Startups

CoParenter helps divorced parents settle disputes using AI and human mediation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s how coParenter was born.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

CoParenter is available on both iOS and Android.

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The other smartphone business

Posted by | africa, antitrust, Asia, Bolivia, China, data protection, Europe, finland, GDPR, General Data Protection Regulation, geopolitics, google-android, india, Jalasoft, Jolla, Mobile, mobile linux, privacy, Rostelecom, russia, sailfish, Sami Pienimäki, Security, Startups, TC | No Comments

With the smartphone operating system market sewn up by Google’s Android platform, which has a close to 90% share globally, leaving Apple’s iOS a slender (but lucrative) premium top-slice, a little company called Jolla and its Linux-based Sailfish OS is a rare sight indeed: A self-styled ‘independent alternative’ that’s still somehow in business.

The Finnish startup’s b2b licensing sales pitch is intended to appeal to corporates and governments that want to be able to control their own destiny where device software is concerned.

And in a world increasingly riven with geopolitical tensions that pitch is starting to look rather prescient.

Political uncertainties around trade, high tech espionage risks and data privacy are translating into “opportunities” for the independent platform player — and helping to put wind in Jolla’s sails long after the plucky Sailfish team quit their day jobs for startup life.

Building an alternative to Google Android

Jolla was founded back in 2011 by a band of Nokia staffers who left the company determined to carry on development of mobile Linux as the European tech giant abandoned its own experiments in favor of pivoting to Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform. (Fatally, as it would turn out.)

Nokia exited mobile entirely in 2013, selling the division to Microsoft. It only returned to the smartphone market in 2017, via a brand-licensing arrangement, offering made-in-China handsets running — you guessed it — Google’s Android OS.

If the lesson of the Jolla founders’ former employer is ‘resistance to Google is futile’ they weren’t about to swallow that. The Finns had other ideas.

Indeed, Jolla’s indie vision for Sailfish OS is to support a whole shoal of differently branded, regionally flavored and independently minded (non-Google-led) ecosystems all swimming around in parallel. Though getting there means not just surviving but thriving — and doing so in spite of the market being so thoroughly dominated by the U.S. tech giant.

TechCrunch spoke to Jolla ahead of this year’s Mobile World Congress tradeshow where co-founder and CEO, Sami Pienimäki, was taking meetings on the sidelines. He told us his hope is for Jolla to have a partner booth of its own next year — touting, in truly modest Finnish fashion, an MWC calendar “maybe fuller than ever” with meetings with “all sorts of entities and governmental representatives”.

Jolla co-founder, Sami Pienimaki, showing off a Jolla-branded handset in May 2013, back when the company was trying to attack the consumer smartphone space. 
(Photo credit: KIMMO MANTYLA/AFP/Getty Images)

Even a modestly upbeat tone signals major progress here because an alternative smartphone platform licensing business is — to put it equally mildly — an incredibly difficult tech business furrow to plough.

Jolla almost died at the end of 2015 when the company hit a funding crisis. But the plucky Finns kept paddling, jettisoning their early pursuit of consumer hardware (Pienimäki describes attempting to openly compete with Google in the consumer smartphone space as essentially “suicidal” at this point) to narrow their focus to a b2b licensing play.

The early b2b salespitch targeted BRIC markets, with Jolla hitting the road to seek buy in for a platform it said could be moulded to corporate or government needs while still retaining the option of Android app compatibility.

Then in late 2016 signs of a breakthrough: Sailfish gained certification in Russia for government and corporate use.

Its licensing partner in the Russian market was soon touting the ability to go “absolutely Google-free!“.

Buy in from Russia

Since then the platform has gained the backing of Russian telco Rostelecom, which acquired Jolla’s local licensing customer last year (as well as becoming a strategic investor in Jolla itself in March 2018 — “to ensure there is a mutual interest to drive the global Sailfish OS agenda”, as Pienimäki puts it).

Rostelecom is using the brand name ‘Aurora OS‘ for Sailfish in the market which Pienimäki says is “exactly our strategy” — likening it to how Google’s Android has been skinned with different user experiences by major OEMs such as Samsung and Huawei.

“What we offer for our customers is a fully independent, regional licence and a tool chain so that they can develop exactly this kind of solution,” he tells TechCrunch. “We have come to a maturity point together with Rostelecom in the Russia market, and it was natural move plan together, that they will take a local identity and proudly carry forward the Sailfish OS ecosystem development in Russia under their local identity.”

“It’s fully compatible with Sailfish operating system, it’s based on Sailfish OS and it’s our joint interest, of course, to make it fly,” he adds. “So that as we, hopefully, are able to extend this and come out to public with other similar set-ups in different countries those of course — eventually, if they come to such a fruition and maturity — will then likely as well have their own identities but still remain compatible with the global Sailfish OS.”

Jolla says the Russian government plans to switch all circa 8M state officials to the platform by the end of 2021 — under a project expected to cost RUB 160.2 billion (~$2.4BN). (A cut of which will go to Jolla in licensing fees.)

