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Parler denied App Store re-entry, Walmart doubles down on TikTok live shopping, Instagram Lite rolls out worldwide – TechCrunch

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Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.

Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This week, we’re taking a look at some of the buzzier stories from the world of apps, including the latest around Parler’s attempted return to the App Store, a review of Walmart’s second livestream shopping event, and Instagram Lite’s global rollout. We also have new Clubhouse data on its total installs and its global footprint and info about Disney’s new service that could replace your MagicBand, among other things.

✨ Parler tries and fails to re-enter App Store

The right-wing social app was booted from the App Store, Google Play and Amazon AWS following the U.S. Capitol riot, for violations of community guidelines. Apple had specifically asked Parler to change its moderation policies, which had been fairly hands-off prior to its removal from the App Store. Though Apple has a number of rules about what apps can and cannot do, Parler’s own policies were guided by the First Amendment’s approach to free speech — basically, users could say almost anything without consequence.

According to documents obtained by Bloomberg, Parler again tried to gain entry into the App Store after the original ban, and was again denied. Following the new review, Apple reportedly told Parler’s chief policy officer on Feb. 25, there was no place for “hateful, racist, discriminatory content” on the App Store. The review had also included several offensive images, including profile pictures with swastikas and other white nationalist imagery, as well as misogynistic, homophobic and racist usernames and posts.

Parler last month had said negotiations with Apple were underway, and it expected to get back in the App Store. But with this new rejection, Parler cut its three remaining iOS developers from its team, out of a total of seven who were let go, Bloomberg reported.

The controversy around Parler is reflective of a larger conversation underway in the U.S. over tech’s responsibility to moderate the content on its platforms, as users’ posts and comments are increasingly leading to real-world violence. The U.S. government has not yet regulated these platforms, leaving decisions like this up to tech itself. Parler, in a statement, said it had added filters and human review to address threats of violence, as well as optional tools that let users filter and block certain kinds of hate speech. But this didn’t go far enough to address Apple’s claims about hate symbols and offensive speech still present on the network.

Platforms: Apple

Apple released important security patches across all platforms. The patches fix a vulnerability — a memory corruption bug in WebKit, the engine that powers Apple’s Safari browser. An attacker can exploit the vulnerability via a malicious web page.

E-commerce

Image Credits: Walmart

✨ Walmart again teamed up with TikTok to host a new livestream shopping event on Thursday night. The event, co-hosted by Gabby Morrison and Nabela Noor, focused on beauty products, offering demos and tutorials where viewers could buy the products through an integrated shopping cart. The content itself was engaging, feeling very much like the makeup tutorials and “get ready with me” vlogs users already watch across social media platforms. Gabby, who demoed all the products, was adept at balancing the more casual makeup try-on portions of the live event with the QVC-like call-to-action to actually buy the item being shown.

At times, there were as many as 8,000+ concurrent viewers participating in the live event, we noticed during our viewing. (We joined about 20 mins. after its start). During the event, we saw high engagement in the stream’s comments, including a number of positive comments — like jokes from users who lamented they were buying everything, shout-outs from those who just added an item to their cart, or compliments directed at the hosts. But there were also some trolling remarks that should have violated TikTok’s guidelines over cyberbullying, which were not moderated out — an issue TikTok will need to address as these events grow larger and more common.

Image Credits: screenshot of Walmart’s account on TikTok

Walmart last year had run an apparel-focused live shopping holiday event — the first pilot of TikTok’s live shopping feature in the U.S. The retailer has not commented on sales from its first event, but says they hit Walmart’s projections. Walmart also said the event drove a 25% increase in TikTok follower growth, and 7x more views than anticipated.

Social

Facebook is targeting emerging markets with launch of Instagram Lite, a lightweight Android version of the app that takes up just 2MB of space. The app was made available across 170 countries this week, offering the ability to view and share photos and videos, Stories, IGTV, discover content through Explore, and more. However, the app lacks the ability to film Reels — Instagram’s TikTok rival — users can only view them.

Image Credits: Facebook

The app is not Facebook’s first attempt to develop a lightweight version of Instagram. The company previously released an Progressive Web App, which was pulled in 2020. A new app was then launched in December in India in a limited test, ahead of this broader release.

✨ Clubhouse has now reached 12 million worldwide downloads, an increase of 600K since March 1, according to new data from App Annie. The largest market for the app is still the U.S. which accounts for 3.1 million downloads. But the app has a strong global footprint, with 1.8m downloads in Japan, 710K in Germany, 600K in Brazil, 505K in Russia, 420K in Italy, 375K in the U.K., 370K in South Korea, 350K in Turkey, and 107K in France, the firm said. Clubhouse was said to have 8 million global downloads just in February, so this is notable growth.

Facebook expands creator monetization options with the addition of ads for short-form video content — including videos as short as 1 minute, instead of previous minimum of 3 minutes. Those ads will now play 30 seconds after the start of a shorter video. It also opened its in-stream ads program for Live videos out of invite-only mode. The move could encourage creators to make content for Facebook instead of rival platforms like TikTok, by wooing them with more money-making opportunities.

TikTok rolled out new commenting features aimed at preventing bullying. Creators will now be able to control which comments can be posted on their content, before those comments go live. Another new addition, aimed at users who are commenting, will pop up a box that prompts the user to reconsider posting a comment that may be inappropriate or unkind.

Image Credits: TikTok

Pakistan again bans TikTok over “immoral and objectionable” videos. The app, which has around 33 million users in the country, was blocked by the Pakistan Telecom Authority after Peshawar High Court’s Chief Justice Qaiser Rashid Khan said some TikTok videos were “unacceptable for Pakistani society,” and were “peddling vulgarity.”

