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Trump’s Huawei ban also causing tech shocks in Europe

Posted by | Android, China, Europe, european commission, finland, Google, Google Play, Government, huawei, Jolla, Mobile, Nokia, play store, Qwant, Sami Pienimäki, search engine, smartphone, smartphones, stmicroelectronics, Trade war, trump, United States | No Comments

The escalating U.S.-China trade war that’s seen Chinese tech giant Huawei slapped on a U.S. trade blacklist is causing ripples of shock across Europe too, as restrictions imposed on U.S. companies hit regional suppliers concerned they could face U.S. restrictions if they don’t ditch Huawei.

Reuters reports shares fell sharply today in three European chipmakers — Infineon Technologies, AMS and STMicroelectronics — after reports suggested some already had, or were about to, halt shipments to Huawei following the executive order barring U.S. firms from trading with the Chinese tech giant.

The interconnectedness of high-tech supply chains coupled with U.S. dominance of the sector and Huawei’s strong regional position as a supplier of cellular, IT and network kit in Europe suddenly makes political risk a fast-accelerating threat for EU technology companies, large and small.

On the small side is French startup Qwant, which competes with Google by offering a pro-privacy search engine. In recent months it has been hoping to leverage a European antitrust decision against Google  Android last year to get smartphones to market in Europe that preload its search engine, not Google’s.

Huawei was its intended first major partner for such devices. Though, prior to recent trade war developments, it was already facing difficulties related to price incentives Google included in reworked EU Android licensing terms.

Still, the U.S.-China trade war threatens to throw a far more existential spanner in European Commission efforts to reset the competitive planning field for smartphone services — certainly if Google’s response to Huawei’s blacklisting is to torch its supply of almost all Android-related services, per Reuters.

A key aim of the EU antitrust decision was intended to support the unbundling of popular Google services from Android so that device makers can try selling combinations that aren’t entirely Google-flavored — while still being able to offer enough “Google” to excite consumers (such as preloading the Play Store but with a different search and browser bundle instead of the usual Google + Chrome combo).

Yet if Google intends to limit Huawei’s access to such key services, there’s little chance of that.

(In a statement responding to the Reuters report Google suggested it’s still deciding how to proceed, with a spokesperson writing: “We are complying with the order and reviewing the implications. For users of our services, Google Play and the security protections from Google Play Protect will continue to function on existing Huawei devices.”)

Going on Google’s initial response, Qwant co-founder and CEO Eric Léandri told us he thinks Google has overreacted — even as he dubbed the U.S.-China trade war “world war III — economical war but it’s a world war for sure.”

“I really need to see exactly what President Trump has said about Huawei and how to work with them. Because I think maybe Google has overreacted. Because I haven’t [interpreted it] that way so I’m very surprised,” he told TechCrunch.

“If Huawei can be [blacklisted] what about the others?,” he added. “Because I would say 60% of the cell phone sales in Europe today are coming from China. Huawei or ZTE, OnePlus and the others — they are all under the same kind of risk.

“Even some of our European brands who are very small like Nokia… all of them are made in China, usually with partnership with these big cell phone manufacturers. So that means several things but one thing that I’m sure is we should not rely on one OS. It would be difficult to explain how the Play Store is not as important as the search in Android.”

Léandri also questioned whether Google’s response to the blacklisting will include instructing Huawei not to even use its search engine — a move that could impact its share of the smartphone search market.

“At the end of the day there is just one thing I can say because I’m just a search engine and a European one — I haven’t seen Google asking to not be by default in Huawei as search engine. If they can be in the Huawei by default as a search engine so I presume that everyone else can be there.”

Léandri said Qwant will be watching to see what Huawei’s next steps will be — such as whether it will decide to try offering devices with its own store baked in in Europe.

And indeed how China will react.

“We have to understand the result politically, globally, the European consequences. The European attitude. It’s not only American and China — the rest of the world exists,” he said.

“I have plan b, plan c, plan d, plan f. To be clear we are a startup — so we can have tonnes of plans, The only thing is right now is it’s too enormous.

“I know that they are the two giants in the tech field… but the rest of the world have some words today and let’s see how the European Commission will react, my government will react and some of us will react because it’s not only a small commercial problem right now. It’s a real political power demonstration and it’s global so I will not be more — I am nobody in all this. I do my job and I do my job well and I will use the maximum opportunity that I can find on the market.”

We’ve reached out to the Commission to ask how it intends to respond to escalating risks for European tech firms as Trump’s trade war steps up.

Also today, Reuters reports that the German Economy Minister is examining the impact of U.S. sanctions against Huawei on local companies.

But while a startup like Qwant waits to see what the next few months will bring — and how the landscape of the smartphone market might radically reconfigure in the face of sharply spiking political risk, a different European startup is hoping to catch some uplift: Finland-based Jolla steers development of a made-in-Europe Android alternative, called Sailfish OS.

It’s a very tiny player in a Google-dominated smartphone world. Yet could be positioned to make gains amid U.S. and Chinese tech clashes — which in turn risk making major platform pieces feel a whole lot less stable.

A made-in-Europe non-Google-led OS might gain more ground among risk averse governments and enterprises — as a sensible hedge against Trump-fueled global uncertainty.

“Sailfish OS, as a non-American, open-source based, secure mobile OS platform, is naturally an interesting option for different players — currently the interest is stronger among corporate and governmental customers and partners, as our product offering is clearly focused on this segment,” says Jolla co-founder and CEO Sami Pienimäki .