It also says Sailfish-powered smartphones will be “recommended to municipal administrations of various levels,” with the Russian state planning to allocate a further RUB 71.3 billion (~$1.1BN) from the federal budget for that. So there’s scope for deepening the state’s Sailfish uptake.

Russian Post is one early customer for Jolla’s locally licensed Sailfish flavor. Having piloted devices last year, Pienimäki says it’s now moving to a full commercial deployment across the whole organization — which has around 300,000 employees (to give a sense of how many Sailfish powered devices could end up in the hands of state postal workers in Russia).

A rugged Sailfish-powered device piloted by Russian post

Jolla is not yet breaking out end users for Sailfish OS per market but Pienimäki says that overall the company is now “clearly above” 100k (and below 500k) devices globally.

That’s still of course a fantastically tiny number if you compare it to the consumer devices market — top ranked Android smartphone maker Samsung sold around 70M handsets in last year’s holiday quarter, for instance — but Jolla is in the b2b OS licensing business, not the handset making business. So it doesn’t need hundreds of millions of Sailfish devices to ship annually to turn a profit.

Scaling a royalty licensing business to hundreds of thousands of users is sums to “good business”, , says Pienimäki, describing Jolla’s business model for Sailfish as “practically a royalty per device”.

“The success we have had in the Russian market has populated us a lot of interesting new opening elsewhere around the world,” he continues. “This experience and all the technology we have built together with Open Mobile Platform [Jolla’s Sailfish licensing partner in Russia which was acquired by Rostelecom] to enable that case — that enables a number of other cases. The deployment plan that Rostelecom has for this is very big. And this is now really happening and we are happy about it.”

Jolla’s “Russia operation” is now beginning “a mass deployment phase”, he adds, predicting it will “quickly ramp up the volume to very sizeable”. So Sailfish is poised to scale.

Step 3… profit?

While Jolla is still yet to turn a full-year profit Pienimäki says several standalone months of 2018 were profitable, and he’s no longer worried whether the business is sustainable — asserting: “We don’t have any more financial obstacles or threats anymore.”

It’s quite the turnaround of fortunes, given Jolla’s near-death experience a few years ago when it almost ran out of money, after failing to close a $10.6M Series C round, and had to let go of half its staff.

It did manage to claw in a little funding at the end of 2015 to keep going, albeit as much leaner fish. But bagging Russia as an early adopter of its ‘independent’ mobile Linux ecosystem looks to have been the key tipping point for Jolla to be able to deliver on the hard-graft ecosystem-building work it’s been doing all along the way. And Pienimäki now expresses easy confidence that profitability will flow “fairly quickly” from here on in.

“It’s not an easy road. It takes time,” he says of the ecosystem-building company Jolla hard-pivoted to at its point of acute financial distress. “The development of this kind of business — it requires patience and negotiation times, and setting up the ecosystem and ecosystem partners. It really requires patience and takes a lot of time. And now we have come to this point where actually there starts to be an ecosystem which will then extend and start to carry its own identity as well.”

In further signs of Jolla’s growing confidence he says it hired more than ten people last year and moved to new and slightly more spacious offices — a reflection of the business expanding.

“It’s looking very good and nice for us,” Pienimäki continues. “Let’s say we are not taking too much pressure, with our investors and board, that what is the day that we are profitable. It’s not so important anymore… It’s clear that that is soon coming — that very day. But at the same time the most important is that the business case behind is proven and it is under aggressive deployment by our customers.”

The main focus for the moment is on supporting deployments to ramp up in Russia, he says, emphasizing: “That’s where we have to focus.” (Literally he says “not screwing up” — and with so much at stake you can see why nailing the Russia case is Jolla’s top priority.)

While the Russian state has been the entity most keen to embrace an alternative (non-U.S.-led) mobile OS — perhaps unsurprisingly — it’s not the only place in the world where Jolla has irons in the fire.

Another licensing partner, Bolivian IT services company Jalasoft, has co-developed a Sailfish-powered smartphone called Accione.

Jalasoft’s ‘liberty’-touting Accione Sailfish smartphone

It slates the handset on its website as being “designed for Latinos by Latinos”. “The digitalization of the economy is inevitable and, if we do not control the foundation of this digitalization, we have no future,” it adds.

Jalasoft founder and CEO Jorge Lopez says the company’s decision to invest effort in kicking the tyres of Jolla’s alternative mobile ecosystem is about gaining control — or seeking “technological libration” as the website blurb puts it.

“With Sailfish OS we have control of the implementation, while with Android it is the opposite,” Lopez tells TechCrunch. “We are working on developing smart buildings and we need a private OS that is not Android or iOS. This is mainly because our product will allow the end user to control the whole building and doing this with Android or iOS a hackable OS will bring concerns on security.”

Lopez says Jalasoft is using Accione as its development platform — “to gather customer feedback and to further develop our solution” — so the project clearly remains in an early phase, and he says that no more devices are likely to be announced this year.

But Jolla can point to more seeds being sewn with the potential, with work, determination and patience, to sprout into another sizeable crop of Sailfish-powered devices down the line.

Complexity in China

Even more ambitiously Jolla is also targeting China, where investment has been taken in to form a local consortium to develop a Chinese Sailfish ecosystem.

