Mobile

Dating app S’More adds blurred video calling and launches in LA

Posted by | Mobile, smore, Social, Startups | No Comments

The pandemic hasn’t slowed down dating app S’More — at least according to CEO Adam Cohen-Aslatei, who said that the app’s daily active user count doubled in March and hasn’t gone down since.

“When people are working form home, they have much more time to dedicate to their relationships,” Cohen-Aslatei told me.

The app (whose name is short for “something more”) launched last fall and has supposedly attracted nearly 50,000 users. The goal is to move beyond the superficiality of most dating apps, where you first learn about another user and then unlock visual elements (like a profile photo) as you interact.

Cohen-Aslatei said the team has also spent more on marketing to attract a diverse audience, both in terms of racial diversity (something S’more reinforces by not allowing users to filter by race) and sexual orientation, with 15% of users identifying as LGBTQ.

Of course, dating someone new can be challenging when meeting up in-person poses real health risks, but Cohen-Aslatei said S’More users have gotten creative, like remote dinners where they order each other takeout from their favorite restaurants. And now that things are reopening (though some of those reopenings are getting pulled back), users are asking, “How do we transition these virtual relationships into IRL?”

S'More video calling

Image Credits: S’More

To give users more ways to interact, the S’More team recently launched a video calling feature. But Cohen-Aslatei noted, “We had to to create it in a way that was really fitting for our app … Women actually don’t want to see a guy right away, when you don’t know if they’re a creep.”

So in S’more’s video calling, the video is blurred for the first two minutes, which means you’ve got to actually start an interesting conversation before you can see who you’re talking to, and before they see you (a concept that may be familiar to viewers of Netflix’s dating show “Love is Blind”).

S’More has also expanded geographically, launching last week in Los Angeles (it was already available in Boston, Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago). And it recently started its a video series of its own on Instagram’s IGTV — the S’More Live Happy Hour, where celebrities offer dating advice.

“There’s this negative history of dating apps perpetuating negative online behaviors, fake images, catfishers,” Cohen-Aslatei said. “But now we’re going into a new era of authenticity, where we’re going from super vain to super authentic. S’more is one of those apps that’s going to lead you in that direction.”

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Sprint 5G is no more, as T-Mobile focuses on its own network

Posted by | 5g, Mobile, sprint, T-Mobile | No Comments

A day after formally completing the sale of Boost, Virgin and other Sprint prepaid networks to Dish, T-Mobile is pulling the plug on Sprint 5G. The move is one in a long list of issues that need sorting out in the wake of April’s $26.5 billion merger. And like a number of other moves, it’s set to leave some customers in the lurch.

The end of Sprint’s 2.5 GHz 5G comes as T-Mobile opts to focus on its own network. T-Mobile already started the process in New York City, a few weeks after the merger and has since completed it in a handful of other cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Washington, D.C.

As CNET notes, while most of the Sprint 5G handsets won’t be able to make the transition, Samsung Galaxy S20 5G users are in the clear here. For everyone else, T-Mobile is offering up credits on leases for new 5G handsets.

T-Mobile told TechCrunch in a statement, “We are working to quickly re-deploy, optimize and test the 2.5GHz spectrum before lighting it up on the T-Mobile network.”

Along with the sale of Boost, 5G was a big selling point for T-Mobile’s Sprint acquisition. The carriers argued that the deal was necessary to keep them competitive with first and second place carriers AT&T and Verizon when it came to the next-generation wireless technology.

At the time FCC chairman Ajit Pai agreed stating, “This transaction will provide New T-Mobile with the scale and spectrum resources necessary to deploy a robust 5G network across the United States.”

Earlier this week, OpenSignal awarded T-Mobile the top spot in availability, noting, “In the U.S., T-Mobile won the 5G Availability award by a large margin with Sprint and AT&T trailing with scores of 14.1% and 10.3%, respectively.”

Update: The language of the post has been updated to reflect the impact on specific unsupported devices, rather than user base figures.

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Police roll up crime networks in Europe after infiltrating popular encrypted chat app

Posted by | encrochat, encryption, Government, Mobile, Security | No Comments

Hundreds of alleged drug dealers and other criminals are in custody today after police in Europe infiltrated an encrypted chat system reportedly used by thousands to discuss illegal operations. The total failure of this ostensibly secure method of communication will likely have a chilling effect on the shadowy industry of crime-focused tech.