“Overall, there definitely has been increased interest towards Sailfish OS as a mobile OS platform in different parts of the world, partly triggered by the on-going political activity in many locations. We have also had clearly more discussions with e.g. Chinese device manufacturers, and Jolla has also recently started new corporate and governmental customer projects in Europe.”

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Xprize names two grand prize winners in $15 million Global Learning Challenge

Posted by | Android, bangalore, california, carnegie mellon, carnegie mellon university, cci, Education, Elon Musk, Google, kenya, machine learning, musk, New York, pittsburgh, Seoul, south korea, Speech Recognition, Tanzania, TC, technology, transhumanism, United Kingdom, United States, XPRIZE | No Comments

Xprize, the nonprofit organization developing and managing competitions to find solutions to social challenges, has named two grand prize winners in the Elon Musk-backed Global Learning Xprize.

The companies, KitKit School out of South Korea and the U.S., and onebillion, operating in Kenya and the U.K., were announced at an awards ceremony hosted at the Google Spruce Goose Hangar in Playa Vista, Calif.

Xprize set each of the competing teams the task of developing scalable services that could enable children to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills within 15 months.

Musk himself was on hand to award $5 million checks to each of the winning teams.

Five finalists, including New York-based CCI, which developed lesson plans and a development language so non-coders could create lessons; Chimple, a Bangalore-based learning platform enabling children to learn reading, writing and math on a tablet; RobotTutor, a Pittsburgh-based company, which used Carnegie Mellon research to develop an app for Android tablets that would teach lessons in reading and writing with speech recognition, machine learning and human computer interactions; and the two grand prize winners all received $1 million to continue developing their projects.

The tests required each product to be field-tested in Swahili, reaching nearly 3,000 children in 170 villages across Tanzania.

All of the final solutions from each of the five teams that made it to the final round of competition have been open-sourced so anyone can improve on and develop local solutions using the toolkits developed by each team in competition.

Kitkit School, with a team from Berkeley, Calif. and Seoul, developed a program with a game-based core and flexible learning architecture to help kids learn independently, while onebillion merged numeracy content with literacy material to provide directed learning and activities alongside monitoring to personalize responses to children’s needs.

Both teams are going home with $5 million to continue their work.

The problem of access to basic education affects more than 250 million children around the world, who can’t read or write, and one-in-five children around the world aren’t in school, according to data from UNESCO.

The problem of access is compounded by a shortage of teachers at the primary and secondary school levels. Some research, cited by Xprize , indicates that the world needs to recruit another 68.8 million teachers to provide every child with a primary and secondary education by 2040.

Before the Global Learning Xprize field test, 74% of the children who participated were reported as never having attended school; 80% were never read to at home; and 90% couldn’t read a single word of Swahili.

After the 15-month program working on donated Google Pixel C tablets and pre-loaded with software, the number was cut in half.

“Education is a fundamental human right, and we are so proud of all the teams and their dedication and hard work to ensure every single child has the opportunity to take learning into their own hands,” said Anousheh Ansari, CEO of Xprize, in a statement. “Learning how to read, write and demonstrate basic math are essential building blocks for those who want to live free from poverty and its limitations, and we believe that this competition clearly demonstrated the accelerated learning made possible through the educational applications developed by our teams, and ultimately hope that this movement spurs a revolution in education, worldwide.”

After the grand prize announcement, Xprize said it will work to secure and load the software onto tablets; localize the software; and deliver preloaded hardware and charging stations to remote locations so all finalist teams can scale their learning software across the world.

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The Meizu 16s offers flagship features at a mid-range price

Posted by | Android, Gadgets, hardware, Meizu, mobile phones, Qualcomm, smartphone, smartphones, snapdragon 855, TC, United States | No Comments

Smartphones have gotten more expensive over the last few years even though there have only been a handful of recent innovations that really changed the way you interact with the phone. It’s maybe no surprise then that there is suddenly a lot more interest in mid-range, sub-$500 phones again. In the U.S., Google’s new Pixel 3a, with its superb camera, is bringing a lot of credibility to this segment. Outside the U.S., though, you can often get a flagship phone for less than $500 that makes none of the trade-offs typically associated with a mid-range phone. So when Meizu asked me to take a look at its new 16s flagship, which features (almost) everything you’d expect from a high-end Android phone, I couldn’t resist.

Meizu, of course, is essentially a total unknown in the U.S., even though it has a sizable global presence elsewhere. After a week with its latest flagship, which features Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 855 chip and under-screen fingerprint scanner, I’ve come away impressed by what the company delivers, especially given the price point. In the U.S. market, the $399 Pixel 3a may seem like a good deal, but that’s because a lot of brands like Meizu, Xiaomi, Huawei and others have been shut out.

It’s odd that this is now a differentiating feature, but the first thing you’ll notice when you get started is the notchless screen. The dual-sim 16s must have one of the smallest selfie cameras currently on the market, and the actual bezels, especially when compared to something like the Pixel 3a, are minimal. That trade-off works for me. I’ll take a tiny bezel over a notch any day. The 6.2-inch AMOLED screen, which is protected by Gorilla Glass, is crisp and bright, though maybe a bit more saturated than necessary.

The in-display fingerprint reader works just fine, though it’s a bit more finicky that the dedicated readers I’ve used in the past.

