Facebook to launch officially licensed music videos in the U.S. next month

Facebook is preparing to launch officially licensed music videos on its social network in the U.S. next month, in a direct challenge to YouTube. In materials reviewed by TechCrunch, Facebook informed Page owners linked to artists they’ll need to toggle on a new setting to add their music videos to their page ahead of an August 1st deadline, at which point Facebook will automatically create a page of their videos if no action had been taken.

Artists will not have to manually upload their videos or even provide links, Facebook told the artist Page admins. Instead, by enabling the new setting, artists are giving Facebook permission to add music videos to their Page, where they can be discovered by fans on the Page’s Videos tab. This library will include both the artist’s own official videos and those they’re featured in, Facebook explained in its marketing materials.

Once enabled, the artists can edit or remove their videos from this destination at any time.

Above: Screenshots detailing to artist Page admins how to enable the Music video experience

Though artists are being strongly encouraged to enable the feature by August 1st, if they choose not to or miss the deadline, Facebook will create a separate official music Page on their behalf titled “[Artist Name] Official Music.” This Page will be created and controlled by Facebook and will be accessible by fans via the Facebook Watch tab and a new music video destination on the platform.

In an email sent to Page owners (see below), Facebook explained that whenever it receives a new release from a music label, the artist’s Facebook Page would automatically share the video directly on the page’s Timeline. This allows the new video to reach all the followers’ News Feeds. The setting for automatic sharing can be turned off at any time.

A partial screenshot of the email to artists leaked to Twitter, where it was amplified by social media consultant Matt Navarra. The addition had previously been reported by other smaller sites, as well. TechCrunch has reviewed the marketing materials that explained in more detail how to enable the setting on artists’ Facebook Page.

By enabling the setting, artists are also giving Facebook permission to share aggregate performance insights with rightholders, including likes, shares, comments, views and other engagement data associated with these auto-generated posts, the materials noted.

In addition, artists can edit the auto-generated posts, including their title, description, tags and even the thumbnails.

Facebook’s expansion into music videos will present a significant challenge to YouTube, which accounted for 46% of the world’s music streaming outside of China as of 2017, according to a report from IFPI. Around the same time, YouTube had claimed over 1 billion music fans came to its site to connect with music from over 2 billion artists. More recently, the company reported it had paid out over $3 billion to the music industry in 2019.

Bloomberg late last year reported that Facebook was negotiating with the three largest record labels — Universal Media Group, Sony Music, and Warner Music Group — over rights to music videos. The report noted that record labels were interested in an alternative to YouTube, which they feel doesn’t pay enough.

Currently, artists under the major U.S. labels have not been able to share full music videos on Facebook due to licensing rights; they could only publish a short preview.

Though Facebook had prior deals with labels, the focus had been on the right to use licensed music in “social experiences” across Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and Oculus. That meant users could post personal videos with licensed music in the background without having their videos taken down. The prior agreements also enabled Facebook to test music-driven social experiences of its own. For example, Facebook tested a Musical.ly competitor called Lip Sync Live and later, a TikTok rival called Lasso, thanks to those deals. It rolled out Music Stickers on Facebook and Instagram, as well.

Facebook already offers a music video experience in Thailand and India. The company more broadly sees video as a major focus area, as videos help connect users and encourage social conversations. Facebook Watch, a dedicated video destination, emerged due to Facebook’s earlier video efforts and continues to expand.

Facebook, reached for comment, declined to offer a statement on its plans.

Snapchat tests TikTok-style navigation for exploring public content

Snapchat could be gearing up to more directly challenge TikTok. The company confirmed it’s testing a new experience that allows users to move through Snapchat’s public content with a vertical swiping motion — a gesture that’s been popularized by TikTok, where it allows users to advance between videos. Snapchat says the feature is one of its experiments in exploring different, immersive visual formats for community content.

The test is focused on content that’s published publicly to Snapchat Discover, not your friends’ private Stories. But because Stories can have multiple parts, users will still tap to advance through the Story, as before. But in the new experiment, a horizontal swiping motion — either to the left or right — will exit the experience, instead of moving you between Stories, as before.

For anyone who spends much of their time on TikTok, the vertical swipe now feels like a more natural way to move through videos. And it’s almost disorienting to return to Snapchat or other apps where the horizontal swipe is used.