“Operation Venetic” was reported by various police agencies, major local news outlets, and by Motherboard in especially vibrant form, quoting extensively people apparently from within the groups affected.

The operation involved hundreds of officers working across numerous agencies in France, the Netherlands, the U.K., and other countries. It began in 2017, and culminated two months ago when a service called EncroChat was hacked and the messages of tens of thousands of users exposed to police scrutiny.

EncroChat is a step up in some ways from encrypted chat apps like Signal and WhatsApp. Rather like Blackberry once did, EncroChat provided customized hardware, a dedicated OS, and its own servers to users, providing an expensive service costing thousands per year rather than a one-time purchase or download.

Messages on the service were supposedly very secure and had deniability built in by letting conversations be edited later — so theoretically a user could claim after the fact they never said something. Motherboard’s Joseph Cox has been following the company for some time and has far more details on its claims and operations.

Image Credits: EncroChat /

Needless to say those claims were not entirely true, as at some point in early 2020 police managed to introduce malware into the EncroChat system that completely exposed the conversations and images of its users. Because of the trusted nature of the app, people would openly discuss drug deals, murders, and other crimes, making them sitting ducks for law enforcement.

Throughout the spring criminal operations were being cracked open with alarming (to them) regularity, but it wasn’t until May that users and EncroChat managed to put the pieces together. The company attempted to warn its users and issue an update, but the cat was out of the bag. Seeing that its operation was now exposed, the Operation Venetic teams struck.

Arrests across the several countries involved (there were numerous sub-operations but France and the Netherlands were the primary investigators) total near a thousand, but exact numbers are not clear. Dozens of guns, tons (metric, naturally) of drugs and the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars in cash were seized. More importantly, the chat logs seem to have provided access to people higher up the food chain than ordinary busts would have.

That the reportedly most popular of encrypted chat companies focused on illegal activities could be so completely subverted by international authorities will likely put a damper on its competition. But like other, more domestic challenges to encryption, such as the perennial complaints by the FBI, this event is more likely to strengthen the tools in the long run.

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Daily Crunch: Apple and Google block banned apps in India

Posted by | Apple, Daily Crunch, Google, Mobile, Policy | No Comments

Banned Chinese apps are beginning to disappear from India’s app stores, Palantir is raising more funding and Venmo starts testing Business Profiles.

Here’s your Daily Crunch for July 2, 2020.

1. Apple and Google block dozens of Chinese apps in India

Two days after India blocked 59 apps developed by Chinese firms, Google and Apple have started to comply with the government’s order and are preventing users in the world’s second-largest internet market from accessing those apps.

UC Browser, Shareit, Club Factory and other apps are no longer listed on Apple’s App Store and Google Play Store. In a statement, a Google spokesperson said that the company had “temporarily blocked access to the apps”on Google Play Store as it reviews the order.

2. SEC filing indicates big data provider Palantir is raising $961M, $550M of it already secured

Palantir, the controversial and secretive big data and analytics provider, has reportedly been eyeing up a public listing this autumn. But in the meantime it’s also continuing to push ahead in the private markets.

3. Venmo begins piloting ‘Business Profiles’ for small sellers

Business Profiles offer small sellers and other sole proprietors the opportunity to have a more professional profile page on its platform. Sellers can share key business details like address, phone number, email, website and more.

4. Tesla delivered 90,650 vehicles in second quarter, a smaller than expected decline

Tesla said Thursday that it delivered 90,650 vehicles in the second quarter, a 4.8% decline from the same period last year, prompted by challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — like suspending production for weeks at its main U.S. factory. But the company still managed to beat expectations despite the headwinds.

5. Top LA investors discuss the city’s post-COVID-19 prospects

From larger fund investors like Mark Suster and Kara Nortman at Upfront Ventures to Dana Settle at Greycroft Partners; to early-stage investors like Will Hsu at Mucker Capital; TX Zhuo at Fika Ventures, the responses were generally upbeat about the future opportunities for Los Angeles startups. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Dish closes Boost Mobile purchase, following T-Mobile/Sprint merger

T-Mobile today announced that it has closed a deal that divests Sprint’s pre-paid businesses, including Boost and Virgin Mobile. The whole thing was a key part of T-Mobile’s bid to merge with Sprint.