A new app called Limit App is offering an Instagram-like service but only for those ages 18 to 25. Reviewed by Geekwire, the app’s creator said it’s not about ageism, but rather about giving young people a place to be themselves. The app uses a secure ID and age verification process to onboard users and, when they turn 26, they’re giving 30 days to download their content before being booted out. Begone, boomers.

Pinterest saw over 193M downloads worldwide in 2020, according to App Annie — a 50% YoY increase, driven by consumers using the platform for product discovery, design ideas, and shopping.

Instagram can now automatically add captions to Stories for better accessibility. Captions are already a commonly used feature on Instagram rival, TikTok, not only for accessibility but also because many people now prefer to have captions on when watching video content.

Facebook tests a feature in India that will share Instagram Reels on the Facebook News Feed. The move is an indication of how seriously Facebook is taking the TikTok threat — it’s now leveraging not just one, but two of the world’s largest social networks to fight back.

TikTok in the U.K. launched a new “music hub” that highlights trending artists and tracks. The company has already been driving music streams and sales through the social app, and the hub will now offer a dedicated section to keep up with what’s currently trending.

Twitter’s head of consumer product, Kayvon Beykpour, defended Apple’s App Store commission rates in recent interview. The exec said the commission isn’t a “highway tax,” but reflects the cost and effort that goes into accepting online payments, including issues with fraud and risk, and the customer service flow around refunds.

India’s government threatened to jail Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter employees if they don’t comply with data and takedown requests related to the protests by Indian farmers over agricultural law changes.

Photos

Image Credits: Twitter

Twitter began a test to make photos look better on its platform. The company is trying out a new way to display images which offer sa more accurate preview of what the photo looks like, instead of automatically cropping the image as before. The change, in part, is also meant to address issues around the baked-in racial bias in Twitter’s algorithm that decided which part of the image to focus on when cropping.

Messaging and Communications

Google will link Android phones with Chromebooks through a new Phone Hub feature, allowing Chrome OS users to respond to texts, check their battery life, enable a Wi-Fi hotspot and locate a misplaced device, among other things.

Dating Apps

✨ Bumble launched “Night In,” a new feature in the U.S. and Canada that lets online daters play games together from the app. At launch, users can play trivia games but the company says it plans more virtual experiences in the future. The timing of the launch is interesting — it comes a year into the pandemic which has forced people to stay home and social distance. But as “Night In” arrives, vaccinations are ramping up and, likely, so will real-world, in-person dating. That Bumble still invested in virtual dating experiences indicates the company sees the feature as something with longer-term potential, rather than a temporary stand-in for that first drink or coffee date.

Bumble also filed its first quarterly report since its Feb. 2021 IPO, topping Wall St. estimates with $165.6 million in revenue and 2.7 million paid users (up 32.5% YoY) in the fourth quarter.

Streaming & Entertainment

Amazon adds a merch store to its streaming music app. The company’s Amazon Music app is now offering in-app product sales from Billie Eilish, Selena Gomez, and other artists via a Merchbar integration. (Just wait until it actually remembers it has a whole retail website it could connect.)

YES Network debuts an app that will live stream New York Yankees, Brooklyn Nets, NYFC, and New York Liberty games via a TV Everywhere integration. This is the first live streaming app from the network. Sure, we need another one.

Apple Podcasts is replacing the “subscribe” button with a “follow” button for keeping up with favorite podcasts. The change, first reported by Podnews, came about because people increasingly think of subscribe as referring to a paid option. I’m sure they didn’t get that idea from…THE APP STORE.

Spotify this week updated its app with support for 36 new languages, as promised during last month’s “Stream On” event, including: Afrikaans, Amharic, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bhojpuri, Bulgarian, Simplified Chinese, Croatian, Danish, Estonian, Filipino, Gujarati, Hindi, Icelandic, Kannada, Latvian, Lithuanian, Malayalam, Marathi, Nepali, Norwegian, Odia, Persian, Portuguese for Portugal, Eastern Punjabi, Western Punjabi, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Swahili, Tamil, Telugu, Ukrainian, Urdu, and Zulu. The app is now available in 62 languages in total, and is expanding to over 80 global markets.

New streaming service Paramount+ saw its app downloaded 277K+ times in the first 5 days, reports Apptopia. The app launched similarly to how HBO Max did — it took an existing app and transitioned it to a new one. In its case, the CBS All Access app transitioned to Paramount+. This impacts the number of early downloads, as many users are just upgraded. Thanks to a pre-launch sale, the app also saw $86.7K in IAP revenue on March 2, the highest single-day revenue to date.

Image Credits: Apptopia

Gaming

✨ Epic Games takes its app store legal fight to Australia with a new anti-competitive claim against Google, over the 30% commissions on in-app purchases. The company is fighting Apple and Google in many markets now, including the U.S., E.U., and U.K.

The average size of the U.S. App Store’s top games has grown 76% in the past 5 years, says Sensor Tower. The average game file size in 2016 was approximately 264 megabytes across the top 100 revenue generating games on the U.S. App Store. This has grown to 465 MB in 2020. Top games driving the file size growth include DoubleDown, Fortnite, Clash of Clans, Roblox and Homescapes.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Food & Drink

Data from App Annie indicates app sessions in food and drink apps grew 105% YoY in 2020, as the pandemic led to a surge of adoption for food delivery apps. Deliveroo in particular had a standout year in 2020, as the No. 2 “breakout” food & drink app in France and No. 3 in the U.K. — a metric App Annie uses to track growth in total sessions. App sessions grew from their lowest point of 1.81 billion on March 22, 2020 to 3.02 billion by the end of Dec. 2020, the firm said.