With its 855 chip and 6GB of RAM, it’s no surprise the phone feels snappy. To be honest, that’s true for every phone, though, even in the mid-range. Unless you are a gamer, it’s really hard to push any modern phone to its limits. The real test is how this speed holds up over time, and that’s not something we can judge right now.

The overall build quality is excellent, yet while the plastic back is very pretty, it’s also a) weird to see a plastic back to begin with and b) slippery enough to just glide over your desk and drop on the floor if it’s at even a slight angle.

Meizu’s Flyme skin does the job, and adds some useful features like a built-in screen recorder. I’m partial to Google’s Pixel launcher, and a Flyme feels a bit limited in comparison to that and other third-party launchers. There is no app drawer, for example, so all of your apps have to live on the home screen. Personally, I went to the Microsoft Launcher pretty quickly, since that’s closer to the ecosystem I live in anyway. Being able to do that is one of the advantages of Android, after all.

Meizu also offers a number of proprietary gesture controls that replace the standard Android buttons. These may or may not work for you, depending on how you feel about gesture-based interfaces.

I haven’t done any formal battery tests, but the battery easily lasted me through a day of regular usage.

These days, though, phones are really about the cameras. Meizu opted for Sony’s latest 48-megapixel sensor here for its main camera and a 20-megapixel sensor for its telephoto lens that provides up to 3x optical zoom. The camera features optical image stabilization, which, when combined with the software stabilization, makes it easier to take low-light pictures and record shake-free video (though 4K video does not feature Meizu’s anti-shake system).

While you can set the camera to actually produce a 48-megapixel image, the standard setting combines four pixels’ worth of light into a single pixel. That makes for a better image, though you do have the option to go for the full 48 megapixels if you really want to. The camera’s daytime performance is very good, though maybe not quite up to par with some other flagship phones. It really shines when the light dims, though. At night, the camera is highly competitive and Meizu knows that, so the company even added two distinct night modes: one for handheld shooting and one for when you set the phone down or use a tripod. There is also a pro mode with manual controls.

Otherwise, the camera app provides all the usual portrait mode features you’d expect today. The 2x zoom works great, but at 3x, everything starts feeling a bit artificial and slightly washed out. It’ll do in a pinch, but you’re better off getting closer to your subject.

In looking at these features, it’s worth remembering the phone’s price. You’re not making a lot of trade-offs at less than $500, and it’d be nice to see more phones of this caliber on sale in the U.S. Right now, it looks like the OnePlus 7 Pro at $669 is your best bet if you are in the U.S. and looking for a flagship phone without the flagship price.

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Alexa, does the Echo Dot Kids protect children’s privacy?

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Amazon, Amazon Echo, Amazon.com, artificial intelligence, center for digital democracy, coppa, Disney, echo, echo dot kids, eCommerce, Federal Trade Commission, Gadgets, nickelodeon, privacy, privacy policy, smart assistant, smart speaker, Speech Recognition, terms of service, United States, voice assistant | No Comments

A coalition of child protection and privacy groups has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) urging it to investigate a kid-focused edition of Amazon’s Echo smart speaker.

The complaint against Amazon Echo Dot Kids, which has been lodged with the FTC by groups including the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Center for Digital Democracy and the Consumer Federation of America, argues that the e-commerce giant is violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) — including by failing to obtain proper consents for the use of kids’ data.

As with its other smart speaker Echo devices, the Echo Dot Kids continually listens for a wake word and then responds to voice commands by recording and processing users’ speech. The difference with this Echo is it’s intended for children to use — which makes it subject to U.S. privacy regulation intended to protect kids from commercial exploitation online.

The complaint, which can be read in full via the group’s complaint website, argues that Amazon fails to provide adequate information to parents about what personal data will be collected from their children when they use the Echo Dot Kids; how their information will be used; and which third parties it will be shared with — meaning parents do not have enough information to make an informed decision about whether to give consent for their child’s data to be processed.

They also accuse Amazon of providing at best “unclear and confusing” information per its obligation under COPPA to also provide notice to parents to obtain consent for children’s information to be collected by third parties via the online service — such as those providing Alexa “skills” (aka apps the AI can interact with to expand its utility).

A number of other concerns about Amazon’s device are also being raised with the FTC.

Amazon released the Echo Dot Kids a year ago — and, as we noted at the time, it’s essentially a brightly bumpered iteration of the company’s standard Echo Dot hardware.

There are differences in the software, though. In parallel, Amazon updated its Alexa smart assistant — adding parental controls, aka its FreeTime software, to the child-focused smart speaker.

Amazon said the free version of FreeTime that comes bundled with the Echo Dot Kids provides parents with controls to manage their kids’ use of the product, including device time limits; parental controls over skills and services; and the ability to view kids’ activity via a parental dashboard in the app. The software also removes the ability for Alexa to be used to make phone calls outside the home (while keeping an intercom functionality).

A paid premium tier of FreeTime (called FreeTime Unlimited) also bundles additional kid-friendly content, including Audible books, ad-free radio stations from iHeartRadio Family and premium skills and stories from the likes of Disney, National Geographic and Nickelodeon .

At the time it announced the Echo Dot Kids, Amazon said it had tweaked its voice assistant to support kid-focused interactions — saying it had trained the AI to understand children’s questions and speech patterns, and incorporated new answers targeted specifically at kids (such as jokes).

But while the company was ploughing resource into adding a parental control layer to Echo and making Alexa’s speech recognition kid-friendly, the COPPA complaint argues it failed to pay enough attention to the data protection and privacy obligations that apply to products targeted at children — as the Echo Dot Kids clearly is.