7. AR 1.0 is dead: Here’s what it got wrong

Many AR startups made huge promises and raised huge amounts of capital before flaring out in a similarly dramatic fashion. Lucas Matney argues that a key error was thinking that an AR glasses company should be hardware-first, when the reality is that the missing value is almost entirely centered on first-party software experiences. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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Dish closes Boost Mobile purchase, following T-Mobile/Sprint merger

Posted by | Boost Mobile, Dish, FCC, Mobile, sprint, T-Mobile | No Comments

T-Mobile today announced that it has closed a deal that divests Sprint’s pre-paid businesses, including Boost and Virgin Mobile. The news finds Dish entering the wireless carrier game in earnest, courtesy of the $1.4 billion deal.

The whole thing was, of course, a key part of T-Mobile’s bid to merge with Sprint. It was a relatively small concession to those worried that such a deal would decrease competition in the market, as the number of major U.S. carriers shrunk from four down to three. The $26 billion T-Mobile/Sprint deal was finally completed in April of this year, and has already resulted in hundreds of lost jobs, as reported last month by TechCrunch.

The deal gives Dish a nice head start in the pre-paid phone game, with north of 9 million customers and access to T-Mobile’s wireless network for the next seven years. It also finds current Dish’s COO John Swieringa stepping in to lead the new subsidiary. Oh, and there’s a new Boost logo, too:

Dish

See? It’s basically the old Boost Mobile logo, but with the little Dish wireless symbols in the middle, to really show you who’s boss.

Dish used the opportunity to announce a new plan for Boost users with 15GB of data for $45, and has already begun switching consumers with compatible devices over to the new T-Mobile-backed network.

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AR 1.0 is dead: Here’s what it got wrong

Posted by | app-store, Apple, apple inc, augmented reality, consumer products, Developer, Emerging-Technologies, Extra Crunch, Facebook, Gaming, Google, hardware, Magic Leap, Market Analysis, mixed reality, Mobile, operating systems, smartglasses, Startups, TC, Virtual reality, Wearables | No Comments

The first wave of AR startups offering smart glasses is now over, with a few exceptions.

Google acquired North this week for an undisclosed sum. The Canadian company had raised nearly $200 million, but the release of its Focals 2.0 smart glasses has been cancelled, a bittersweet end for its soft landing.

Many AR startups before North made huge promises and raised huge amounts of capital before flaring out in a similarly dramatic fashion.

The technology was almost there in a lot of cases, but the real issue was that the stakes to beat the major players to market were so high that many entrants pushed out boring, general consumer products. In a race to be everything for everybody, the industry relied on nascent developer platforms to do the dirty work of building their early use cases, which contributed heavily to nonexistent user adoption.

A key error of this batch was thinking that an AR glasses company was hardware-first, when the reality is that the missing value is almost entirely centered on missing first-party software experiences. To succeed, the next generation of consumer AR glasses will have to nail this.

Image Credits: ODG

App ecosystems alone don’t create product-market fit

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OnePlus will return to its budget roots with the launch of Nord

Posted by | hardware, Mobile, OnePlus, smartphones | No Comments

Two factors defined OnePlus’s seemingly out-of-nowhere growth in the middle of the last decade: solid specs and a budget price tag. But markets change, and companies must adapt to survive. As someone who has followed the Chinese smartphone maker since close to the beginning, I can confidently say that it hasn’t wavered from that first part. The second bit, on the other hand, is a bit of a different story.

OnePlus has experienced a bit of a price creep as it has continued to add features to set itself apart from the competition. In the early days, the smartphone maker was content to wait a generation or two before embracing new tech, for the sake of keeping costs down. But increasingly, it has come to pride itself in being among the first to things like in-screen fingerprint readers and 5G.

Today, however, it’s announcing a bit of a return to its roots, with the Nord. The upcoming phone has been the subject of all manner of rumors under a variety of different names in recent months, but OnePlus just confirmed its name and arrival by way of an extended behind-the-scenes documentary on Instagram. Details are pretty slim at the moment, though the company confirmed that it will be priced at under $500.

Co-founder Carl Pei — who discussed the company’s place in the budget market at Disrupt last year — noted in the video, “There’s a huge change every two years. Anything can happen. Thousand-dollar phones are decreasing in sales.” It’s a pretty well-established phenomenon over the last few years that has led to, among other things, companies like Samsung, Apple and Google to embrace lower-cost devices amid stagnant sales figures.

OnePlus’s devices have still remained relatively affordable, compared to the competition, but the addition of the Nord will find it’s getting back to where it started with a line aimed at a wider range of consumers and different markets. More info soon, no doubt.

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DoubleDown is going public: Why isn’t its IPO worth more?

