated far enough in advance for developers to adapt.

More recently, Twitter announced a streamlining of its APIs that also instituted the paid tiers in 2017. But last year it broke Twitter clients and sold its Fabric developer toolset to Google as part of cost-cutting measures that previously spelled the demise of Vine.  And this year, Twitter has made moves to crack down on API abuse for spamming and services for buying followers. That comes after the Cambridge Analytica scandal rocked confidence in developer platforms and forced their owners to limit functionality in order to preserve safety and privacy.

Developer Labs will serve as the nerdy brother of the new “twttr” beta consumer app that launched in March to let people try out potential changes to how replies and the feed work. Twitter writes that “Our initial focus in Labs will be on developers who work with conversational data, including academics and researchers who study and explore what’s happening on Twitter, and social listening and analytics companies that build products for other businesses.”

Twitter’s relationship with developers has always been rocky, in large part due to lack of communication. If a developer builds something, and then Twitter either messes it up with API changes or builds a similar feature itself, it can cost a ton in wasted engineering effort. If Labs opens a clearer dialogue with developers, Twitter could count them as allies instead of PR liabilities.

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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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Facebook sues analytics firm Rankwave over data misuse

Posted by | Apps, Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, facebook platform, Facebook Policy, lawsuit, Mobile, Policy, Social, TC | No Comments

Facebook might have another Cambridge Analytica on its hands. In a late Friday news dump, Facebook revealed that today it filed a lawsuit alleging South Korean analytics firm Rankwave abused its developer platform’s data, and has refused to cooperate with a mandatory compliance audit and request to delete the data.

Facebook’s lawsuit centers around Rankwave offering to help businesses build a Facebook authorization step into their apps so they can pass all the user data to Rankwave, which then analyzes biographic and behavioral traits to supply user contact info and ad targeting assistance to the business. Rankwave also apparently misused data sucked in by its own consumer app for checking your social media “influencer score”. That app could pull data about your Facebook activity such as location checkins, determine that you’ve checked into a baseball stadium, and then Rankwave could help its clients target you with ads for baseball tickets.

The use of a seemingly fun app to slurp up user data and repurpose it for other business goals is strikingly similar to how Cambridge Analytica’s personality quiz app tempted millions of users to provide data about themselves and their friends.

Rankwave touts its Facebook data usage in this 2014 pitch deck

TechCrunch has attained a copy of the lawsuit that alleges that Rankwave misused Facebook data outside of the apps where it was collected, purposefully delayed responding to a cease-and-desist order, claimed it didn’t violate Facebook policy, lied about not using its apps since 2018 when they were accessed in April 2019, and then refused to comply with a mandatory audit of its data practices. Facebook Platform data is not supposed to be repurposed for other business goals, only for the developer to improve their app’s user experience.

“By filing the lawsuit, we are sending a message to developers that Facebook is serious about enforcing our policies, including requiring developers to cooperate with us during an investigation” Facebook’s director of platform enforcement and litigation Jessica Romero wrote. Facebook tells TechCrunch that “To date Rankwave has not participated in our investigation and we are trying to get more info from them to determine if there was any misuse of Pages data.” We’ve reached out to Rankwave for its response.

Cambridge Analytic-ish

Facebook’s lawsuit details that “Rankwave used the Facebook data associated with Rankwave’s apps to create and sell advertising and marketing analytics and models — which violated Facebook’s policies and terms” and that it “failed to comply with Facebook’s requests for proof of Rankwave’s compliance with Facebook policies, including an audit.” Rankwave apparently accessed data from over thirty apps, including those created by its clients.

Specifically, Facebook cites that its “Platform Policies largely restrict Developers from using Facebook data outside of the environment of the app, for any purpose other than enhancing the app users’ experience on the app.” But Rankwave allegedly used Facebook data outside those apps.

Rankwave describes how it extracts contact info and ad targeting data from Facebook data

Facebook’s suit claims that “Rankwave’s B2B apps were installed and used by businesses to track and analyze activity on their Facebook Pages . . . Rankwave operated a consumer app called the ‘Rankwave App.’ This consumer app was designed to measure the app user’s popularity on Facebook by analyzing the level of interaction that other users had with the app user’s Facebook posts. On its website, Rankwave claimed that this app calculated a user’s ‘Social influence score’ by ‘evaluating your social activities’ and receiving ‘responses from your friends.’”