Although Pienimäki cautions there’s still much work to be done to bring Sailfish to market in China.

“We completed a major pilot with our licensing customer, Sailfish China Consortium, in 2017-18,” he says, giving an update on progress to date. “The public in market solution is not there yet. That is something that we are working together with the customer — hopefully we can see it later this year on the market. But these things take time. And let’s say that we’ve been somewhat surprised at how complex this kind of decision-making can be.”

“It wasn’t easy in Russia — it took three years of tight collaboration together with our Russian partners to find a way. But somehow it feels that it’s going to take even more in China. And I’m not necessarily talking about calendar time — but complexity,” he adds.

While there’s no guarantee of success for Jolla in China, the potential win is so big given the size of the market that even if they can only carve out a tiny slice, such as a business or corporate sector, it’s still worth going after. And he points to the existence of a couple of native mobile Linux operating systems he reckons could make “very lucrative partners”.

That said, the get-to-market challenge for Jolla in China is clearly distinctly different vs the rest of the world. This is because Android has developed into an independent (i.e. rather than Google-led) ecosystem in China as a result of state restrictions on the Internet and Internet companies. So the question is what could Sailfish offer that forked Android doesn’t already?

An Oppo Android powered smartphone on show at MWC 2017

Again, Jolla is taking the long view that ultimately there will be appetite — and perhaps also state-led push — for a technology platform bolster against political uncertainty in U.S.-China relations.

“What has happened now, in particular last year, is — because of the open trade war between the nations — many of the technology vendors, and also I would say the Chinese government, has started to gradually tighten their perspective on the fact that ‘hey simply it cannot be a long term strategy to just keep forking Android’. Because in the end of the day it’s somebody else’s asset. So this is something that truly creates us the opportunity,” he suggests.

“Openly competing with the fact that there are very successful Android forks in China, that’s going to be extremely difficult. But — let’s say — tapping into the fact that there are powers in that nation that wish that there would be something else than forking Android, combined with the fact that there is already something homegrown in China which is not forking Android — I think that’s the recipe that can be successful.”

Not all Jolla’s Sailfish bets have paid off, of course. An earlier foray by an Indian licensing partner into the consumer handset market petered out. Albeit, it does reinforce their decision to zero in on government and corporate licensing.

“We got excellent business connections,” says Pienimäki of India, suggesting also that it’s still a ‘watch this space’ for Jolla. The company has a “second move” in train in the market that he’s hopeful to be talking about publicly later this year.

It’s also pitching Sailfish in Africa. And in markets where target customers might not have their own extensive in-house IT capability to plug into Sailfish co-development work Pienimäki says it’s offering a full solution — “a ready made package”, together with partners, including device management, VPN, secure messaging and secure email — which he argues “can be still very lucrative business cases”.

Looking ahead and beyond mobile, Pienimäki suggests the automotive industry could be an interesting target for Sailfish in the future — though not literally plugging the platform into cars; but rather licensing its technologies where appropriate — arguing car makers are also keen to control the tech that’s going into their cars.

“They really want to make sure that they own the cockpit. It’s their property, it’s their brand and they want to own it — and for a reason,” he suggests, pointing to the clutch of major investments from car companies in startups and technologies in recent years.

“This is definitely an interesting area. We are not directly there ourself — and we are not capable to extend ourself there but we are discussing with partners who are in that very business whether they could utilize our technologies there. That would then be more or less like a technology licensing arrangement.”

A trust balancing model

While Jolla looks to be approaching a tipping point as a business, in terms of being able to profit off of licensing an alternative mobile platform, it remains a tiny and some might say inconsequential player on the global mobile stage.

Yet its focus on building and maintaining trusted management and technology architectures also looks timely — again, given how geopolitical spats are intervening to disrupt technology business as usual.

Chinese giant Huawei used an MWC keynote speech last month to reject U.S.-led allegations that its 5G networking technology could be repurposed as a spying tool by the Chinese state. And just this week it opened a cybersecurity transparency center in Brussels, to try to bolster trust in its kit and services — urging industry players to work together on agreeing standards and structures that everyone can trust.

In recent years U.S.-led suspicions attached to Russia have also caused major headaches for security veteran Kaspersky — leading the company to announce its own trust and transparency program and decentralize some of its infrastructure, including by spinning up servers in Europe last year.

Businesses finding ways to maintain and deepen the digital economy in spite of a little — or even a lot — of cross-border mistrust may well prove to be the biggest technology challenge of all moving forward.

Especially as next-gen 5G networks get rolled out — and their touted ‘intelligent connectivity’ reaches out to transform many more types of industries, bringing new risks and regulatory complexity.

The geopolitical problem linked to all this boils down to how to trust increasing complex technologies without any one entity being able to own and control all the pieces. And Jolla’s business looks interesting in light of that because it’s selling the promise of neutral independence to all its customers, wherever they hail from — be it Russia, LatAm, China, Africa or elsewhere — which makes its ability to secure customer trust not just important but vital to its success.