Digital Passes

✨ Disney is bringing the service that powers its existing MagicBands to Apple devices with the launch of Disney MagicMobile. The service, which will launch in phases starting later this year, will allow guests to create a mobile pass using the My Disney Experience app, then add it to their smart device’s digital wallet. Users can then hold up their smart device, including their Apple iPhone or Watch, to check into rides at the access points.

Image Credits: Disney

This doesn’t necessarily mean the end for MagicBands, though. The bands still make sense for kids without devices or for anyone who doesn’t want to worry about pulling out their phone for every ride (or who doesn’t own an Apple Watch). Plus, some Disney fans like collecting MagicBands in new styles. Disney said it will soon release a new set with favorite characters.

Fintech

India’s Paytm will turn Android phones into POS terminals by introducing a card acceptance feature in the NFC-enabled Paytm Business app. Once activated, merchants will be able to process transactions by tapping a payment card to their smartphone.

The new Google Pay app exited beta this week, to replace the older version that will close down on April 5 in the U.S. The updated version include NFC tap-to-pay functionality and p2p payments, but an Ars Technica review slams the app as being less convenient and laden with more fees, among other things.

Chinese beauty app Meitu bought $40 million worth of cryptocurrency, including 15,000 units of Ether and 379.1214267 units of Bitcoin — worth around $22.1 million and $17.9 million, respectively. Meitu chairman Cai Wensheng has been bullish on cryptocurrency and believes in diversifying beyond holding just cash.

Security & Privacy

Apple must face a consumer lawsuit over FaceTime and iMessage privacy in court, not through private arbitration. The case, Ohanian v Apple Inc. focuses on an iOS bug coupled with T-Mobile’s approach to recycling phone numbers that gave third-parties access to users’ communications, despite Apple’s marketing of iMessage and FaceTime as secure features.

Apple is also now facing a privacy complaint in Europe from startup lobby group, France Digitale. The complaint focuses on the IDFA changes, which will required third-party apps to have to ask to track users, while Apple’s own apps are able to track user activity and run personalized ads by default without a similar opt-in pop-up, giving it an unfair advantage.

💰 Social networking app Wefarm, aimed at independent farmers in Africa, raised $11 million in an extension of its 2019 Series A  led by Octopus Ventures. The London-based company now has 2.5 million users and has hosted over 37 million conversations via SMS.

📈 Gaming platform Roblox made its stock market debut on Wednesday under the ticker symbol RBLX. The stock closed the day at $69.50 per share, giving the business a market cap of $38.26 billion. The cross-platform gaming service works across a range of devices, including mobile.

💰 Chatbot startup Heyday raised $5.1 million from existing investors Innovobot and Desjardins Capital for its system that lets businesses respond to customers’ messages across apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Google Business Messages or even email.

💰 Songclip raised $11 million in new funding to bring music to more social media apps. The company is working to popularize the short audio clip media format, and make it accessible across a range of services.

🤝 Real estate software and data firm VTS acquired Chicago-based Rise Buildings, the makers of a property tech mobile app used in over 130 million sq ft of office space.

💰 Japan’s SoftBank Group announced this week it will invest $4.7 billion into Tokyo-based messaging app Line, owned by Naver. The investment aims to help develop Line into a “super app,” similar to China’s WeChat, by integrating online news and entertainment from Yahoo Japan (which it owns) as well as financial services from SoftBanks’s mobile payments app PayPay, and more.

🤝 Mobile payments service PayPal to acquire cryptocurrency security startup Curv in a deal valued at less than $200 million. PayPal has recently partnered with Paxos to allow U.S. users to buy, hold and sell cryptocurrencies in its app.

🤝 TikTok competitor Triller bought livestream music competition Verzuz, created by Timbaland and Swizz Beatz. To date, the competition has hosted 43 artists including RZA, Nelly, Ludacris, 2 Chainz, DMX, and Gucci Mane. The program will continue to air on IG Live in addition to now, Triller.

💰 Detail raised $2 million in pre-seed funding led by Connect Ventures for its app that that will turn your iPhone into a software-optimized camera for live video.

💰 Krafton, the developer of PUBG Mobile, invested $22.4 million into the Indian esports firm Nodwin Gaming, a subsidiary of gaming giant Nazara and one of the largest esports firms in India.

💰 Eco, a startup building a personal finance app for saving and spending money, raised $26 million led by a16z Crypto. Uber co-founder Garrett Camp came up with the idea and now advises Eco as a board member. His startup studio, Expa, is also an investor, Fortune reported.

Runway gets YC backing for its service aimed at streamlining mobile app releases. The app was built by the first iOS team for Rent the Runway, and focuses on automating many common pain points that can stop an app release’s progress.

Fer.al

Image Credits: WildWorks

A new game, Fer.al, has entered the market to compete for Gen Z’s time and attention which is currently spent in virtual worlds like Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite. The game was developed by WildWorks, the makers of what’s often kids’ first virtual world game, Animal Jam. It also continues the animal-as-avatar metaphor, but this time with fantasy creatures you customize yourself, and a storyline about a animal-themed reality show, dueling queens, factions, and adventures. The game is available across platforms including Mac, PC, iOS and Android.

Wombo

Last week, “deep nostalgia” was going viral as people animated their long-lost relatives or even closer family members using apps like MyHeritage or TokkingHeads. But this week, everyone’s trying out Wombo — an AI-powered deepfake app that can animate any face to lip sync to songs like “Thriller” or “I Will Survive,”  as well as many meme songs, like “Never Gonna Give You Up” or “Numa Numa.” The results are…ugh, cringe. But the attention sent a surge of downloads to the app, moving it up to (as of the time of writing) No. 30 Overall on the App Store. Since its Feb. 2020 launch, the app has been downloaded 2M+ times across iOS and Android.