TechCrunch has found that Rankwave still offers an Android app that asks for you to login with Facebook so it can assess the popularity of your posts and give you a “Social Influencer Score”. Until 2015 when Facebook tightened its policies, this kind of app could ingest not only a user’s own data but that about their Facebook friends. As with Cambridge Analytica, this likely massively compounded Rankwave’s total data access.

Rankwave’s Android app asks for users’ Facebook data in exchange for providing them a Social Influencer Score

Facebook Delays Coming After Rankwave

Founded in 2012 by Sungwha Shim, Rankwave came into Facebook’s crosshairs in June 2018 after it was sold to a Korean entertainment company in May 2017. Facebook assesses that the value of its data at the time of the buyout was $9.8 million.

Worryingly, Facebook didn’t reach out to Rankwave until January 2019 for information proving it complied with the social network’s policies. After receiving no response, Facebook issued a cease-and-desist order in February, which Rankwave replied to seeking more time because it’s CTO had resigned, which Facebook calls “false representations”. Later that month, Rankwave denied violating Facebook’s policies but refused to provide proof. Facebook gave it more time to provide proof, but Rankwave didn’t respond. Facebook has now shut down Rankwave’s apps.

Rankwave claims to be able to extract a wide array of ad targeting data from Facebook data

Now Facebook is seeking money to cover the $9.8 million value of the data, additional monetary damages and legal fees, plus injunctive relief restraining Rankwave from accessing the Facebook Platform, requiring it to comply with Facebook’s audit, requiring that it delete all Facebook data.

The fact that Rankwave was openly promoting these services that blatantly violate Facebook’s policies casts further doubt on how the social network was policing its platform. And the six month delay between Facebook identifying a potential issue with Rankwave and it even reaching out for information, plus another several months before it blocked Rankwave’s app shows a failure to move swiftly to enforce its policies. These blunders might explain why Facebook buried the news by announcing it on a Friday afternoon when many reporters and readers have already signed off for the weekend.

For now there’s no evidence of wholesale transfer of Rankwave’s data to other parties or its misuse for especially nefarious purposes like influencing an election as with Cambridge Analytica. The lawsuit merely alleges data was wrongly harnessed to make money, which may not spur the same level of backlash. But the case further proves that Facebook was too busy growing itself thanks to the platform to properly safeguard it against abuse.

You can learn more about Rankwave’s analytics practices from this 2014 presentation.

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Instagram will let you appeal post takedowns

Posted by | Apps, instagram, instagram hashtag, Instagram safety, misinformation, Mobile, Policy, Social, TC, vaccine | No Comments

Instagram isn’t just pretty pictures. It now also harbors bullying, misinformation and controversial self-expression content. So today Instagram is announcing a bevvy of safety updates to protect users and give them more of a voice. Most significantly, Instagram will now let users appeal the company’s decision to take down one of their posts.

A new in-app interface (rolling out starting today) over the next few months will let users “get a second opinion on the post,” says Instagram’s head of policy, Karina Newton. A different Facebook moderator will review the post, and restore its visibility if it was wrongly removed, and they’ll inform users of their conclusion either way. Instagram always let users appeal account suspensions, but now someone can appeal a takedown if their post was mistakenly removed for nudity when they weren’t nude or hate speech that was actually friendly joshing.

Blocking vaccine misinfo hashtags

On the misinformation front, Instagram will begin blocking vaccine-related hashtag pages when content surfaced on a hashtag page features a large proportion of verifiably false content about vaccines. If there is some violating content, but under that threshold, Instagram will lock a hashtag into a “Top-only” post, where Recent posts won’t show up, to decrease visibility of problematic content. Instagram says that it will test this approach and expand it to other problematic content genres if it works. Instagram will also be surfacing educational information via a pop-up to people who search for vaccine content, similar to what it’s used in the past for self-harm and opioid content.

Instagram says now that health agencies like the Center for Disease Control and World Health Organization are confirming that VACCINES DO NOT CAUSE AUTISM, it’s comfortable declaring contradictory information as verifiably false, and it can be aggressively demoted on the platform.

The automated system scans and scores every post uploaded to Instagram, checking them against classifiers of prohibited content and what it calls “text-matching banks.” These collections of fingerprinted content it’s already banned have their text indexed and words pulled out of imagery through optical character recognition so Instagram can find posts with the same words later. It’s working on extending this technology to videos, and all the systems are being trained to spot obvious issues like threats, unwanted contact and insults, but also those causing intentional fear-of-missing-out, taunting, shaming and betrayals.