This test was first spotted by social media consultant Matt Navarra, citing a post from Twitter user @artb2668. One photo being shared shows the pop-up in the app which explains how to navigate the new experience, while a video gives you an idea for the feel.

Snapchat declined to offer specific details about the test, beyond clarifying it’s in the early stages and only viewable by a very small percentage of its user base.

“We’re always experimenting with new ways to bring immersive and engaging content to our mobile-first Snapchat community,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The timing of Snap’s test is interesting, of course.

The Trump administration is currently threatening to ban TikTok in the U.S. due to the app’s ties to China and fears that Americans’ private user data will end up in the hands of China’s Communist Party. The app has already been banned in India for similar reasons. On Friday, Amazon instructed its employees to remove the app from their company-issued smartphones, before retracting that demand around five hours later. U.S. military branches have also blocked access to the app, following a Pentagon warning earlier this year. Meanwhile, Musical.ly (the app that became TikTok) has had its acquisition by China’s ByteDance come under a U.S. national security review. 

Amid the threat of TikTok’s removal, rival social apps have climbed the app store charts, including Byte, Likee, Triller and Dubsmash. Instagram, meanwhile, has been expanding its TikTok-like feature, Reels, to new markets, including India. Even YouTube began testing a TikTok-like experience in recent days.

It’s no surprise, then, that Snapchat would want to do the same among its own user base, as well, given that the TikTok U.S. audience could be soon up for grabs.

The test also shows how influential TikTok has become in terms of dictating the social app user experience. Where Snapchat once had its concept for short-form Stories stolen by nearly every other social app, including most notably Instagram, it’s now the swipeable TikTok vertical feed that everyone is copying.

Apple allocates its first $400M from $2.5B commitment to address California’s housing crisis

Apple announced this morning it’s allocating more than $400 million toward affordable housing projects and other homeowner assistance programs in California, as a part of its earlier multi-year pledge of $2.5 billion to address the state’s housing crisis and homelessness issues.

The funding is expected to support thousands of Californians with first-time homebuyer assistance or new, affordable housing units, Apple says.

Projects launching in 2020 include 250 new units of affordable housing across the Bay Area — the first affordable housing developments funded in a private-public partnership with Housing Trust Silicon Valley. The units will span the North, East, and South Bay regions, and will include many units reserved for veterans, the homeless or formerly homeless, and residents with developmental disabilities.

Image Credits: Apple

 

Apple is also offering a mortgage and down payment assistance fund and an affordable housing investment support program, both created in conjunction with the California Housing Finance Agency (CalHFA). Apple has provided mortgage and down payment assistance to hundreds of first-time home buyers to date, it says, with additional benefits reserved for teachers, veterans, and firefighters. The CalHFA’s assistance program is typically diverse, as well, with over 65% of borrowers identifying as Hispanic, Black, Asian, Pacific Islander, or American Indian.

This month, Apple will launch an affordable housing investment support program with CalHFA, aimed at funding the development of new, very low to moderate-income housing at a lower costs. The program is expected to produce a number of affordable housing units in California over the next five years.

In addition, Apple is supporting the construction of affordable housing units through a partnership with Destination: Home, which supports the homeless in the Silicon Valley area. This initiative will help fund the construction of over 1,000 new units of deeply-affordable and supportive housing, including 80 units in a project in Santa Clara for seniors who are homeless or nearing homelessness.

Apple says its support has helped Destination: Home keep 1,500 families annually from losing their homes, up 67% over a year ago.

Charities Housing Development Corporation project in San Jose, financed in partnership with Housing Trust Silicon Valley; Image Credits: Apple

“At a time when so many members of our community are facing unprecedented challenges, we believe it’s critical to make sure that their hopes for the future are supported through tangible programs and results,” said Kristina Raspe, Apple’s vice president for Global Real Estate and Facilities, in an announcement. “As cities and states have been forced to pause many of their long-term affordable housing investments amidst the current public health crisis, Apple is proud to continue moving forward with our comprehensive plan to combat the housing crisis in California,” she added.

Apple in November 2019 first announced its plans to commit funds to address the housing and homelessness crisis. It’s not the only major tech firm to do so. Amazon, Facebook, and Google are also spending money to address these problems. But these moves aren’t just about charity and good works. Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google are partially responsible for the housing crisis to begin with, as their expansions in the region have displaced long-time residents from their homes. Over the years, tech companies have been increasingly criticized for the negative impacts they’ve had on communities, as residents that make cities function — like firefighters, nurses and teachers, for example — had to move out due to rising housing prices.