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CMU researchers show potential of privacy-preserving activity tracking using radar – TechCrunch

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Imagine if you could settle/rekindle domestic arguments by asking your smart speaker when the room last got cleaned or whether the bins already got taken out?

Or — for an altogether healthier use-case — what if you could ask your speaker to keep count of reps as you do squats and bench presses? Or switch into full-on ‘personal trainer’ mode — barking orders to peddle faster as you spin cycles on a dusty old exercise bike (who needs a Peloton!).

And what if the speaker was smart enough to just know you’re eating dinner and took care of slipping on a little mood music?

Now imagine if all those activity tracking smarts were on tap without any connected cameras being plugged inside your home.

Another bit of fascinating research from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Future Interfaces Group opens up these sorts of possibilities — demonstrating a novel approach to activity tracking that does not rely on cameras as the sensing tool. 

Installing connected cameras inside your home is of course a horrible privacy risk. Which is why the CMU researchers set about investigating the potential of using millimeter wave (mmWave) doppler radar as a medium for detecting different types of human activity.

The challenge they needed to overcome is that while mmWave offers a “signal richness approaching that of microphones and cameras”, as they put it, data-sets to train AI models to recognize different human activities as RF noise are not readily available (as visual data for training other types of AI models is).

Not to be deterred, they set about sythensizing doppler data to feed a human activity tracking model — devising a software pipeline for training privacy-preserving activity tracking AI models. 

The results can be seen in this video — where the model is shown correctly identifying a number of different activities, including cycling, clapping, waving and squats. Purely from its ability to interpret the mmWave signal the movements generate — and purely having been trained on public video data. 

“We show how this cross-domain translation can be successful through a series of experimental results,” they write. “Overall, we believe our approach is an important stepping stone towards significantly reducing the burden of training such as human sensing systems, and could help bootstrap uses in human-computer interaction.”

Researcher Chris Harrison confirms the mmWave doppler radar-based sensing doesn’t work for “very subtle stuff” (like spotting different facial expressions). But he says it’s sensitive enough to detect less vigorous activity — like eating or reading a book.

The motion detection ability of doppler radar is also limited by a need for line-of-sight between the subject and the sensing hardware. (Aka: “It can’t reach around corners yet.” Which, for those concerned about future robots’ powers of human detection, will surely sound slightly reassuring.)

Detection does require special sensing hardware, of course. But things are already moving on that front: Google has been dipping its toe in already, via project Soli — adding a radar sensor to the Pixel 4, for example.

Google’s Nest Hub also integrates the same radar sense to track sleep quality.

“One of the reasons we haven’t seen more adoption of radar sensors in phones is a lack of compelling use cases (sort of a chicken and egg problem),” Harris tells TechCrunch. “Our research into radar-based activity detection helps to open more applications (e.g., smarter Siris, who know when you are eating, or making dinner, or cleaning, or working out, etc.).”

Asked whether he sees greater potential in mobile or fixed applications, Harris reckons there are interesting use-cases for both.

“I see use cases in both mobile and non mobile,” he says. “Returning to the Nest Hub… the sensor is already in the room, so why not use that to bootstrap more advanced functionality in a Google smart speaker (like rep counting your exercises).

“There are a bunch of radar sensors already used in building to detect occupancy (but now they can detect the last time the room was cleaned, for example).”

“Overall, the cost of these sensors is going to drop to a few dollars very soon (some on eBay are already around $1), so you can include them in everything,” he adds. “And as Google is showing with a product that goes in your bedroom, the threat of a ‘surveillance society’ is much less worry-some than with camera sensors.”

Startups like VergeSense are already using sensor hardware and computer vision technology to power real-time analytics of indoor space and activity for the b2b market (such as measuring office occupancy).

But even with local processing of low-resolution image data, there could still be a perception of privacy risk around the use of vision sensors — certainly in consumer environments.

Radar offers an alternative to such visual surveillance that could be a better fit for privacy-risking consumer connected devices such as ‘smart mirrors‘.

“If it is processed locally, would you put a camera in your bedroom? Bathroom? Maybe I’m prudish but I wouldn’t personally,” says Harris.

He also points to earlier research which he says underlines the value of incorporating more types of sensing hardware: “The more sensors, the longer tail of interesting applications you can support. Cameras can’t capture everything, nor do they work in the dark.”

“Cameras are pretty cheap these days, so hard to compete there, even if radar is a bit cheaper. I do believe the strongest advantage is privacy preservation,” he adds.

Of course having any sensing hardware — visual or otherwise — raises potential privacy issues.

A sensor that tells you when a child’s bedroom is occupied may be good or bad depending on who has access to the data, for example. And all sorts of human activity can generate sensitive information, depending on what’s going on. (I mean, do you really want your smart speaker to know when you’re having sex?)

So while radar-based tracking may be less invasive than some other types of sensors it doesn’t mean there are no potential privacy concerns at all.

As ever, it depends on where and how the sensing hardware is being used. Albeit, it’s hard to argue that the data radar generates is likely to be less sensitive than equivalent visual data were it to be exposed via a breach.

“Any sensor should naturally raise the question of privacy — it is a spectrum rather than a yes/no question,” agrees Harris.  “Radar sensors happen to be usually rich in detail, but highly anonymizing, unlike cameras. If your doppler radar data leaked online, it’d be hard to be embarrassed about it. No one would recognize you. If cameras from inside your house leaked online, well… ”

What about the compute costs of synthesizing the training data, given the lack of immediately available doppler signal data?