If the AI is confident a post violates policies, it’s taken down and counted as a strike against any hashtag included. If a hashtag has too high of a percentage of violating content, the hashtag will be blocked. If it had fewer strikes, it’d get locked in Top-Only mode. The change comes after stern criticism from CNN and others about how hashtag pages like #VaccinesKill still featured tons of dangerous misinformation as recently as yesterday.

Tally-based suspensions

One other new change announced this week is that Instagram will no longer determine whether to suspend an account based on the percentage of their content that violates policies, but by a tally of total violations within a certain period of time. Otherwise, Newton says, “It would disproportionately benefit those that have a large amount of posts,” because even a large number of violations would be a smaller percentage than a rare violation by someone who doesn’t post often. To prevent bad actors from gaming the system, Instagram won’t disclose the exact time frame or number of violations that trigger suspensions.

Instagram recently announced at F8 several new tests on the safety front, including a “nudge” not to post a potentially hateful comment a user has typed, “away mode” for taking a break from Instagram without deleting your account and a way to “manage interactions” so you can ban people from taking certain actions like commenting on your content or DMing you without blocking them entirely.

The announcements come as Instagram has solidified its central place in youth culture. That means it has intense responsibility to protect its user base from bullying, hate speech, graphic content, drugs, misinformation and extremism. “We work really closely with subject matter experts, raise issues that might be playing out differently on Instagram than Facebook, and we identify gaps where we need to change how our policies are operationalized or our policies are changed,” says Newton.

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#1 app YOLO Q&A is the Snapchat platform’s 1st hit

Posted by | anonymous apps, Apps, Mindie, Mobile, secret, Snapchat, Snapchat Snap Kit, Social, TC, Yolo | No Comments

There’s a new teen app sensation. Anonymous question-asking app YOLO has rocketed to the #1 US app position just a week after launching thanks to Snapchat. Built on top of the Snap Kit platform, YOLO uses Snapchat for login and Bitmoji profile pics to let you add an “ask me anything” sticker to your Snapchat Story. Friends can swipe up to open YOLO on iOS and send an anonymous question there that you then answer through another sticker posted to your Story. One source says “EVERYONE at my high school is using it right now.” And what’s crazy is that YOLO’s inventor tells me the whole thing was an accident.

If you’re getting deja vu, you might be thinking of Sarahah. That app blew up in late 2017 by letting you attach a link from your Snapchat Story to your Sarahah profile where people could ask you anonymous questions…until it was kicked off of iOS and Android in early 2018 for facilitating bullying. Or maybe you’re thinking of how polling app Polly let Snapchat friends ask you anything before there was Snap Kit.

Now the question is whether YOLO’s warning during signup that it has “no tolerance for objectionable content or abusive users” or its in-app flagging and blocking features will protect it from teen misuse or Apple and Google’s wrath.

YOLO’s anonymous question app built on Snap Kit is now the #1 US app

YOLO’s rise highlights just how curious teens are and how desperate they can be for honest feedback or anonymous gossip. Given the prompt via Snapchat to say something to friends without having to take responsibility, kids are flocking to download YOLO. Since they don’t have to create a new profile or pic thanks to Snap Kit importing their account and Bitmoji, and can use Snapchat’s ubiquity amongst teens to distribute their question and answers, YOLO is super easy to join. That pushed it to the #1 US app according to App Annie.

YOLO creator Gregoire Henrion

But as with Sarahah, Secret, YikYak, and other anonymous apps before it, YOLO is vulnerable to being used to spread hate speech and bullying. Given school-age kids can get in trouble for insulting someone in the hallway, they’re quick to torment peers though apps, especially if they piggyback on one everyone already uses.

Now Yolo’s developer, a startup called Popshow, is desperately trying to keep the app’s servers from melting and add new features so teens stick around. There was no publicly available info about who started Popshow, even in its trademark and incorporation filings. But after some digging, a source revealed that Popshow and YOLO were started by Gregoire Henrion, former co-founder and CEO of music video making app Mindie.

“It was not supposed to be a success. It was just for us to learn” Henrion tells me in his first interview about his startup. “Let’s just put it on the App Store and see how people behave. It went 100% viral. It’s crazy. Even we didn’t believe our eyes when we saw that [it went to #1].”