Or, to put it another way, Amazon offers parents some controls over how their children can interact with the product — but not enough controls over how Amazon (and others) can interact with their children’s data via the same always-on microphone.

More specifically, the group argues that Amazon is failing to meet its obligation as the operator of a child-directed service to provide notice and obtain consent for third parties operating on the Alexa platform to use children’s data — noting that its Children’s Privacy Disclosure policy states it does not apply to third-party services and skills.

Instead, the complaint says Amazon tells parents they should review the skill’s policies concerning data collection and use. “Our investigation found that only about 15% of kid skills provide a link to a privacy policy. Thus, Amazon’s notice to parents regarding data collection by third parties appears designed to discourage parental engagement and avoid Amazon’s responsibilities under Coppa,” the group writes in a summary of their complaint.

They are also objecting to how Amazon is obtaining parental consent — arguing its system for doing so is inadequate because it’s merely asking that a credit or debit/debit gift card number be inputted.

“It does not verify that the person ‘consenting’ is the child’s parent as required by Coppa,” they argue. “Nor does Amazon verify that the person consenting is even an adult because it allows the use of debit gift cards and does not require a financial transaction for verification.”

Another objection is that Amazon is retaining audio recordings of children’s voices far longer than necessary — keeping them indefinitely unless a parent actively goes in and deletes the recordings, despite COPPA requiring that children’s data be held for no longer than is reasonably necessary.

They found that additional data (such as transcripts of audio recordings) was also still retained even after audio recordings had been deleted. A parent must contact Amazon customer service to explicitly request deletion of their child’s entire profile to remove that data residue — meaning that to delete all recorded kids’ data a parent has to nix their access to parental controls and their kids’ access to content provided via FreeTime — so the complaint argues that Amazon’s process for parents to delete children’s information is “unduly burdensome” too.

Their investigation also found the company’s process for letting parents review children’s information to be similarly arduous, with no ability for parents to search the collected data — meaning they have to listen/read every recording of their child to understand what has been stored.

They further highlight that children’s Echo Dot Kids’ audio recordings can of course include sensitive personal details — such as if a child uses Alexa’s “remember” feature to ask the AI to remember personal data such as their address and contact details or personal health information like a food allergy.

The group’s complaint also flags the risk of other children having their data collected and processed by Amazon without their parents’ consent — such as when a child has a friend or family member visiting on a play date and they end up playing with the Echo together.

Responding to the complaint, Amazon has denied it is in breach of COPPA. In a statement, a company spokesperson said: “FreeTime on Alexa and Echo Dot Kids Edition are compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Customers can find more information on Alexa and overall privacy practices here: https://www.amazon.com/alexa/voice [amazon.com].”

An Amazon spokesperson also told us it only allows kid skills to collect personal information from children outside of FreeTime Unlimited (i.e. the paid tier) — and then only if the skill has a privacy policy and the developer separately obtains verified consent from the parent, adding that most kid skills do not have a privacy policy because they do not collect any personal information.

At the time of writing, the FTC had not responded to a request for comment on the complaint.

In Europe, there has been growing concern over the use of children’s data by online services. A report by England’s children’s commissioner late last year warned kids are being “datafied,” and suggested profiling at such an early age could lead to a data-disadvantaged generation.

Responding to rising concerns the U.K. privacy regulator launched a consultation on a draft Code of Practice for age appropriate design last month, asking for feedback on 16 proposed standards online services must meet to protect children’s privacy — including requiring that product makers put the best interests of the child at the fore, deliver transparent T&Cs, minimize data use and set high privacy defaults.

The U.K. government has also recently published a whitepaper setting out a policy plan to regulate internet content that has a heavy focus on child safety.

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The EU will reportedly investigate Apple following anti-competition complaint from Spotify

Posted by | Android, app-store, Apple, apple inc, apple music, belgium, Brussels, ceo, computing, daniel ek, EC, Europe, european commission, european union, Facebook, Google, Google Play Store, iPhone, lawsuit, Margrethe Vestager, Media, online marketplaces, Online Music Stores, operating systems, Search, smartphones, social network, Software, Spotify, United States | No Comments

The spat between Spotify and Apple is going to be the focus on a new investigation from the EU, according to a report from the FT.

The paper reported today that the European Commission (EC), the EU’s regulatory body, plans to launch a competition inquiry around Spotify’s claim that the iPhone-maker uses its position as the gatekeeper of the App Store to “deliberately disadvantage other app developers.”

In a complaint filed to the EC in March, Spotify said Apple has “tilted the playing field” by operating iOS, the platform, and the App Store for distribution, as well as its own Spotify rival, Apple Music.

In particular, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek has said that Apple “locks” developers and their platform, which includes a 30 percent cut of in-app spending. Ek also claimed Apple Music has unfair advantages over rivals like Spotify, while he expressed concern that Apple controls communication between users and app publishers, “including placing unfair restrictions on marketing and promotions that benefit consumers.”

Spotify’s announcement was unprecedented — Ek claimed many other developers feel the same way, but do not want to upset Apple by speaking up. The EU is sure to tap into that silent base if the investigation does indeed go ahead as the FT claims.

Apple bit back at Spotify’s claims, but its response was more a rebuttal — or alternative angle — on those complaints. Apple did not directly address any of the demands that Spotify put forward, and those include alternative payment options (as offered in the Google Play store) and equal treatment for Apple apps and those from third-parties like Spotify.