“It isn’t turnkey, but there are many large video corpuses to pull from (including things like Youtube-8M),” he says. “It is orders of magnitude faster to download video data and create synthetic radar data than having to recruit people to come into your lab to capture motion data.

“One is inherently 1 hour spent for 1 hour of quality data. Whereas you can download hundreds of hours of footage pretty easily from many excellently curated video databases these days. For every hour of video, it takes us about 2 hours to process, but that is just on one desktop machine we have here in the lab. The key is that you can parallelize this, using Amazon AWS or equivalent, and process 100 videos at once, so the throughput can be extremely high.”

And while RF signal does reflect, and do so to different degrees off of different surfaces (aka “multi-path interference”), Harris says the signal reflected by the user “is by far the dominant signal”. Which means they didn’t need to model other reflections in order to get their demo model working. (Though he notes that could be done to further hone capabilities “by extracting big surfaces like walls/ceiling/floor/furniture with computer vision and adding that into the synthesis stage”.)

“The [doppler] signal is actually very high level and abstract, and so it’s not particularly hard to process in real time (much less ‘pixels’ than a camera).” he adds. “Embedded processors in cars use radar data for things like collision breaking and blind spot monitoring, and those are low end CPUs (no deep learning or anything).”

The research is being presented at the ACM CHI conference, alongside another Group project — called Pose-on-the-Go — which uses smartphone sensors to approximate the user’s full-body pose without the need for wearable sensors.

CMU researchers from the Group have also previously demonstrated a method for indoor ‘smart home’ sensing on the cheap (also without the need for cameras), as well as — last year — showing how smartphone cameras could be used to give an on-device AI assistant more contextual savvy.

In recent years they’ve also investigated using laser vibrometry and electromagnetic noise to give smart devices better environmental awareness and contextual functionality. Other interesting research out of the Group includes using conductive spray paint to turn anything into a touchscreen. And various methods to extend the interactive potential of wearables — such as by using lasers to project virtual buttons onto the arm of a device user or incorporating another wearable (a ring) into the mix.

The future of human computer interaction looks certain to be a lot more contextually savvy — even if current-gen ‘smart’ devices can still stumble on the basics and seem more than a little dumb.



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Flipkart in talks to raise $1 billion ahead of IPO – TechCrunch

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Indian e-commerce giant Flipkart has hit the market to raise about $1 billion at up to $30 billion valuation in a pre-IPO financing round, two people familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The Bangalore-based startup, which sold majority stake to Walmart in 2018, began first exploring funding opportunities with some investors earlier this year. In recent months, the company has also internally discussed pushing its public listing timeline to early next year, the people said, requesting anonymity as details are private. (Media reports last year said Flipkart might file for an IPO in 2021.)

Several major investors of Flipkart declined to comment on fundraise talks early this month. One investor said it made sense that the e-commerce group was planning to raise some capital as the market currently has no shortage of it.

11 Indian startups have turned unicorn this year, more than half of them last month, as some high-profile investors including Tiger Global and Falcon Edge double down on the world’s second largest internet market.

Flipkart, which was last valued at about $24.9 billion last year when it raised $1.2 billion in a round led by Walmart, hasn’t finalized the new investment and the deal size as well as the valuation may change, one of the sources said.

In an earnings call in November last year, Walmart said Flipkart and its payments entity PhonePe had seen the number of monthly active customers reach an all time high. In an earnings call in March this year, Judith McKenna, President and Chief Executive Officer of Walmart International, said Flipkart’s GMV growth was impacted by a 53-day national lockdown in India in the first half of the last year.

“But the business rebounded and exited Q4 with strong momentum, delivering GMV growth roughly double that of the full year,” said McKenna, adding that more than 250 million customers in India engaged with the e-commerce platform during last year’s festival sales.

India was hit by a second wave of the coronavirus in early April, which has again prompted some states to enforce restrictions on servicing of non-essential items on e-commerce platforms.

Flipkart’s cap table as of September last year, according to research firm Tracxn.

The Bangalore-headquartered firm competes neck to neck with Amazon in India. The American e-commerce group has invested over $6.5 billion in the South Asian market.

Both the firms are struggling to aggressively expand their footprint in India, where physical stores continue to drive the vast majority of retail sales. A new powerful player arrived in the market last year to further increase the competition.

JioMart, a joint venture between Reliance Retail (India’s largest retail chain) and Google and Facebook-backed Jio Platforms (India’s largest telecom operator), launched last year in over 200 cities and towns across the nation.

At stake is one of the world’s fastest-growing e-commerce markets that is poised to grow even further as more first-time internet users begin to shop online. India’s e-commerce market is estimated to reach more than 300 million shoppers by 2025, according to estimates by Bain & Company. These shoppers would have bought items worth more than $100 billion from online platforms, the firm projected.

In recent years, Flipkart and Amazon have made a number of bets to expand their reach in India. Both of them have rolled out support for Hindi language (Flipkart has added several additional Indian languages as well), and partnered with neighborhood stores.

“34% of the population [in India] are millennials, young people. By 2030, there is an estimate that this young population of millennials and GenZ will be 75% of the total population. 700 million Indians are digital today. And I also want to just quickly acknowledge that Digital India vision of the Government of India, which has actually enabled this. So you have a unique combination of a big market, completely digital, getting wealthier and very young,” said Kalyan Krishnamurthy, CEO of Flipkart, in February.

Flipkart did not respond to a request for comment.