Of course, like most complexities, a number of other factors also contributed to the housing crisis, outside of tech’s impact. There are also the area’s local laws, zoning regulations, protests against building vertically, NIMBY-ism, rental control’s impact on the market, the restricted housing supply, scarcity of available land, and more.

The additional funds toward affordable housing arrive at a time when some of the Bay Area’s wealthier residents and tech employees are fleeing the city, amid the coronavirus pandemic and its related impacts, such as layoffs. According to a recently released report from Zumper in July, one-bedroom rent prices in San Francisco fell 11.8% year-over-year — the largest drop in the U.S. and beating the prior month’s record. Two-bedroom rents fell nearly 10% year-over-year.

But even a double-digit decline won’t help solve the housing crisis, as rents and home prices were already so high as to be unattainable for many of the city’s residents. Plus, the pandemic’s longer-term impacts on the region’s housing market are yet to be seen. For example, it’s unclear to what extent companies will continue to embrace remote work if a vaccine were to emerge, making it safe to return to offices.

Apple’s initiatives in the $2.5 billion commitment remain unchanged, despite the pandemic. They include $1 billion affordable housing investment fund with the state of California, $1 billion first-time homebuyer mortgage assistance fund, $300 million in Apple-owned land made available for affordable housing, a $150 million Bay Area housing fund, and $50 million to support Destination: Home’s efforts.

 

This Week in Apps: US ponders TikTok ban, apps see a record Q2, iOS 14 public beta arrives

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week, we’re digging into the news of a possible TikTok ban in the U.S. and how that’s already impacting rival apps. Also, both Android and iOS saw beta launches this week — a near-ready Android 11 beta 2 and the  public beta of iOS 14. We also look at the coronavirus’ impact on the app economy in Q2, which saw record downloads, usage and consumer spending. In other app news, Instagram launched Reels in India, Tinder debuted video chat and Quibi flounders while Pokémon GO continues to reel it in.

Headlines

Apple release iOS 14 public beta

Image Credits: Apple

The much-anticipated new version of the iOS mobile operating system, iOS 14, became available for public testing on Thursday. Users who join the public beta will be able to try out the latest features, like the App Library, Widgets and smart stacks, an updated Messages app, a brand-new Translate app, biking directions in Apple Maps, upgraded Siri and various improvements to core apps like Notes, Reminders, Weather, Home, Safari and others.

When iOS 14 launches to the general public, it may also include support for QR code payments in Apple Pay, according to a report of new assets discovered in the code base.

Alongside the public beta, developers received their second round of betas for iOS 14, iPadOS 14 and other Apple software.

Google’s efforts in speeding up Android updates has been good news for Android 10

TikTok likes and views are broken as community worries over potential US ban

TikTok likes and views are broken for some unknown portion of the video app’s user base this afternoon. The impacted users are seeing a “zero” like count on TikTok posts, including their own and those of other app users, as well as “zero” views. The company has acknowledged the issue and says it’s working on a fix, but declined to explain what was causing the problem.

The TikTok Support account responded to the problem at 2:43 PM ET, noting it was working quickly to fix things, and then posted again at 3:35 PM ET to say a fix was in progress.

The company said that users should soon see their app experience return to normal as the problem was resolved on the company’s end.

While typically a bug like this isn’t much cause for concern — online apps do break, on occasion — the problem with TikTok comes at a time when the app is under fire in the U.S. for its ties to China.

This week, reports emerged that the U.S. was considering banning TikTok and other Chinese-owned social media apps, according to statements made by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. TikTok has already been banned in India, along with 58 other Chinese apps, for similar reasons.

Today, The Wall Street Journal reported that executives at TikTok parent ByteDance are considering changing the corporate structure of TikTok’s business or even establishing a headquarters for the company outside of China, in order to further distance TikTok from China and the potential for the app being compromised by Chinese authorities. This is not the first time such discussions have taken place.  

In this context, the issues around Like counts were seen by some users today as a signal that a ban was imminent. But that’s not the case.

A few users theorized TikTok was making some sort of change to its algorithms, because their “For You” page seemed to no longer reflect their interests when Like counts returned. But this is impossible to confirm at this time.