The EU is gaining a reputation as a tough opponent that’s reining in U.S. tech giants.

Aside from its GDPR initiative, it has a history of taking action on apparent monopolies in tech.

Google fined €1.49 billion ($1.67 billion) in March of this year over antitrust violations in search ad brokering, for example. Google was fined a record $5 billion last year over Android abuses and there have been calls to look into breaking the search company up. Inevitably, Facebook has come under the spotlight for a series of privacy concerns, particularly around elections.

Pressure from the EU has already led to the social network introduce clear terms and conditions around its use of data for advertising, while it may also change its rules limiting overseas ad spending around EU elections following concern from Brussels.

Despite what some in the U.S. may think, the EU’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, has said publicly that she is against breaking companies up. Instead, Vestager has pledged to regulate data access.

“To break up a company, to break up private property would be very far-reaching and you would need to have a very strong case that it would produce better results for consumers in the marketplace than what you could do with more mainstream tools. We’re dealing with private property. Businesses that are built and invested in and become successful because of their innovation,” she said in an interview at SXSW earlier this year.

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The Google Assistant can now tell you a story on your phone

Posted by | Android, Assistant, Australia, Canada, computing, Disney, Google, india, operating systems, TC, United Kingdom, United States | No Comments

For the last year or so, you could ask the Google Assistant on your Google Home device to read your kids a story. Today, just in time for National Tell a Story Day, Google is bringing this feature to Android and iOS phones, too. It’ll be available in English in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and India.

When you asked the Assistant on your phone to tell you a story before, you’d get a short inspirational quote or maybe a bad joke. Having two different experiences for the same command never really made much sense, so it’s good to see Google consolidate this.

The available stories range from tales about Blaze and the Monster Machines to more classic bedtime stories like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Little Red Riding Hood.”

That’s in addition to other story features like “read along,” which automatically plays sound effects as you read from a number of Disney Little Golden Books. That’s obviously the cooler feature overall, but the selection of supported books remains limited. For longer stories, there’s obviously audiobook support.

Or you could just sit down with your kids and read them a book. That’s also an option.

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Google Home’s Philips Hue integration can now wake you up gently

Posted by | Australia, Canada, Companies, consumer electronics, Gadgets, Google, google home, hardware, home appliances, Home Automation, india, lighting, Philips, philips hue, Singapore, United Kingdom, United States | No Comments

Maybe you love the sound of your alarm clock blaring in the morning, heralding a new day full of joy and adventure. More likely, though, you don’t. If you prefer a more gentle wake-up (and have invested in some smart home technology), here’s some good news: Google Home now lets you use your Philips Hue lights to wake you up by slowly changing the light in your room.

Philips first announced this integration at CES earlier this year, with a planned rollout in March. Looks like that took a little while longer, as Google and Philips gently brought this feature to life.

Just like you can use your Home to turn on “Gentle Wake,” which starts changing your lights 30 minutes before your wake-up time to mimic a sunrise, you also can go the opposite way and have the lights mimic sunset as you get ready to go to bed. You can either trigger these light changes through an alarm or with a command that starts them immediately.

While the price of white Hue bulbs has come down in recent years, colored hue lights remain rather pricey, with single bulbs going for around $40. If that doesn’t hold you back, though, the Gentle Sleep and Wake features are now available in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, Singapore and India in English only.

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CleverTap lands $26M for its mobile-focused customer marketing service

Posted by | Accel, Asia, clevertap, Facebook, Fandango, funding, Fundings & Exits, go-jek, india, Media, Mobile, rakuten, Sequoia, Sequoia India, Singapore, Southeast Asia, tiger global, United States, Viber, WhatsApp | No Comments

CleverTap, an India-based startup that lets companies track and improve engagement with users across the web, has pulled in $26 million in new funding thanks to a round led by Sequoia India.

Existing investor Accel and new backer Tiger Global also took part in the deal, which values CleverTap at $150-$160 million, the startup disclosed. The deal takes CleverTap to around $40 million from investors to date.

Founded in 2015 and based in Mumbai, CleverTap competes with a range of customer experience services, including Oracle Cloud. Its service covers a range of touchpoints with consumers, including email, in-app activity, push notifications, Facebook, WhatsApp (for business) and Viber. Its service helps companies map out how their users are engaging across those vectors, and develop “re-engagement” programs to help reactive dormant users or increase engagement among others.

The company says its SDK is installed in more than 8,000 apps and its customers include Southeast Asia-based startups Go-Jek and Zilingo, Hotstar in India and U.S.-based Fandango . With a considerable customer base in Asia, CleverTap puts a particular focus on mobile because many of these markets are all about personal devices.

“Asia is mobile-first and massively growing,” CleverTap CEO and co-founder Sunil Thomas told TechCrunch in an interview. “A lot of engagement in this [part of the] world is timely… we were sort of born physically on the east side of the world, so we got to scale with all these diverse set of devices.”

That stands to benefit CleverTap as it seeks to grow market share outside of Asia, and in markets like the U.S. and Europe where mobile is — right now — just one part of the marketing and customer engagement process. The company believes that engagement by mobile has a long way to develop there.

“Engagement [in the West] is still email-heavy and not really timely,” Thomas said. “Whereas the East thinks of it as ‘Hey, let’s be proactive… instead of a user coming in to hunt for information, can I provide it when I think he or she will need it?’ ”

Of course, mobile push and in-app notifications can be easily abused.