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Is buying and selling short-positions in private companies next? This fintech startup is banking on it – TechCrunch

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Even the most casual industry observer has to be stunned at times by the pace of dealmaking right now. Not quite halfway through 2021, startups are routinely closing new rounds just months apart and sometimes seeing their valuations triple and even quadruple with every new round.

Maybe they will all become trillion-dollar companies. It’s more likely, however, that they will not, which is where year-old Caplight comes in. Led by Javier Avalos, a former investment banker who recently spent more than three years with the secondaries platform Forge, Caplight is right now building a model that it says will enable institutional investors to take long and short private company positions via synthetic, cash-settled derivatives, so whether or not they own any actual shares in certain startups, they can bet on their rise or fall.

Caplight isn’t the first company drawn to the idea. Another young startup in New York, Apeira Capital, is also looking to “short” overvalued startups.  More, Avalos and his cofounder, Justin Moore, a former engineering manager at Forge, could also face competition, from their old firm, for example, as well as Carta, the venture-backed company that makes software to manage equity stakes in other startups.

Still, Avalos thinks he’s on to something. Caplight already has $400 worth of interest from more than 30 institutions, he says. It also just closed on $1.7 million in pre-seed funding led by Fin VC, with participation from Susquehanna Private Equity Investments, Clocktower Ventures, and Dash Fund. We talked with him late last week to learn more; below are excerpts from that chat, edited lightly for length.

TC: You were at Forge, which helps people buy and sell pre-IPO shares. What opportunity did you see while working there?

JA:  I think what platforms like Forge have done really well is build tech solutions for startup employees, for startup founders, and for the companies themselves, and that’s great. What we’re really focused on are larger institutions who need true liquidity, meaning higher frequency of trading, whether that’s buying and selling option contracts, or entering swap-type agreements. [They need a way] to quickly move in and out of positions, as well as hedge themselves.

Caplight [aims to become the] infrastructure that enables any other fund that is looking to take directional positions in private companies. It’s meant to be the plumbing that connects that fund to a market, but not just the marketplace –all of the infrastructure that comes with that. So holding assets in prime brokerage; being able to quickly settle transactions through clearinghouses; being able to provide [the] data to inform a mark to market to value those contracts.

TC: Even more specifically, what are you offering?

JA: So we [want to] allow institutional investors to hedge their private company stock — to generate income on their private company stock by selling out-of-the-money option contracts, for instance. We also allow institutional investors to take short or long positions [and] we’re doing all of our transactions synthetically, so the underlying shares don’t don’t actually have to move.

TC: Is that private company stock used as collateral or encumbered in any way? Do you need the permission of the startup?

JA: The pre-IPO stock can be used as collateral. It doesn’t always need to be though. The great thing about building a synthetic platform is you can inject liquidity into the market by working with sellers who don’t actually own the stock. If I’m a hedge fund, and I don’t own shares of a pre-IPO company, but I still want to express a short interest — a negative view on that company — I could use Caplight to do that. I’d just need to hold other tradable securities as collateral. That’s part of the beauty of what makes this a marketplace that can have very rapid settlement and execution.

TC: So if a hedge fund wants to go short, it just needs to needs to find another party on your service who’s willing to take that trade? 

JA: What you need is two parties — one who one who’s interested in going short on the name, and another who’s interested in going long on the name. Beyond that, you need a model that helps these parties arrive at not just an agreed-upon valuation of the company today, but also where they’re comfortable striking a contract at some point in the future, and then a methodology for valuation at any point in time in between those two points.What we’re talking about here is a methodology to create a mark to market on what the value of that contract is at any given time between the time you enter the contract and the time you ultimately go to settle the contract. Those are really the three main ingredients that are needed here.

TC: How do you develop this methodology? How automated is it?

JA: We’re in the process of building that out now. There’s quite a bit of work, as you can imagine, that goes into that. And part of the mandate that we have having raised this pre seed funding is to go out and find the best talent to come in and help us with this.

TC: Assuming some of these inputs would include fund-raising announcements, any announced revenues, and where things are trading on the secondary market, what are other inputs might surprise people?

JA: Maybe a less obvious one is that when public mutual funds own private tech companies’ stock, they have to report out on at least a quarterly basis where they’re marking those positions, and that’s all public information. So that’s another alternative data set that we would love to pull into our platform in product form.

TC: Why does your company make sense now versus earlier? Does it tie to smart contracts?

JA: Smart contracts are are definitely an enabler. But I think it’s more of a function of where we are in the markets. Forge alone is [ approaching a billion dollars a quarter of volume] and that’s just one platform. When you sum up all the activity, we think there is $20 billion of transaction volume, meaning pre IPO shares that are trading hands each year. For that size marketplace to exist without the ability to have directional bets on top of that, or hedging that is made very easy, it just didn’t make sense to us that hedging and derivative-type transactions don’t exist.

TC: This is a work in progress. In the meantime, what’s to stop Forge or Carta from doing what you’re doing?

JA: It’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about. It goes back to a point that I mentioned earlier, which is that I think Carta and Forge have done a really good job of building tech solutions that serve the companies, and I think a lot of future growth from Carta and Forge and some of the other players is pegged on their ability to develop company relationships. And when you have a lot of [your] growth pegged on building out these relationships — a lot of the valuation that’s being ascribed to Forge and Carta and other secondary platforms is tied their ability to maintain those relationships — to turn around and stand up a marketplace that allows institutions to go short on the same companies that you’re fighting to build relationships with is a direct conflict.