Indeed, you could argue its customers are likely to rank above average on the ‘paranoid’ scale, given their dedicated search for an alternative (non-U.S.-led) mobile OS in the first place.

“It’s one of the number one questions we get,” admits Pienimäki, discussing Jolla’s trust balancing act — aka how it manages and maintains confidence in Sailfish’s independence, even as it takes business backing and code contributions from a state like Russia.

“We tell about our reference case in Russia and people quickly ask ‘hey okay, how can I trust that there is no blackbox inside’,” he continues, adding: “This is exactly the core question and this is exactly the problem we have been able to build a solution for.”

Jolla’s solution sums to one line: “We create a transparent platform and on top of fully transparent platform you can create secure solutions,” as Pienimäki puts it.

“The way it goes is that Jolla with Sailfish OS is always offering the transparent Sailfish operating system core, on source code level, all the time live, available for all the customers. So all the customers constantly, in real-time, have access to our source code. Most of it’s in public open source, and the proprietary parts are also constantly available from our internal infrastructure. For all the customers, at the same time in real-time,” he says, fleshing out how it keeps customers on board with a continually co-developing software platform.

“The contributions we take from these customers are always on source code level only. We don’t take any binary blobs inside our software. We take only source code level contributions which we ourselves authorize, integrate and then we make available for all the customers at the very same moment. So that loopback in a way creates us the transparency.

“So if you want to be suspicion of the contributions of the other guys, so to say, you can always read it on the source code. It’s real-time. Always available for all the customers at the same time. That’s the model we have created.”

“It’s honestly quite a unique model,” he adds. “Nobody is really offering such a co-development model in the operating system business.

“Practically how Android works is that Google, who’s leading the Android development, makes the next release of Android software, then releases it under Android Open Source and then people start to backboard it — so that’s like ‘source, open’ in a way, not ‘open source’.”

Sailfish’s community of users also have real-time access to and visibility of all the contributions — which he dubs “real democracy”.

“People can actually follow it from the code-line all the time,” he argues. “This is really the core of our existence and how we can offer it to Russia and other countries without creating like suspicion elements each side. And that is very important.

“That is the only way we can continue and extend this regional licensing and we can offer it independently from Finland and from our own company.”

With global trade and technology both looking increasingly vulnerable to cross-border mistrust, Jolla’s approach to collaborative transparency may offer something of a model if other businesses and industries find they need to adapt themselves  in order for trade and innovation to keep moving forward in uncertain political times.

Antitrust and privacy uplift

Last but not least there’s regulatory intervention to consider.

A European Commission antitrust decision against Google’s Android platform last year caused headlines around the world when the company was slapped with a $5BN fine.

More importantly for Android rivals Google was also ordered to change its practices — leading to amended licensing terms for the platform in Europe last fall. And Pienimäki says Jolla was a “key contributor” to the Commission case against Android.

European competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager, on April 15, 2015 in Brussels, as the Commission said it would open an antitrust investigation into Google’s Android operating system. (Photo credit: JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)

The new Android licensing terms make it (at least theoretically) possible for new types of less-heavily-Google-flavored Android devices to be developed for Europe. Though there have been complaints the licensing tweaks don’t go far enough to reset Google’s competitive Android advantage.

Asked whether Jolla has seen any positive impacts on its business following the Commission’s antitrust decision, Pienimäki responds positively, recounting how — “one or two weeks after the ruling” — Jolla received an inbound enquiry from a company in France that had felt hamstrung by Google requiring its services to be bundled with Android but was now hoping “to realize a project in a special sector”.

The company, which he isn’t disclosing at this stage, is interested in “using Sailfish and then having selected Android applications running in Sailfish but no connection with the Google services”.

“We’ve been there for five years helping the European Union authorities [to build the case] and explain how difficult it is to create competitive solutions in the smartphone market in general,” he continues. “Be it consumer or be it anything else. That’s definitely important for us and I don’t see this at all limited to the consumer sector. The very same thing has been a problem for corporate clients, for companies who provide specialized mobile device solutions for different kind of corporations and even governments.”

While he couches the Android ruling as a “very important” moment for Jolla’s business last year, he also says he hopes the Commission will intervene further to level the smartphone playing field.

“What I’m after here, and what I would really love to see, is that within the European Union we utilize Linux-based, open platform solution which is made in Europe,” he says. “That’s why we’ve been pushing this [antitrust action]. This is part of that. But in bigger scheme this is very good.”

He is also very happy with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — which came into force last May, plugging in a long overdue update to the bloc’s privacy rules with a much beefed up enforcement regime.

GDPR has been good for Jolla’s business, according to Pienimäki, who says interest is flowing its way from customers who now perceive a risk to using Android if customer data flows outside Europe and they cannot guarantee adequate privacy protections are in place.

“Already last spring… we have had plenty of different customer discussions with European companies who are really afraid that ‘hey I cannot offer this solution to my government or to my corporate customer in my country because I cannot guarantee if I use Android that this data doesn’t go outside the European Union’,” he says.

