Instagram launches walkie-talkie voice messaging

You’d think Facebook would be faster at copying itself. Five years after Facebook Messenger took a cue from WhatsApp and Voxer to launch voice messaging, and four months after TechCrunch reported Instagram was testing its own walkie talkie feature, voice messaging is rolling out globally on Instagram Direct today. Users can hold down the microphone button to record a short voice message that appears in the chat as an audio wave form that recipients can then listen to at their leisure. The feature offers an off-camera asynchronous alternative to the video calling feature Instagram released in June.

Hands-free Direct messaging could make Instagram a more appealing chat app for drivers, people on the move with their hands full, or users in the developing world who want a more intimate connection without having to pay for the data for long audio or video calls. It could also be a win for users in countries with less popular languages or ones that aren’t easily compatible with smartphone keyboards, as they could talk to friends instead of typing.

The launch deepens Facebook’s entry into the voice market. From its first voice messaging and VOIP features back in 2013 to its new voice control system Aloha that works on its recently launched Portal video chat screen, Facebook has long taken an interest in the accessibility of voice but only got serious about building it across its products in 2018.

Trello acquires Butler to add power of automation

Trello, the organizational tool owned by Atlassian, announced an acquisition of its very own this morning when it bought Butler, an plug-in for an undisclosed amount.

What Butler brings to Trello is the power of automation, stringing together a bunch of commands to make something complex happen automatically. As Trello’s Michael Pryor pointed out in a blog post announcing the acquisition, we are used to tools like IFTTT, Zapier and Apple Shortcuts, and this will bring a similar type of functionality directly into Trello.

Screenshot: Trello

“Over the years, teams have discovered that by automating processes on Trello boards with the Butler Power-Up, they could spend more time on important tasks and be more productive. Butler helps teams codify business rules and processes, taking something that might take ten steps to accomplish and automating it into one click.” Pryor wrote.

This means that Trello can be more than a static organizational tool. Instead, it can move into the realm of light-weight business process automation. For example, this could allow you to move an item from your To Do board to your Doing board automatically based on dates, or to share tasks with appropriate teams as a project moves through its lifecycle, saving a bunch of manual steps that tend to add up.

The company indicated that it will be incorporating the Alfred’s capabilities directly into Trello in the coming months. It will make it available to all level of users including the free tier, but they promise more advanced functionality for Business and Enterprise customers when the integration is complete. Pryor also suggested that more automation could be coming to Trello. “Butler is Trello’s first step down this road, enabling every user to automate pieces of their Trello workflow to save time, stay organized and get more done.”

Atlassian bought Trello in 2017 for $425 million, but this acquisition indicates it is functioning quasi-independently as part of the Atlassian family.

Google Maps’ new personalized suggestions come to iOS

A more personalized version of Google Maps is now arriving on iOS. At Google’s I/O developer conference earlier this year, the company introduced a series of new features designed to help Google Maps users learn what’s happening around them, track area businesses to receive updates about their events and promotions, and receive personalized suggestions of places to visit, dine, and more. The latter now appear in a “For You” tab in the revamped Google Maps app, which first arrived on Android this June.

Today, the feature is rolling out more broadly.

According to Google, the “For You” tab is now making its way to over 130  more countries on Android and is launching on iOS across 40+ countries.

When switching over to this tab, you’ll see any number of suggestions – from newly opened places to visit or restaurants to try to new pop-ups – to new menu items at favorite restaurants and restaurant suggestions Google thinks you’d like to try. It bases these on your personal tastes and preferences it’s inferred from your use of the Google Maps app, including what sort of businesses you search and follow.

The “For You” tab can also help you with travel planning, by making suggestions of places before you depart, Google notes.

To get better recommendations, you’ll want to follow local businesses you like in Google Maps, or even neighborhoods you frequent, to personalize your suggestions further.

The feature is part of a larger overhaul of Google Maps that’s aiming to challenge Facebook as the place where businesses offer updates of their goings-on, news about their sales, events, and other information they want to share with customers – as well as target potential new customers through ads and being featured in users’ recommendations.

In October, Google Maps launched the “Follow” button for tracking businesses, and last month rolled out a new “Google My Business” app for business owners, so they could more easily create and publish content to their business profile on Google.

With these products in place – content publication tools and the ability for users to follow that content – Google is now ready to turn those signals into personalized suggestions. You’ll find it at the bottom of the Google Maps app, where it will show you potential “matches” (and the percentage for the match), plus news about recent openings, trending spots, and other suggestions.

The company says the “For You” tab is rolling out starting today across the new markets and on iOS.