Above, from left to right, Caplight founders Javier Avalos and Justin Moore. For more from this chat, including some of the legal hurdles Caplight has to overcome to operate its business, and how it attracts buyers and sellers to the platform, you can hear our longer conversation here.



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ServiceNow leaps into applications performance monitoring with Lightstep acquisition – TechCrunch

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This morning ServiceNow announced that it was acquiring Lightstep, an applications performance monitoring startup that has raised over $70 million, according to Crunchbase data. The companies did not share the acquisition price.

ServiceNow wants to take advantage of Lightstep’s capabilities to enhance its IT operations offerings. With Lightstep, the company should be able to provide customers with a way to monitor the performance of applications with the goal of detecting problems before the grow into major issues that take down a website or application.

“With Lightstep, ServiceNow will transform how software solutions are delivered to customers. This will ultimately make it easier for customers to innovate quickly. Now they’ll be able to build and operate their software faster than ever before and take the new era of work head on with confidence,” Pablo Stern, SVP & GM for IT Workflow Products at ServiceNow said in a statement.

Ben Sigelman, founder and CEO at Lightstep sees the larger organization being a good landing spot for his company. “We’ve always believed that the value of observability should extend across the entire enterprise, providing greater clarity and confidence to every team involved in these modern, digital businesses. By joining ServiceNow, together we will realize that vision for our customers and help transform the world of work in the process […], Sigelman said in a statement.

Lightstep is part of the application performance monitoring market with companies like DataDog, New Relic and AppDynamics, which Cisco acquired in 2017 the week before it was scheduled to IPO for $3.7 billion. It seems to be an area that is catching the interest of larger enterprise vendors, who are picking off smaller startups in the space.

Last November, IBM bought Instana, an APM startup and then bought Turbonomic for $2 billion at the end of last month as a complementary technology. Being able to monitor apps and keep them up and running is crucial, not only from a business continuity perspective, but also from a brand loyalty one. Even if the app isn’t completely down, but is running slowly or generally malfunctioning in some way, it’s likely to annoy users and could ultimately cause users to jump to a competitor. This type of software gives customers the ability to observe and detect problems before they have an impact on large numbers of users.

Lightstep, which is based in San Jose California, was founded in 2015. It raised $70 million from investors like Altimeter Capital, Sequoia, Redpoint and Harrison Metal. Customers include GitHub, Spotify and Twilio. The deal is expected to close this quarter.



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From now until May 16, TechCrunch readers can save 10% on an annual or two-year membership. That’s $89 per year in the U.S., with similar discounts for readers outside The States.

Grab a 10% discount on Extra Crunch here.  

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Telkomsel invests an additional $300 million in Gojek – TechCrunch

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Telkomsel, a unit of Indonesia’s largest telecom operator Telkom, has invested an additional $300 million in ride-hailing and payments firm Gojek, the two firms said Monday, just months after the network provider wrote a $150 million check to the Southeast Asian firm.

The announcement comes amid Gojek working to seal a proposed merger with e-commerce platform Tokopedia. The $18 billion deal would result in a new entity called GoTo, according to media reports. Telkomsel’s investment today likely makes it one of GoTo’s top eight investors.

Gojek — which has raised over $3.45 billion to date from high-profile investors including Google, Facebook, PayPal, Visa, and Tencent — and Telkomsel said their strategic partnership will “open up new synergies as the two companies scale up digital services and deliver new, innovative solutions.”

The two firms have maintained a deal since 2018 to subsidize the cost of mobile data consumed by the ride-hailing firm’s driver partners.

With more than 170 million subscribers, Telkomsel is the largest telecom operator in Indonesia. In addition to ride-hailing, Gojek has expanded to several additional businesses, including digital payments and food delivery in Indonesia.

Today’s news follows a $150 million investment Telkomsel made in Gojek in November last year. The two firms have since integrated several aspects of their services to accelerate digitization of micro, small and medium enterprises and bringing greater cost savings for driver partners.

Some of these include integration of Telkomsel MyAds with GoBiz, which enables Gojek’s MSME partners to use MyAds to efficiently expand their outreach to Telkomsel users, and easy onboarding for Gojek MSME partners to become Telkomsel reseller partners through the DigiPOS Aja! Application.

The two firms also co-market gaming services through Telkomsel’s Dunia Games and GoPay in collaboration with Tencent, providing greater value for PUBGM users, they said.

“Telkomsel is optimistic that this latest investment will open more opportunities for society to access advanced digital technology-based innovations developed by homegrown companies,” said Telkomsel chief executive Setyanto Hantoro in a statement.



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StuDocu raises $50M as its note-sharing network for college students passes 15M users – TechCrunch

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Whether learning online or taking a class in person, every student knows all too well how important it is to have good notes from your classes as a key way to remember and apply what you’ve been taught. Now, an Amsterdam-based startup called StuDocu, which has built a big and profitable business by way of a platform to help source and share the best student-created class notes, is announcing $50 million in funding on the heels of huge growth — a sign of demand and opportunity in the space.

The Series B is coming from Partech, the French VC, and it comes as StuDocu is gaining some critical mass: the startup says it now reaches 15 million users across 2,000 universities in 60 countries. What’s notable about that scale is not just the size but the fact that it had been achieved while the company was previously largely bootstrapped: Both PitchBook and Crunchbase note only about $1.5 million raised before now, but in fact CEO Marnix Broer tells me that it had quietly raised just under $10 million before now with previous investors including Piton Capital, Peak Capital and Point Nine Capital.

A lot of the focus in edtech in the last year of Covid-19 living has been on technology that helps people learn remotely as well (or maybe even better) than they might have done in more traditional, physical environments: improved streaming experiences, better approaches for teaching via a screen, tools for managing the experience, and so on. StuDocu both fits that mold, but also, in a way, is a throwback to the more basic approach we associate with learning: sitting in a class and taking notes during the lessons.