Posted by | agora, Extra Crunch, Fundings & Exits, Gaming, IPO, Market Analysis, Mobile, Startups, TC, The Exchange | No Comments

Agora isn’t the only company headquartered outside the United States aiming to go public domestically this quarter. After catching up on Agora’s F-1 filing, the China-and-U.S.-based, API-powered tech company that went public last week, today we’re parsing DoubleDown Interactive’s IPO document.


The Exchange is a daily look at startups and the private markets for Extra Crunch subscribers; use code EXCHANGE to get full access and take 25% off your subscription.


The mobile gaming company is targeting the NASDAQ and wants to trade under the ticker symbol “DDI.”

As with Agora, DoubleDown filed an F-1, instead of an S-1. That’s because it’s based in South Korea, but it’s slightly more complicated than that. DoubleDown was founded in Seattle, according to Crunchbase, before selling itself to DoubleU Games, which is based in South Korea. So, yes, the company is filing an F-1 and will remain majority-held by its South Korean parent company post-IPO, but this offering is more a local affair than it might at first seem.

Even more, with a $17 to $19 per-share IPO price range, the company could be worth up to nearly $1 billion when it debuts. Does that pricing make sense? We want to find out.

So let’s quickly explore the company this morning. We’ll see what this mobile, social gaming company looks like under the hood in an effort to understand why it is being sent to the public markets right now. Let’s go!

Fundamentals

Any gaming company has to have its fun-damentals in place so that it can have solid financial results, right? Right?

Anyway, DoubleDown is a nicely profitable company. In 2019 its revenue only grew a hair to $273.6 million from $266.9 million the year before (a mere 2.5% gain), but the company’s net income rose from $25.1 million to $36.3 million, and its adjusted EBITDA rose from $85.1 million to $101.7 million over the same period.

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Mobile developer Tru Luv enlists investors to help build a more inclusive alternative to gaming

Posted by | App, Apps, Developer, Gaming, Mobile, self-care, selfcare, Social, Startups, TC, tru luv | No Comments

Developer and programmer Brie Code has worked at the peak of the video game industry — she was responsible for many of the AI systems that powered non-player character (NPC) behavior in the extremely popular Assassin’s Creed series created by Ubisoft. It’s obvious that gaming isn’t for everyone, but Code became more and more interested in why that maxim seemed to play out along predictable gender lines, leading her ultimately to develop and launch #SelfCare through her own independent development studio TRU LUV.

#SelfCare went on to win accolades, including a spot of Apple’s App Store Best of 2018 list, and Code and TRU LUV was also the first Canadian startup to attend Apple’s Entrepreneur Camp program. Now, with more than 2 million downloads of #SelfCare (without any advertising at all), Code and TRU LUV have brought on a number of investors for their first outside funding, including Real Ventures, Evolve Ventures, Bridge Builders Collaborative and Artesian Venture Partners.

I spoke to Code about how she came up with and created #SelfCare, what’s next for TRU LUV and how the current COVID-19 crisis actually emphasizes the need for an alternative to gaming that serves many similar functions, but for previously underserved groups of people for whom the challenges and rewards structures of traditional gaming just don’t prove very satisfying.

“I became very, very interested in why video games don’t interest about half of people, including all of my friends,” Code told me. “And at that point, tablets were becoming popular, and everyone had a phone. So if there was something universal about this medium, it should be being more widely adopted, yet I was seeing really clear patterns that it wasn’t. The last time I checked, which was maybe a couple years ago, there were 5 billion mobile users and around 2.2 billion mobile gamers.”

Her curiosity piqued by the discrepancy, especially as an industry insider herself, Code began to do her own research to figure out potential causes of the divide — the reason why games only seemed to consistently appeal to about half of the general computer user population, at best.

“I started doing a lot of focus groups and research and I saw really clear patterns, and I knew that if there is a clear pattern, there must be an explanation,” Code said. “What I discovered after I read Sheri Graner Ray’s book ‘Gender Inclusive Game Design,’ which she wrote in 2004, in a chapter on stimulation was how, and these are admittedly gross generalizations, but men tend to be stimulated by the sense of danger and things flashing on screen. And women, in her research, tended to be stimulated by something mentioned called a ‘mutually-beneficial outcome to a socially significant situation.’ That’s when you help an NPC and they help you, for instance. In some way, that’s more significant, in the rules of the world than just the score going up.”