Why podcasters are betting on desi content: Times of India

A ToI article covering the opportunity and challenges in audio content quotes Venture Intelligence data: Since 2012, only three Indian startups in the podcasting space have received funding, and mostly undisclosed or negligible amount. The article further states that the opportunity for content creators would be in chasing the local language crowd: A KPMG report says that nine of out of 10

Google has acquired one of India’s most popular train tracking apps

Google is increasing its efforts in India after it snapped up the team behind popular transportation app ‘Where is my Train.’

The app claims 10 million registered users and, as the name suggests, it helps commuters track arrivals and departures as well as buying seats. That’s no small job given that India is estimated to operate some 14,000 trains on a daily basis across the country. The app is for Android, it works offline or with poor connectivity and supports eight languages. It is rivaled by VC-backed companies like RailYatri and iXigo.

There’s no official price for the deal, although India’s Economic Times is reporting that it is in the region of $30-$40 million. The site reported on Google’s interest back in August, when it wrote that other suitors included Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi. A Google spokesperson confirmed the deal to TechCrunch, but declined to provide a price.

Sigmoid Labs, the company that develops the train app, was founded by four former TiVo executives in 2013. Economic Times reports that it has around 10 staff. It is unclear how much money it has raised to date.

The company told customers news of the acquisition on its website earlier today.

“We can think of no better place to help us achieve our mission, and we’re excited to join Google to help bring technology and information into more people’s hands,” its founders wrote.

Google said that the Where is my Train team would “continue to build on the current offering,” so it seems that the app won’t be shuttered, immediately at least.

The service’s significant userbase would suggest that Google might look to develop and expand its scope to perhaps touch on other areas. Ride-hailing apps, for example, have moved into adjacent spaces including entertainment, payments and food delivery to take advantage of their position as daily apps.

That’s all conjecture at this point. But it also stands to reason that Google could fold it into other apps, including Google Maps, although that certainly isn’t the plan at this point.

Screenshots of Where is my Train Android app from the Google Play Store

The deal falls under Google’s ‘Next Billion User’ division which is developing products and services to help increase internet adoption in emerging markets. To date that has focused strongly on India where Google has developed data-friendly ‘lite’ versions of popular apps like YouTube, and initiatives like public WiFi for India’s rail network that’s used by over eight million people.

That scope has also covered services, with Google looking at apps that provide information and utility to Indian consumers. Google launched an on-demand app and a mobile payment service last year, and this year it released a neighborhood Q&A service. The Where is my Train deal certainly fits that strategy and you’d imagine it’ll become a core part of Google’s consumer-facing product line in India.

The deal is also one of the most significant to date for a U.S-based tech firm in India. Facebook, Twitter, Google and even Yahoo have made acquisitions to build teams or acquire talent but Where is my Train seems significantly more strategic as a product.

Waggel launches ‘fully digital’ pet insurance

Waggel, a new ‘insurtech’ startup in the U.K., is officially launching today to offer what it describes as “fully digital” pet insurance.

Founded by Andrew Leal, and Ross Fretten (a contestant of The Apprentice 2017), the company wants to offer more transparent cover for your pet, where you’ll know exactly how much you’re paying and for what provision, as well as offer rewards for improving the care of your animal.

“The biggest problem in pet insurance and insurance in general is the lack of value that customers get with a policy,” says Leal. “You pay a monthly fee and get nothing in return except maybe a promise to pay out a claim in the future. On top of this, pet insurance has become extremely complicated for users with confusing policy names and jargon-rich wording. The industry is still largely paper based, slow and terrible at communicating with customers and as a result falling well short of todays consumer expectations. Insurance is very much a grudge purchase”.

Leal says that Waggel is attempting to solve this by offering a fully digital solution that puts the customer experience first “to alleviate the stress that is typical of insurance”.

You are able to get a quote within 30 seconds that explains in simple language what you’re getting for your money. You can also make a claim within the app and track that claim in real-time, while Waggel promises to be transparent on how much it is paying out and why.

“All without having to hear another minute of hold music!” quips the Waggel founder.

In addition to the startup’s core insurance product, Waggel offers a rewards programme that Leal says makes it easier and more affordable for customers to take preventative care of their pet through feeding them higher quality nutrition. This comes in the form of “discounts with our hand-picked quality pet food partners,” he says.

In terms of competition, Leal says there are numerous incumbents in the pet insurance space but cites PetPlan and Animal Friends as the main two.