Most people will know of an app on their phone that falls into that category. So, how does a company know what is too much or what isn’t enough?

“As long as you use push or in-app as an extension of your brand, then I think it’s extremely useful,” explained Thomas. “After all, this is a really competitive world; it isn’t just your app out there — if you can make your brand count when this person isn’t in your app, that’ll help you.”

More broadly, Thomas argued that CleverTap brings data to the table which, ultimately, “changes the whole context in real time.” So a customer can really look holistically at their online presence and figure out what is working, and with which users. In real terms, when used to acquire new users online, he said he believes that CleverTap typically doubles registration conversions and triples the buying rate.

“The cost of acquisition to first purchase is what we really effect,” said Thomas. “It’s that moment you get a new person into your house.”

CleverTap has an office in Sunnyvale and it has just landed in Singapore. Now it plans to add a location in Indonesia before the end of the year. Those expansions are centered around business development, with some customer support, since tech and other teams are in India. Already, according to Thomas, the company is looking to grow in Europe while it is weighing the potential to enter Latin America in a move that could include a local partnership.

The CleverTap CEO is also considering raising more money toward the end of the year, when he believes that the company can push its valuation as high as $400 million.

“That’s very doable based on revenue growth,” he said. “We think that the revenue will demand that valuation.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fleksy’s AI keyboard is getting a store to put mini apps at chatters’ fingertips

Posted by | Android, api, Apple, Apps, artificial intelligence, barcelona, e-commerce, Europe, european commission, fleksy, Fleksyapps, Fleksynext, flight search, gboard, gif, Google, imessage, Instant Messaging, keyboard apps, Messenger, Mobile, Pinterest, play store, Qwant, Skyscanner, smartphone, social media, Startups, SwiftKey, TC, Thingthing, tripadvisor, United States, WeChat | No Comments

Remember Fleksy? The customizable Android keyboard app has a new trick up its sleeve: It’s adding a store where users can find and add lightweight third party apps to enhance their typing experience.

Right now it’s launched a taster, preloading a selection of ‘mini apps’ into the keyboard — some from very familiar brand names, some a little less so — so users can start to see how it works.

The first in-keyboard apps are Yelp (local services search); Skyscanner (flight search); Giphy (animated Gif search); GifNote (music Gifs; launching for U.S. users only for rights reasons); Vlipsy (reaction video clips); and Emogi (stickers) — with “many more” branded apps slated as coming in the next few months.

They’re not saying exactly what other brands are coming but there are plenty of familiar logos to be spotted in their press materials — from Spotify to Uber to JustEat to Tripadvisor to PayPal and more…

The full keyboard store itself — which will let users find and add and/or delete apps — will be launching at the end of this month.

The latest version of the Fleksy app can be downloaded for free via the Play Store.

Mini apps made for messaging

The core idea for these mini apps (aka Fleksyapps) is to offer lightweight additions designed to serve the messaging use case.

Say, for example, you’re chatting about where to eat and a friend suggests sushi. The Yelp Fleksyapp might pop up a contextual suggestion for a nearby Japanese restaurant that can be shared directly into the conversation — thereby saving time by doing away with the need for someone to cut out of the chat, switch apps, find some relevant info and cut and paste it back into the chat.

Fleksyapps are intended to be helpful shortcuts that keep the conversation flowing. They also of course put brands back into the conversation.

“We couldn’t be more excited to bring the power of the world’s popular songs with GIFs, videos and photos to the new Fleksyapps platform,” says Gifnote co-founder, John vanSuchtelen, in a supporting statement.

Fleksy’s mini apps appear above the Qwerty keyboard — in much the same space as a next-word prediction. The user can scroll through the app stack (each a tiny branded circle until tapped on to expand) and choose one to interact with. It’s similar to the micro apps lodged in Apple’s iMessage but on Android where iMessage isn’t… The team also plans for Fleksy to support a much wider range of branded apps — hence the Fleksyapps store.

In-keyboard apps is not a new concept for the dev team behind Fleksy; an earlier keyboard app of theirs (called ThingThing) offered micro apps they built themselves as a tool to extend its utility.

But now they’re hoping to garner backing and buy in from third party brands excited about the exposure and reach they could gain by being where users spend the most device time: The keyboard.

“Think of it a bit like the iMessage equivalent but on Android across any app. Or the WeChat mini program but inside the keyboard, available everywhere — not only in one app,” CEO Olivier Plante tells TechCrunch. “That’s a problem of messaging apps these days. All of them are verticals but the keyboard is horizontal. So that’s the benefit for those brands. And the user will have the ability to move them around, add some, to remove some, to explore, to discover.”

“The brands that want to join our platform they have the option of being preloaded by default. The analogy is that by default on the home screen of a phone you are by default in our keyboard. And moving forward you’ll be able to have a membership — you’re becoming a ‘brand member’ of the Fleksyapps platform, and you can have your brand inside the keyboard,” he adds.

The first clutch of Fleksyapps were developed jointly, with the team working with the brands in question. But Plante says they’re planning to launch a tool in future so brands will be able to put together their own apps — in as little as just a few hours.

“We’re opening this array of functionalities and there’s a lot of verticals possible,” he continues. “In the future months we will embed new capabilities for the platform — new type of apps. You can think about professional apps, or cloud apps. Accessing your files from different types of clouds. You have the weather vertical. You have ecommerce vertical. You have so many verticals.