“You can’t indemnify in a way that. And that’s been really good for us as well.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Digital publisher Serial Box raises $4.5M

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Camelot lets Twitch and YouTube audiences pay for what they want to see

Posted by | Entertainment, Gaming, Startups, TC, Twitch, Y Combinator, YouTube | No Comments

As the streaming world continues to grow, startups are looking to take advantage of the opportunity and grab a slice of the pie, and indeed create new revenue models around it entirely. 

Camelot, a YC-backed startup, is one of them.

Camelot allows viewers to place bounties on their favorite streamers, putting a monetary value on the things they want to see on stream. This could include in-game challenges like “win with no armor,” as well as stream bounties like “Play Apex” or “add a heartbeat monitor to the stream.”

When a viewer posts a bounty, other viewers can join in and contribute to the overall value, and the streamer can then choose whether or not to go through with it from an admin dashboard.

Because internet platforms can often be used for evil alongside good, cofounder and CEO Jesse Zhang has thought through ways to minimize inappropriate requests.

There is an option for streamers to see and approve the bounty before it’s ever made public to ensure that they avoid inappropriate propositions. Bounties are also paid for up front by viewers, and either returned if the creator declines the bounty or pushed through when the streamer completes the task, raising the barrier to entry for nefarious users.

Camelot generates revenue by taking a five percent stake in every bounty completed.

The platform isn’t just for Twitch streamers — YouTubers can also get in on the mix using Camelot and making asynchronous videos around each bounty. Not only does it offer a new way to generate revenue, but it also offers content creators the chance to get new insights on what their viewers want to see and what they value.

Cofounder and CEO Jesse Zhang believes there is opportunity to expand to streamers and YouTube content creators outside of the gaming sphere in the future.

For now, however, Camelot is working to bring on more content creators. Thus far, streamers and viewers have already come up with some interesting use cases for the product. One streamer’s audience bought his dog some treats, and one viewer of Sa1na paid $100 to play against the streamer himself.

Camelot declined to share how much funding it has received thus far, but did say that lead investors include Y Combinator, the Philadelphia 76ers, Soma Capital, and Plaid cofounders William Hockey and Zach Perret.

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Hooch moves beyond subscription drinks, with rewards for travel, dining and more

Posted by | Apps, eCommerce, Hooch, Hooch Black, Lin Dai, Mobile, Startups, TC | No Comments

When we first wrote about Hooch, it offered a fun, straightforward deal — for $9.99 per month, you could claim one free drink per day from participating bars and restaurants.

Since then, the company launched Hooch Black, a pricier subscription that includes perks like hotel discounts and concierge service. But even then, co-founder and CEO Lin Dai was hinting at plans to use blockchain technology to create what he called “a decentralized model for consumer rewards.”

Now Hooch is delivering on what Dai promised, with a relaunched app that rewards users for their purchases.

“We were super excited about the feedback and response [to Hooch Black] that we saw from our members,” Dai said. “What we decided to do is just completely update the app with rewards for consumers across four different categories — travel, dining, entertainment and e-commerce.”

He noted that while most loyalty programs reward you for using a specific card or for shopping with a specific company, Hooch has partnered with more than 250,000 merchants (including Marriott hotels, TAO restaurants, Starbucks, Uber and Amazon). The company can actually scan the purchases made on any linked debit or credit card, and you’ll be rewarded whenever you spend money with those partners.

The rewards take the form of what Hooch is calling TAP rewards dollars — the exact reward will vary depending on the merchant, but the company says it could be as high as 10 percent of your spending.

Lin Dai, Hooch

Lin Dai, CEO of Hooch

Dai said TAP dollars are actually a stablecoin pegged to the U.S. dollar, but he emphasized that you don’t need to understand the backend to use the rewards. For most users, TAP dollars will simply be a digital currency they can redeem for hotel bookings, restaurants credits and gift cards.

“Security is our top concern,” Dai added. The idea is to access your transaction history to verify your purchases (Hooch makes money by driving purchases for merchants), but without storing or sharing identifying information. “When we capture the consumer purchase information, we actually don’t capture any of their names or credit card numbers … We don’t store any identity.”

The program also comes with a big perk for enlisting your friends. There is an upfront reward of five TAP dollars, but the real selling point is the fact that you’ll get 20 percent of their rewards — not just on their initial purchases, but for the entire time they use the app.

If you like the Hooch Black plan, you’ll still be able to sign up and pay for it. But the company’s emphasis has shifted to the broader rewards program, which you can join for free.

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The Shadow Ghost turns cloud gaming into a seamless experience

Posted by | BLADE, Europe, Gadgets, Gaming, mwc, mwc 2019, shadow, Startups | No Comments

French startup Blade, the company behind Shadow, is launching a new set-top box to access its cloud gaming service — the Shadow Ghost. I’ve been playing with the device for a couple of weeks and here’s my review.

The Shadow Ghost is a tiny little box that doesn’t do much. The true magic happens in a data center near your home. When you sign up to Shadow, you don’t even have to get a box. You can simply subscribe to the service without any hardware device and use the company’s apps instead.