Henrion’s previous startup Mindie had let you share soundtracked video clips to your Snapchat story. It raised $1.2 million from Lowercase, SV Angel, Dave Morin, Troy Carter and more. But in 2015 it got blocked from Snapchat for being a security risk since it required users to provide their Snap username and password. YOLO actually takes advantage of Snapchat’s Snap Kit platform that was designed specifically to eliminate the need for Mindie’s sketchy integrations. Mindie missed its opportunity to become Musical.ly, which was later bought and merged into global phenomenon TikTok. Mindie eventually got acquired by Justin Bieber-backed selfie app and content production collective Shots in 2016.

By 2017, Henrion and Mindie co-founder Clément Raffenoux were back building a new startup. They raised a small pre-seed round from SV Angel, Shrug Captial, Product Hunt’s Ryan Hoover, and some angel investors and experimented with the Popshow video reactions app. Then the pair decided to explore the anonymous app space. But rather than being completely anonymous and public, YOLO lets users privately review questions, decide which they want to answer and who to share that content with via Snapchat, and include a selfie when they share so respondents know there’s a real person on the other side. “We feel that anonymity can unlock super good behaviors. We think we’re more empathic, more human than other anonymous apps before us” Henrion explains.

The result was “1000X what we expected” Henrion beams. And he insists the growth is totally organic. “We tried some shitty things just to try them, but they don’t work” including replying from Popshow’s account to thousands of people who tweeted ‘I miss Vine’. “I don’t believe in fake growth anymore. We just literally put it in the store, people typed YOLO into search, and the loop was so effective that the product caught on.”

YOLO lets you ask for anonymous questions via your Snapchat Story, receive them on YOLO, and then post the answers back to Snapchat

The challenge will be maintaining YOLO’s momentum. Another anonymous Q&A app called TBH raced to the #1 app spot in September 2017, got acquired by Facebook 3 weeks later, but fell out of the top 500 apps by the end of November before being shut down last year. Teens are extremely fickle. If they deem YOLO “over”, get bored due to a lack of new features, are overwhelemed by harassment, or a new fad arises, it could crash out of the charts. Henrion says his team is scrambling to evolve YOLO into something more expansive without losing simplicity, while developing automated tools to weed out bullies.

There’s also the threat of Snapchat just building similar anonymous Q&A functionality into its own app. But that’s the risk of building atop any platform that otherwise massively reduces an app’s development and marketing costs. This will become a powerful case study that will surely draw tons of developers to Snapchat’s platform. With so much of YOLO powered by Snap Kit, and it all just being an experiment, Henrion won’t lose much if his app dies and he moves on to the next idea.

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Takeaways from F8 and Facebook’s next phase

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Apps, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, conference call, data privacy, data security, dating, Developer, eCommerce, Enterprise, Entertainment, events, Extra Crunch Conference Call, Facebook, Facebook Dating, facebook groups, Facebook Marketplace, facebook messenger, Facebook Watch, Gadgets, Gaming, hardware, investment opportunities, marketplace, Media, Oculus, Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift, privacy, Security, Social, Startups, TC, transcript, Venture Capital, Virtual reality, WhatsApp | No Comments

Extra Crunch offers members the opportunity to tune into conference calls led and moderated by the TechCrunch writers you read every day. This week, TechCrunch’s Josh Constine and Frederic Lardinois discuss major announcements that came out of Facebook’s F8 conference and dig into how Facebook is trying to redefine itself for the future.

Though touted as a developer-focused conference, Facebook spent much of F8 discussing privacy upgrades, how the company is improving its social impact, and a series of new initiatives on the consumer and enterprise side. Josh and Frederic discuss which announcements seem to make the most strategic sense, and which may create attractive (or unattractive) opportunities for new startups and investment.

“This F8 was aspirational for Facebook. Instead of being about what Facebook is, and accelerating the growth of it, this F8 was about Facebook, and what Facebook wants to be in the future.

That’s not the newsfeed, that’s not pages, that’s not profiles. That’s marketplace, that’s Watch, that’s Groups. With that change, Facebook is finally going to start to decouple itself from the products that have dragged down its brand over the last few years through a series of nonstop scandals.”

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Josh and Frederic dive deeper into Facebook’s plans around its redesign, Messenger, Dating, Marketplace, WhatsApp, VR, smart home hardware and more. The two also dig into the biggest news, or lack thereof, on the developer side, including Facebook’s Ax and BoTorch initiatives.

For access to the full transcription and the call audio, and for the opportunity to participate in future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

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