TRU LUV founder and CEO Brie Code (Image Credits: Brie Code)

Code then dug in further, using consumer research and further study, and found a potential cause behind this divide that then provided a way forward for developing a new alternative to a traditional gaming paradigm that might prove more appealing to the large group of people who weren’t served by what the industry has traditionally produced.

“I started to read about the psychology of stimulation, and from there I was reading about the psychology of defense, and I found a very simple and clear explanation for this divide, which is that there are two human stress responses,” she said. “One of them, which is much more commonly known, is called the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. When we experience the fight-or-flight response, in the face of challenge or pressure or danger, you have adrenaline released in your body, and that makes you instinctively want to win. So what a game designer does is create these situations of challenge, and then give you opportunities to win and that leverages the fight-or-flight response to stress: That’s the gamification curve. But there is another human stress response discovered at the UCLA Social Cognitive Neuroscience lab in 2000, by Dr. Shelly Taylor and her colleagues. It’s very prevalent, probably about half of stress responses that humans experience, and it’s called tend-and-befriend.”

Instead of generating an adrenaline surge, it releases oxytocin in the brain, and instead of seeking a victory over a rival, people who experience this want to take care of those who are more vulnerable, connect with friends and allies and find mutually beneficial solutions to problems jointly faced. Seeking to generate that kind of response led to what Code and TRU LUV call AI companions, a gaming alternative that is non-zero sum and based on the tend-and-befriend principal. Code’s background as an AI programmer working on some of the most sophisticated virtual character interactions available in modern games obviously came in handy here.

Code thought she might be on to something, but didn’t anticipate the level of #SelfCare’s success, which included 500,00 downloads in just six weeks, and more than 2 million today. And most of the feedback she received from users backed up her hypotheses about what the experience provided, and what users were looking for in an alternative to a mobile gaming experience.

Fast forward to now, and TRU LUV is growing its team, and focused on iterating and developing new products to capitalize on the clear vein of interest they’ve tapped among that underserved half of mobile users. Code and her team have brought on investors whose views and portfolios align with their product vision and company ethos, including Evolve Ventures, which has backed a number of socially progressive ventures, and whose managing director, Julius Mokrauer, actually teaches a course on the subject at Columbia Business School.

#SelfCare was already showing a promising new path forward for mobile experience development before COVID-19 struck, but the product and TRU LUV are focused on “resilience and psychological development,” so it proved well-suited to a market in which mobile users were looking for ways to make sustained isolation more pleasant. Obviously we’re just at the beginning of feeling whatever impacts come out of the COVID-19 crisis, but it seems reasonable to expect that different kinds of mobile apps that trigger responses more aligned with personal well-being will be sought after.

Code says that COVID-19 hasn’t really changed TRU LUV’s vision or approach, but that it has led to the team moving more quickly on in-progress feature production, and on some parts of their roadmap, including building social features that allow players to connect with one another as well as with virtual companions.

“We want to move our production forward a bit faster than planned in order to respond to the need,” Code said.”Also we’re looking at being able to create social experiences a little bit earlier than planned, and also to attend to the need of people to be able to connect, above and beyond people who connect through video games.”

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Newzoo forecasts 2020 global games industry will reach $159 billion

Posted by | console gaming, coronavirus, COVID-19, Extra Crunch, Gaming, hardware, Market Analysis, Mobile, PC Gaming, playstation, Social, TC, xbox | No Comments

Games and esports analytics firm Newzoo released its highly cited annual report on the size and state of the video gaming industry yesterday. The firm is predicting 2020 global game industry revenue from consumers of $159.3 billion, a 9.3% increase year-over-year. Newzoo predicts the market will surpass $200 billion by the end of 2023.

Importantly, the data excludes in-game advertising revenue (which surged +59% during COVID-19 lockdowns, according to Unity) and the market of gaming digital assets traded between consumers. Advertising within games is a meaningful source of revenue for many mobile gaming companies. In-game ads in just the U.S. drove roughly $3 billion in industry revenue last year, according to eMarketer.

To compare with gaming, the global markets for other media and entertainment formats are:

Counting gamers

Of 7.8 billion people on the planet, 4.2 billion (53.6%) of whom have internet connectivity, 2.69 billion will play video games this year, and Newzoo predicts that number to reach three billion in 2023. It broke down the current geographic distribution of gamers as:

  • 1,447 million (54%) in Asia-Pacific
  • 386 million (14%) in Europe
  • 377 million (14%) in Middle East & Africa
  • 266 million (10%) in Latin America
  • 210 million (8%) in North America

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