Shadow is a cloud computing service for gamers. For $35 per month, you can access a gaming PC in a data center and interact with this computer. Right now, Shadow gives you eight threads on an Intel Xeon 2620 processor, an Nvidia Quadro P5000 GPU that performs more or less as well as an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080, 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. You can optionally get more storage with an extra subscription. It’s a full Windows 10 instance and you can do whatever you want with it.

Most subscribers now access Shadow using one of the company’s apps on Windows, macOS or Linux. You also can connect to your virtual machine from your iOS or Android phone or tablet. And now, you can buy the Shadow Ghost if you want to use the service on a TV or without a computer.

I first used Shadow during the early days of the service back in early 2017. My first experience of the service felt like magic. Thanks to my high-speed fiber connection, I could play demanding games on a laptop. The best part was that the laptop fan would remain silent.

But it wasn’t perfect. Nvidia driver updates failed sometimes. Or your virtual machine would become completely unaccessible without some help from the customer support team.

In other words, the concept was great, but the service wasn’t there yet.

Things have changed quite drastically after years of iteration on the apps, the streaming engine, the infrastructure and even the GPUs in the data centers. Blade co-founder and CEO Emmanuel Freund told me that the service has been working fine for just a few months.

It’s no surprise that those technical improvements have led to less churn, more referrals and more subscriptions. In July 2018, the startup had 20,000 subscribers. Now there are 65,000 subscribers. There’s even more demand, but the company has had a hard time keeping up with new machines in data centers.

Shadow is currently available in France, the U.K., Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and parts of the U.S. The company simply can’t accept customers from anywhere in the world because they need to live near a data center with Shadow servers.

Playing with the Shadow Ghost

The original Shadow box was a bit clunky. You could hear the fan, you had to rely on dongles if you wanted to pair a Bluetooth device or connect to a Wi-Fi network and there was no HDMI port — only DisplayPort. Internally, Blade has been debating whether the company needs another box.

In 2017, it was too hard to explain the product without some sort of physical device — you can replace a PC tower with a tiny box. But now that gamers understand the benefits of cloud gaming, there’s no reason to force you to buy a box.

And yet, the Shadow Ghost can be a useful little device in some cases. For instance, while the company has released an Android TV app and is testing a new app for the Apple TV, your current TV setup might not be compatible with Shadow. Or maybe you primarily use a laptop and you want to create a desktop PC setup with a display, a keyboard, a mouse and a Shadow Ghost.

Everything has been improved. It is now a fanless device that consumes less than 5W when it’s on. It has an Ethernet port, two USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, an audio jack and a single HDMI port. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi have finally been integrated in the device.

When you boot up the device, you get a menu to connect to a Wi-Fi network or control your Bluetooth devices. You also can change some streaming settings, like in the app launcher.

Once you press the start button, the video stream starts and it feels like you’re using a Windows computer. With Steam’s Big Picture mode, you get a convenient setup for couch gaming. I had no issue playing demanding games, such as Hitman 2. It works perfectly fine with a Wi-Fi connection and a Bluetooth controller.

Using the Shadow Ghost feels just like using the Shadow app on a computer. So it’s hard to say whether you need the Shadow Ghost or not. It depends on your setup at home and how you plan to use the service.

Last summer, Blade planned to manufacture 5,000 units. But now that the user base has grown significantly, that first batch could disappear in no time. It is available starting today for $140.

A gold rush

Cloud gaming is a hot space right now. While some companies have been experimenting with this concept for a while (Nvidia, Sony), it feels like everyone is working on a new service of some sort. Maybe the next Xbox is going to be about streaming a game from a data center. Maybe Amazon will offer a game library in the cloud as part of your Amazon Prime subscription.

Emmanuel Freund believes that it could be an opportunity for Shadow. Everybody is going to talk about cloud gaming if Apple and Google announce new services. But the startup has years of experiences in the space and has tried hard to compensate when it comes to latency and internet speeds.

It’s going to be harder to compete on content though. Game publishers and console manufacturers could start releasing exclusive titles on their cloud gaming services. That’s why Blade is thinking about new gaming experiences and exclusive content that would make Shadow more than a technical service.

(Controller for scale)

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Ubiquitilink advance means every phone is now a satellite phone

Posted by | Gadgets, hardware, Mobile, science, Space, Startups, TC, ubiquitilink | No Comments

Last month I wrote about Ubiquitilink, which promised, through undisclosed means, it was on the verge of providing a sort of global satellite-based roaming service. But how, I asked? (Wait, they told me.) Turns out our phones are capable of a lot more than we think: they can reach satellites acting as cell towers in orbit just fine, and the company just proved it.

Utilizing a constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, Ubiquitilink claimed during a briefing at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona that pretty much any phone from the last decade should be able to text and do other low-bandwidth tasks from anywhere, even in the middle of the ocean or deep in the Himalayas. Literally (though eventually) anywhere and any time.

Surely not, I hear you saying. My phone, that can barely get a signal on some blocks of my neighborhood, or in that one corner of the living room, can’t possibly send and receive data from space… can it?

“That’s the great thing — everybody’s instinct indicates that’s the case,” said Ubiquitilink founder Charles Miller. “But if you look at the fundamentals of the RF [radio frequency] link, it’s easier than you think.”