“Pet insurance has gotten stuck in a vicious cycle,” he adds. “The market has developed in that competitors offer an extremely homogenous product. With not much separating the different offerings, price has become the main differentiator. On the other side, the average vet bills have continued to rise. This means that insurers are getting squeezed for profits and having to offer less and less value to their customers, whilst being stricter and stricter on claims.

“We want to bring a new fresh approach to the market in that we want to see our policyholders as members and their premium as a subscription, for which they can get continuous value for their monthly fee through our rewards programme”.

China’s JD.com teams up with Intel to develop ‘smart’ retail experiences

Months after it landed a major $550 million investment from Google, China’s JD.com — the country’s second highest-profile investor behind Alibaba — has teamed up with another U.S. tech giant: Intel.

JD and Intel said today that they will set up a “lab” focused on bringing internet-of-things technology into the retail process. That could include new-generation vending machines, advertising experiences, and more.

That future is mostly offline — or, in China tech speak, ‘online-to-offline’ retail — but combining the benefits of e-commerce with brick and mortar physical retail shopping. Already, for example, customers can order ahead of time and come in store for collection, buy items without a checkout, take advantage of ‘smart shelves’ or simply try products in person before they buy them.

Indeed, TechCrunch recently visited a flagship JD ‘7Fresh’ store in Beijing and reported on the hybrid approach that the company is taking.

JD is backed by Chinese internet giant Tencent and valued at nearly $30 billion. The company already works with Intel on personalized shopping experiences, but this new lab is focused on taking things further with new projects and working to “facilitate their introduction to global markets.”

“The Digitized Retail Joint Lab will develop next-generation vending machines, media and advertising solutions, and technologies to be used in the stores of the future, based on Intel architecture,” the companies said in a joint announcement.

JD currently operates three 7Fresh stores in China but it is aiming to expand that network to 30. It has also forayed overseas, stepping into Southeast Asia with the launch of cashier-less stores in Indonesia this year.

Tencent Music sued by investor ahead of $1.2 billion US IPO

China’s largest music streaming service has had a whirlwind year. With 800 million monthly users across multiple apps and a profitable business, Tencent Music Entertainment is gearing up for one of this year’s most anticipated initial public offerings in the US. But the firm has landed in hot water in the months leading up to its first-time shares sale.

Last week, Chinese investor Hanwei Guo accused TME’s co-president of using misinformation, threats and intimidation to compel him to sell his equity stakes in Ocean Music, which eventually became part of TME after Tencent’s QQ Music and China Music Corporation merged in 2016.

Han has filed a motion for discovery in the US seeking information from Deutsche Bank AG, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp. and other underwriters for TME’s IPO that the investor plans to use in an arbitration underway in China. The investor is requesting TME co-president Guomin Xie Guo and other parties involved to return percentages of his equity stakes in the music vehicle and compensate him for economic losses.

Han claims that he invested an equivalent of $26 million in Ocean Music in 2012 after Xie’s repeated invitation. Xie first touted Ocean Music on the promise that the music company would turn a profit the following year and go public in three years, but he later informed Guo that the business was failing and threatened him to sell his shares, according to a statement from Guo’s legal advisor. The investor eventually sold his shares “under duress.”

The fraud allegation arrived two months after TME reportedly delayed its IPO due to weakening stock markets around the world. The music giant has resumed the process and filled with the US Securities and Exchange Commission on December 3. According to its prospectus, TME plans to raise up to $1.23 billion with a listed price between $13 to $15 per share.

TME is now in a quiet period where federal rules limit what the company can say in public ahead of its IPO, which Bloomberg reported is set to begin taking orders on December 12.

A spun-out subsidiary of Tencent, TME operates three music streaming apps — QQ Music and what the CMC merger brought over, Kuwo Music and Kugou Music. The entertainment group also runs China’s top karaoke app WeSing, on which users can record and upload their work.

Unlike its money-losing western counterparts Spotify, TME is profitable thanks to a flourishing social business. For example, WeSing users can send virtual gifts to reward content creators, from which TME takes a commission. On the other hand, only 3.6 percent of TME’s users are paying subscribers as of the second quarter, part of a result of China’s rampant online piracy issue. The rate is much lower compared to other music services around the world but TME says in the prospectus that it expects revenue from paid subscriptions to increase over time.

Beyond Huawei, Scientist’s Death Hurts China’s Technology Quest

The death of a prominent Chinese scientist in the U.S. has passed comparatively unnoticed beside the blizzard of global headlines devoted to the Huawei dispute, yet the tragedy bears upon another important aspect of Beijing's quest for technological leadership. Zhang Shoucheng, an internationally recognized Stanford University physicist and venture capitalist, died on Dec. 1, the same day that the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies Co.