That was the environment in which four students came together and first formed StuDocu.

In the Netherlands, where StuDocu is based, a large amount of one’s evaluation in an undergraduate class is based on how you do in the final exams, and so the notes have perhaps even more disproportionate value.

CEO Marnix Broer, along with his friends Jacques Huppes, Lucas van den Houten and Sander Kuijk, saw an opportunity while still students back in 2013 to leverage the power of the internet and crowdsourcing, to make it easier for people who were studying the same course at university to connect together online and help each other by uploading notes from their courses and exchanging them with each other — the power of many being one way of better covering your bases in the knowledge department.

(Huppes has stepped away from the company in an active role but remains an advisor, the other two are still there, Broer said.)

Initially the product was “completely free,” he said, and was organically a popular enough concept that it not only picked up users at their university in Delft, but also a number of other schools. Then, as the founders approached graduation, “we decided we needed to earn some money,” and with the concept still going strong, they turned their attention to making their tool into a business.

Through a couple of iterations, “We finally came up with trying to keep as much free as we can in a freemium model,” Broer said. In StuDocu’s case, using the data they had amassed about how much certain documents were viewed, downloaded and recommended over others, they created a top 20% of all documents, which were labelled premium, “so you either upload your own docs or pay a small subscription fee to access them.” Conversely, this also means that 80% of documents on the site are all still free.

StuDocu also built a few pieces of technology into its platform to help fight against scammers or people trying to game it: the only users who it now measures to determine what is premium content are premium users themselves, who do not get any indication of what is premium content on the site and what is not, and are more likely more serious and heavier users of StuDocu.

“We want the best quality documents to stay up and the rest to drift down the pile, so that our users only experience great notes,” he said. “But we know if a few upload garbage we haven’t lost money on it. We just gave access for free and should not have. At the end of the day, it’s a community and we believe that will ensure the quality stays high.” They also incentivise people to review documents with lottery tickets and other rewards.

And it has increasingly been adding in more ways of scanning materials to determine that what people are submitting are actual notes about the subject at hand, rather than blank documents or random unrelated writing. A recent search partnership with Algolia, Broer said, should also help with more granualar document searches, rather than simply searching by university and course to find materials.

It’s a compelling business model that helps square the issue that a lot of user-generated content sites have, which is that the vast majority are consumers rather than creators. Broer said that currently some 15% of its users pay for the service, 15% access it by uploading content, and 70% of its base are using it free and not uploading anything.

Through its gradual building up of a business from a tool that they built to help themselves, StuDocu went, Broer said, from “working in a squat“, to taking a small and cheap space with interns, to what Broer describes “a normal office.”

There are a number of other edtech companies that have identified the potential of providing platforms for students to help each other with learning. Brainly, another big one out of Europe (specifically Poland) built its concept not around notes but students helping each other answer homework questions, similar to Chegg. NexusNotes out of Australia also has built a platform aimed at amassing notes; Academia includes not just notes but also research papers; Docsity also focuses on both class notes and papers. StudySmarter also out of Europe also brings in notes but also applies AI to shape a person’s learning progress.

Perhaps the most similar and StuDocu’s biggest competitor of all is Course Hero out of the U.S., which is now valued at around $1.1 billion (a notable number here too, since StuDocu is not disclosing valuation).

“We consider ourselves the leading global player,” Broer noted, with more than 30 local languages supported across its catalog of courses and notes.

“We help millions of students and have millions of documents, but at the same time we consider ourselves a hyper-local marketplace,” he added. “Three hundred people who are on the same law course can now communicate and share knowledge with each other.”

This funding will be an interesting test of both extending that hyper-local concept to more places, but also tapping into opportunities where the help that might come could have a much bigger impact.

In the UK, for example, going down another age bracket younger than university to students of high school age (14 and up), the majority of them are studying to prepare for two sets of tests, GCSEs that you take in year 11 (aged 16/17 usually) and A-Levels you take in year 13 (18/19 years old), both based around very specific subjects and thus based on very particular curriculums that literally the whole country studies together. That is to say, even if individual schools or teachers might have different approaches or teach better or worse, at the end of the day, all the students will be taking the same examinations in their specified subjects.

This presents an interesting opportunity to a company like StuDocu, which could build a much bigger network of users as a result on an even smaller proportion of contributed, strong notes (since more of the users will all be needing the same materials). This is also a model used in other places, and Broer said StuDocu is well on its way to testing and slowly expanding in specifically these kinds of markets at the moment.

And you could argue that even if standardized tests were not a part of the equation, students will want better notes to use for other kinds of coursework, such as essay writing, or simply to help retain knowledge as they continue to learn. With some 200 million people currently in university education, there are a lot of opportunities to find variations on the premise.

There might also be possibilities down the line to work more closely also with universities to build out the course materials — also a big area considering that a lot of professors already provide notes for their lectures to students — although Broer said that for now its focus is remaining on students and their needs, since in many cases professors still do not do this.

It’s for all of these reasons that investors are there for StuDocu’s funding.

“StuDocu is a platform already helping millions of students around the world, and we’re excited to partner with this talented team in their mission to make education more accessible to all.” comments Bruno Crémel, a general partner at Partech, in a statement. “When we met the team at StuDocu, we were wildly impressed with their data-driven culture and by how much students really love using their services. We look forward to working closely with Marnix and his team as they accelerate StuDocu’s global expansion and develop even more innovative ways to support students in meeting their learning goals.”



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