“What you have on the app store today will be reflected into the Fleksyappstore. But really with the focus of messaging and being useful in messaging. So it’s not the full app that we want to bring in — it’s really the core functionality of this app.”

The Yelp Fleksyapp, for example, only includes the ability to see nearby places and search for and share places. So it’s intentionally stripped down. “The core benefit for the brand is it gives them the ability to extend their reach,” says Plante. “We don’t want to compete with the app, per se, we just want to bring these types of app providers inside the messenger on Android across any app.”

On the user side, the main advantage he touts is “it’s really, really fast — fleshing that out to: “It’s very lightweight, it’s very, very fast and we want to become the fastest access to content across any app.”

Users of Fleksyapps don’t need to have the full app installed because the keyboard plugs directly into the API of each branded service. So they get core functionality in bite-sized form without a requirement to download the full app. (Of course they can if they wish.)

So Plante also notes the approach has benefits vis-a-vis data consumption — which could be an advantage in emerging markets where smartphone users’ choices may be hard-ruled by the costs of data and/or connectivity limits.

“For those types of users it gives them an ability to access content but in a very light way — where the app itself, loading the app, loading all the content inside the app can be megabits. In Fleksy you’re talking about kilobits,” he says.

Privacy-sensitive next app suggestions

While baking a bunch of third party apps into a keyboard might sound like a privacy nightmare, the dev team behind Fleksy have been careful to make sure users remain in control.

To wit: Also on board is an AI keyboard assistant (called Fleksynext) — aka “a neural deep learning engine” — which Plante says can detect the context, intention and sentiment of conversations in order to offer “very useful” app suggestions as the chat flows.

The idea is the AI supports the substance of the chat by offering useful functionality from whatever pick and mix of apps are available. Plante refers to these AI-powered ‘next app’ suggestions as “pops”.

And — crucially, from a privacy point of view — the Fleksynext suggestion engine operates locally, on device.

That means no conversation data is sent out of the keyboard. Indeed, Plante says nothing the user types in the keyboard itself is shared with brands (including suggestions that pop up but get ignored). So there’s no risk — as with some other keyboard apps — of users being continually strip-mined for personal data to profile them as they type.

That said, if the user chooses to interact with a Fleksyapp (or its suggestive pop) they are then interacting with a third party’s API. So the usual tracking caveats apply.

“We interact with the web so there’s tracking everywhere,” admits Plante. “But, per se, there’s not specific sensitive data that is shared suddenly with someone. It is not related with the service itself — with the Fleksy app.”

The key point is that the keyboard user gets to choose which apps they want to use and which they don’t. So they can choose which third parties they want to share their plans and intentions with and which they don’t.

“We’re not interesting in making this an advertising platform where the advertiser decides everything,” emphasizes Plante. “We want this to be really close to the user. So the user decides. My intentions. My sentiment. What I type decides. And that is really our goal. The user is able to power it. He can tap on the suggestion or ignore it. And then if he taps on it it’s a very good quality conversion because the user really wants to access restaurants nearby or explore flights for escaping his daily routine… or transfer money. That could be another use-case for instance.”

They won’t be selling brands a guaranteed number of conversions, either.

That’s clearly very important because — to win over users — Fleksynext suggestions will need to feel telepathically useful, rather than irritating, misfired nag. Though the risk of that seems low given how Fleksy users can customize the keyboard apps to only see stuff that’s useful to them.

“In a sense we’re starting reshape a bit how advertising is seen by putting the user in the center,” suggests Plante. “And giving them a useful means of accessing content. This is the original vision and we’ve been very loyal to that — and we think it can reshape the landscape.”

“When you look into five years from now, the smartphone we have will be really, really powerful — so why process things in the cloud? When you can process things on the phone. That’s what we are betting on: Processing everything on the phone,” he adds.

When the full store launches users will be able to add and delete (any) apps — included preloads. So they will be in the driving seat. (We asked Plante to a confirm the user will be able to delete all apps, including any pre-loadeds and he said yes. So if you take him at his word Fleksy will not be cutting any deals with OEMs or carriers to indelibly preload certain Fleksyapps. Or, to put it another way, crapware baked into the keyboard is most definitely not plan.)

Depending on what other Fleksyapps launch in future a Fleksy keyboard user could choose to add, for example, a search service like DuckDuckGo or France’s Qwant to power a pro-privacy alternative to using Google search in the keyboard. Or they could choose Google.

Again the point is the choice is theirs.

Scaling a keyboard into a platform

The idea of keyboard-as-platform offers at least the possibility of reintroducing the choice and variety of smartphone app stores back before the cynical tricks of attention-harvesting tech giants used their network effects and platform power to throttle the app economy.

The Android keyboard space was also a fertile experiment ground in years past. But it’s now dominated by Google’s Gboard and Microsoft-acquired Swiftkey. Which makes Fleksy the plucky upstart gunning to scale an independent alternative that’s not owned by big tech and is open to any third party that wants to join its mini apps party.

“It will be Bing search for Swiftkey, it will be Google search for Gboard, it will be Google Music, it will be YouTube. But on our side we can have YouTube, we can also have… other services that exist for video. The same way with pictures and the same way for file-sharing and drive. So you have Google Drive but you have Dropbox, you have OneDrive, there’s a lot of services in the cloud. And we want to be the platform that has them all, basically,” says Plante.