The issue, he explained, isn’t really that the phone lacks power. The limits of reception and wireless networks are defined much more by architecture and geology than plain physics. When an RF transmitter, even a small one, has a clear shot straight up, it can travel very far indeed.

Space towers

It’s not quite as easy as that, however; there are changes that need to be made, just not anything complex or expensive like special satellite antennas or base stations. If you know that modifying the phone is a non-starter, you have to work with the hardware you’ve got. But everything else can be shaped accordingly, Miller said — three things in particular.

  1. Lower the orbit. There are limits to what’s practical as far as the distance involved and the complications it brings. The orbit needs to be under 500 kilometers, or about 310 miles. That’s definitely low — geosynchronous is 10 times higher — but it’s not crazy either. Some of SpaceX’s Starlink communications satellites are aiming for a similar orbit.
  2. Narrow the beam. The low orbit and other limitations mean that a given satellite can only cover a small area at a time. This isn’t just blasting out data like a GPS satellite, or communicating with a specialized ground system like a dish that can reorient itself. So on the ground you’ll be looking at a 45 degree arc, meaning you can use a satellite that’s within a 45-degree-wide cone above you.
  3. Lengthen the wavelength. Here simple physics come into play: generally, the shorter the wavelength, the less transparent the atmosphere is to it. So you want to use bands on the long (lower Hz) side of the radio spectrum to make sure you maximize propagation.

Having adjusted for these things, an ordinary phone can contact and trade information with a satellite with its standard wireless chip and power budget. But there’s one more obstacle, one Ubiquitilink spent a great deal of time figuring out.

Although a phone and satellite can reach one another reliably, a delay and Doppler shift in the signal due to the speeds and distances involved are inescapable. Turns out the software that runs towers and wireless chips isn’t suited for this; the timings built into the code assume the distance will be less than 30 km, since the curvature of the Earth generally prevents transmitting farther than that.

So Ubiquitilink modified the standard wireless stacks to account for this, something Miller said no one else had done.

“After my guys came back and told me they’d done this, I said, ‘well let’s go validate it,’ ” he told me. “We went to NASA and JPL and asked what they thought. Everybody’s gut reaction was ‘well, this won’t work,’ but then afterwards they just said ‘well, it works.’ ”

The theory became a reality earlier this year after Ubiquitilink launched their prototype satellites. They successfully made a two-way 2G connection between an ordinary ground device and the satellite, proving that the signal not only gets there and back, but that its Doppler and delay distortions can be rectified on the fly.

“Our first tests demonstrated that we offset the Doppler shift and time delay. Everything else is leveraging commercial software,” Miller said, though he quickly added: “To be clear, there’s plenty more work to be done, but it isn’t anything that’s new technology. It’s good solid hardcore engineering, building nanosats and that sort of thing.”

Since his previous company was Nanoracks and he’s been in the business for decades, he’s qualified to be confident on this part. It’ll be a lot of work and a lot of money, but they should be launching their first real satellites this summer. (And it’s all patented, he noted.)

Global roaming

The way the business will work is remarkably simple given the complexity of the product. Because the satellites operate on modified but mostly ordinary off-the-shelf software and connect to phones with no modifications necessary, Ubiquitilink will essentially work as a worldwide roaming operator that mobile networks will pay to access. (Disclosure: Verizon, obviously a mobile network, owns TechCrunch, and for all I know will use this tech eventually. It’s not involved with any editorial decisions.)

Normally, if you’re a subscriber of network X, and you’re visiting a country where X has no coverage, X will have an agreement with network Y, which connects you for a fee. There are hundreds of these deals in play at any given time, and Ubiquitilink would just be one more — except its coverage will eventually be global. Maybe you can’t reach X or Y; you’ll always be able to reach U.

The speeds and services available will depend on what mobile networks want. Not everyone wants or needs the same thing, of course, and a 3G fallback might be practical where an LTE connection is less so. But the common denominator will be data enough to send and receive text at the least.

It’s worth noting also that this connection will be in some crucial ways indistinguishable from other connections: it won’t affect encryption, for instance.

This will of course necessitate at least a thousand satellites, by Miller’s count. But in the meantime, limited service will also be available in the form of timed passes — you’ll have no signal for 55 minutes, then signal for five, during which you can send and receive what may be a critical text or location. This is envisioned as a specialty service at first, then as more satellites join the constellation, that window expands until it’s 24/7 and across the whole face of the planet, and it becomes a normal consumer good.

Emergency fallback

While your network provider will probably charge you the usual arm and leg for global roaming on demand (it’s their prerogative), there are some services Ubiquitilink will provide for free; the value of a global communication system is not lost on Miller.

“Nobody should ever die because the phone in their pocket doesn’t have signal,” he said. “If you break down in the middle of Death Valley you should be able to text 911. Our vision is this is a universal service for emergency responders and global E-911 texting. We’re not going to charge for that.”

An emergency broadcast system when networks are down is also being planned — power outages following disasters are times when people are likely to panic or be struck by a follow-up disaster like a tsunami or flooding, and reliable communications at those times could save thousands and vastly improve recovery efforts.

“We don’t want to make money off saving people’s lives, that’s just a benefit of implementing this system, and the way it should be,” Miller said.

It’s a whole lot of promises, but the team and the tech seem capable of backing them up. Initial testing is complete and birds are in the air — now it’s a matter of launching the next thousand or so.

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Fortnite goes big on esports for 2019 with $100 million prize pool

Posted by | esports, fortnite, Gaming, Startups, TC, Twitch | No Comments

Epic Games, maker of the ultra popular Battle Royale game Fortnite, is putting up another $100 million in prize cash for competitive tournaments in 2019.

The company made waves in the esports world last year, announcing a $100 million prize pool for the 2018 competitive year, dwarfing every other competitive title in one fell swoop.

This year, a significant portion of the $100 million will be awarded to participants of the first-ever Fortnite World Cup. Each of the 200 players who qualify and compete will walk away with at least $50,000, with the winner taking home $3 million.

The Fortnite World Cup will take place July 26 – 28 in New York City, offering $30 million total in prizes. One hundred of the top solo players will be invited, along with the top 50 duos teams.

So how do you get in on this?

Fortnite is holding weekly open online qualifiers, each worth $1 million, from April 13 to June 16. Eligible players who consistently place well will have a shot at being one of those top 200 players.

This announcement comes at an interesting time for Fortnite. While the game still reigns supreme in terms of popularity, other Battle Royale games are picking up traction. Apex Legends (an EA and Respawn title), in particular, is growing in popularity. Several of the top Twitch streamers, including Ninja, Shroud, Timthetatman, High Distortion and Annemunition have started playing more Apex and participated in the first Apex Legends Twitch Rivals tournament.

Keeping the attention of these streamers is surely a priority for Fortnite, and for a game that pulls in some $300 million a month in in-game purchases, spending $100 million a year is a small price to pay.

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Pinstagram? Instagram code reveals Public Collections feature

Posted by | Apps, instagram, Mobile, Pinterest, Social, Startups | No Comments

Instagram is threatening to attack Pinterest just as it files to go public the same way the Facebook-owned app did to Snapchat. Code buried in Instagram for Android shows the company has prototyped an option to create public “Collections” to which multiple users can contribute. Instagram launched private Collections two years ago to let you Save and organize your favorite feed posts. But by allowing users to make Collections public, Instagram would become a direct competitor to Pinterest.

Instagram public Collections could spark a new medium of content curation. People could use the feature to bundle together their favorite memes, travel destinations, fashion items or art. That could cut down on unconsented content stealing that’s caused backlash against meme “curators” like F*ckJerry by giving an alternative to screenshotting and reposting other people’s stuff. Instead of just representing yourself with your own content, you could express your identity through the things you love — even if you didn’t photograph them yourself. And if that sounds familiar, you’ll understand why this could be problematic for Pinterest’s upcoming $12 billion IPO.

The “Make Collection Public” option was discovered by frequent TechCrunch tipster and reverse engineering specialist Jane Manchun Wong. It’s not available to the public, but from the Instagram for Android code, she was able to generate a screenshot of the prototype. It shows the ability to toggle on public visibility for a Collection, and tag contributors who can also add to the Collection. Previously, Collections was always a private, solo feature for organizing your bookmarks gathered through the Instagram Save feature Instagram launched in late 2016.

Instagram told TechCrunch “we’re not testing this,” which is its standard response to press inquiries about products that aren’t available to public users, but that are in internal development. It could be a while until Instagram does start experimenting publicly with the feature and longer before a launch, and the company could always scrap the option. But it’s a sensible way to give users more to do and share on Instagram, and the prototype gives insight into the app’s strategy. Facebook launched its own Pinterest -style shareable Sets in 2017 and launched sharable Collections in December.

Currently there’s nothing in the Instagram code about users being able to follow each other’s Collections, but that would seem like a logical and powerful next step. Instagrammers can already follow hashtags to see new posts with them routed to their feed. Offering a similar way to follow Collections could turn people into star curators rather than star creators without the need to rip off anyone’s content. Speaking of infuencers, Wong also spotted Instagram prototyping IGTV picture-in-picture, so you could keep watching a long-form video after closing the app and navigating the rest of your phone.

Instagram lets users Save posts, which can then be organized into Collections

Public Collections could fuel Instagram’s commerce strategy that Mark Zuckerberg recently said would be a big part of the road map. Instagram already has a personalized Shopping feed in Explore, and The Verge’s Casey Newton reported last year that Instagram was working on a dedicated shopping app. It’s easy to imagine fashionistas, magazines and brands sharing Collections of their favorite buyable items.

It’s worth remembering that Instagram launched its copycat of Snapchat Stories just six months before Snap went public. As we predicted, that reduced Snapchat’s growth rate by 88 percent. Two years later, Snapchat isn’t growing at all, and its share price is at just a third of its peak. With more than 1 billion monthly and 500 million daily users, Instagram is four times the size of Pinterest. Instagram loyalists might find it’s easier to use the “good enough” public Collections feature where they already have a social graph than try to build a following from scratch on Pinterest.

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