The original founding team of the Fleksy keyboard was acqui-hired by Pinterest back in 2016, leaving the keyboard app itself to languish with minimal updates. Then two years ago Barcelona-based keyboard app maker, ThingThing, stepped in to take over development.

Plante confirms it’s since fully acquired the Fleksy keyboard technology itself — providing a solid foundation for the keyboard-as-platform business it’s now hoping to scale with the launch of Fleksyapps.

Talking of scale, he tells us the startup is in the process of raising a multi-million Series A — aiming to close this summer. (ThingThing last took in $800,000 via equity crowdfunding last fall.)

The team’s investor pitch is the keyboard offers perhaps the only viable conduit left on mobile to reset the playing field for brands by offering a route to cut through tech giant walled gardens and get where users are spending most of their time and attention: i.e. typing and sharing stuff with their friends in private one-to-one and group chats.

That means the keyboard-as-platform has the potential to get brands of all stripes back in front of users — by embedding innovative, entertaining and helpful bite-sized utility where it can prove its worth and amass social currency on the dominant messaging platforms people use.

The next step for the rebooted Fleksy team is of course building scale by acquiring users for a keyboard which, as of half a year ago, only had around 1M active users from pure downloads.

Its strategy on this front is to target Android device makers to preload Fleksy as the default keyboard.

ThingThing’s business model is a revenue share on any suggestions the keyboard converts, which it argues represent valuable leads for brands — given the level of contextual intention. It is also intending to charge brands that want to be preloaded on the Fleksy keyboard by default.

Again, though, a revenue share model requires substantial scale to work. Not least because brands will need to see evidence of scale to buy into the Fleksyapps’ vision.

Plante isn’t disclosing active users of the Fleksy keyboard right now. But says he’s confident they’re on track to hit 30M-35M active users this year — on account of around ten deals he says are in the pipeline with device makers to preload Fleksy’s keyboard. (Palm was an early example, as we reported last year.)

The carrot for OEMs to join the Fleksyapps party is they’re cutting them in on the revenue share from user interactions with branded keyboard apps — playing to device makers’ needs to find ways to boost famously tight hardware margins.

“The fact that the keyboard can monetize and provide value to the phone brands — this is really massive for them,” argues Plante. “The phone brands can expect revenue flowing in their bank account because we give the brands distribution and the handset manufacturer will make money and we will make money.”

It’s a smart approach, and one that’s essentially only possible because Google’s own Gboard keyboard doesn’t come preloaded on the majority of Android devices. (Exceptions include its own Pixel brand devices.) So — unusually for a core phone app on Android — there’s a bit of an open door where the keyboard sits, instead of the usual preloaded Google wares. And that’s an opportunity.

Markets wise, ThingThing is targeting OEMs in all global regions with its Fleksy pitch — barring China (which Plante readily admits it too complex for a small startup to sensibly try jumping at).

Apps vs tech giants

In its stamping ground of Europe there are warm regulatory winds blowing too: An European Commission antitrust intervention last year saw Google hit with a $5BN fine over anti-competitive practices attached to its Android platform — forcing the company to change local licensing terms.

That antirust decision means mobile makers finally have the chance to unbundle Google apps from devices they sell in the region.

Which translates into growing opportunities for OEMs to rethink their Android strategies. Even as Google remains under pressure not to get in the way by force feeding any more of its wares.

Really, a key component of this shift is that device makers are being told to think, to look around and see what else is out there. For the first time there looks to be a viable chance to profit off of Android without having to preload everything Google wants.

“For us it’s a super good sign,” says Plante of the Commission decision. “Every monopolistic situation is a problem. And the market needs to be fragmented. Because if not we’re just going to lose innovation. And right now Europe — and I see good progress for the US as well — are trying to dismantle the imposed power of those big guys. For the simple evolution of human being and technology and the future of us.”

“I think good things can happen,” he adds. “We’re in talks with handset manufacturers who are coming into Europe and they want to be the most respectful of the market. And with us they have this reassurance that you have a good partner that ensures there’s a revenue stream, there’s a business model behind it, there’s really a strong use-case for users.

“We can finally be where we always wanted to be: A choice, an alternative. But having Google imposing its way since start — and making sure that all the direct competition of Google is just a side, I think governments have now seen the problem. And we’re a winner of course because we’re a keyboard.”

But what about iOS? Plante says the team has plans to bring what they’re building with Fleksy to Apple’s mobile platform too, in time. But for now they’re fully focusing efforts on Android — to push for scale and execute on their vision of staking their claim to be the independent keyboard platform.

Apple has supported third party keyboards on iOS for years. Unfortunately, though, the experience isn’t great — with a flaky toggle to switch away from the default Apple keyboard, combined with heavy system warnings about the risks of using third party keyboards.

Meanwhile the default iOS keyboard ‘just works’ — and users have loads of extra features baked by default into Apple’s native messaging app, iMessage.

Clearly alternative keyboards have found it all but impossible to build any kind of scale in that iOS pincer.

“iOS is coming later because we need to focus on these distribution deals and we need to focus on the brands coming into the platform. And that’s why iOS right now we’re really focusing for later. What we can say is it will come later,” says Plante, adding: “Apple limits a lot keyboards. You can see it with other keyboard companies. It’s the same. The update cycle for iOS keyboard is really, really, really slow.”

Plus, of course, Fleksy being preloaded as a default keyboard on — the team hopes — millions of Android devices is a much more scalable proposition vs just being another downloadable app languishing invisibly on the side lines of another tech giant’s platform.

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