The news of TikTok’s demise in the U.S., however, has concerned the TikTok community. As a result, they’ve already begun fleeing to rival apps like Byte, Dubsmash and Likee in the U.S. Byte, for example, jumped from No. 210 in Social Networking in the U.S. App Store on July 5 to No. 1 in Social and No. 1 Overall as of today, thanks to an exodus of primarily Gen Z TikTok users.

Apple expands its free coding courses and materials for educators

Apple today announced its plans for a new, free resource aimed at helping educators of all skill levels gain the ability to teach both Swift and Xcode — the latest in Apple’s educational initiatives focused on encouraging more students to learn app development. On July 13, Apple will begin offering free online training to educators that will serve as an introduction to its Develop in Swift curriculum.

This curriculum has also been completely redesigned to meet students learning styles, based on user feedback, says Apple.

The new series will now include four books, “Develop in Swift Explorations,” “Develop in Swift AP CS Principles,” and “Develop in Swift Fundamentals,” all of which are available today. A fifth book, “Develop in Swift Data Collections,” will become available later this fall. All are available in Apple Books.

The curriculum is geared towards high school and higher education students and focuses on the open-source programming language Swift, designed by Apple, and using Xcode on the Mac.

Image Credits: Apple

For younger learners, grades 4 through 8, Apple’s Everyone Can Code curriculum instead uses puzzles and games to teach the building blocks of coding in Swift through the Swift Playgrounds app. This course is now being expanded, as well.

For all the students who have already completed the “Everyone Can Code Puzzles” book, they can now move on to a new book, “Everyone Can Code Adventures.” This book includes more advanced activities where students can practice building with Swift while also learning about important programming concepts.

The company says its intention with the new and expanded courses is to supplement the need for computer science instructors in the U.S., where there is often a need.

Apple noted that The Computer Science Teachers Association claims that fewer than 50% of all American high schools offer computer science classes today and many college students aren’t able to get into the computer science courses needed to graduate, due to a teacher shortage.

In addition, the courses are also being offered to parents, many of whom are now making the transition to become homeschool teachers amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Also for parents of homeschoolers, Apple added a new set of remote learning resources for ages 10 and up, including “A Quick Start to Code” with 10 coding challenges on iPad or Mac. Plus, there are resources on Apple’s Learning from Home website, launched this spring. The site includes on-demand videos and virtual conferences on remote learning, and options to schedule free one-on-one virtual coaching sessions, hosted by educators at Apple.

The long-term impacts of Apple’s push for increased coding education still remain to be seen. “Everyone Can Code” was only launched in 2016, for example, and the “Develop in Swift” curriculum arrived just last year. Combined, the programs today reach 9,000 schools and higher education institutions worldwide.

The idea that “everyone” can and should learn to code is still somewhat controversial. While many may be able to learn coding fundamentals, not everyone will enjoy coding or excel at it. Plus, people often turn to coding for the wrong reasons or get duped by coding bootcamps into thinking that a few weeks of training will have them sailing into six-figure careers with ease.

On the other hand, exposing more kids to coding concepts may help to uncover the potential talent and interest in programming that would have otherwise been overlooked. And that interest can then be nurtured by future courses and education as the child grows.

“Apple has worked alongside educators for 40 years, and we’re especially proud to see how Develop in Swift and Everyone Can Code have been instrumental in helping teachers and students make an impact in their communities,” said Susan Prescott, Apple’s vice president of Markets, Apps, and Services, in a statement. “We’ve seen community college students build food security apps for their campus and watched middle school educators host virtual coding clubs over summer break. As part of our commitment to help expand access to computer science education, we are thrilled to be adding a new professional learning course to help more educators, regardless of their experience, have the opportunity to learn coding and teach the next generation of developers and designers,” she added.

Coronavirus impact sends app downloads, usage and consumer spending to record highs in Q2

As the world continued to cope with the impact of the coronavirus outbreak, the second quarter of 2020 became the largest yet for mobile app downloads, usage and consumer spending. According to new data from app store intelligence firm App Annie, mobile app usage grew 40% year-over-year in the second quarter of 2020, even hitting an all-time high of over 200 billion hours during April. Consumer spending in apps, meanwhile, hit a record high of $27 billion in the second quarter. And app downloads reached a high of nearly 35 billion.

The growth in app usage has been fueled by social distancing and lockdown measures, as countries around the world try to quell the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Image Credits: App Annie

In India, for example, time spent in apps grew 35% in Q2 2020 from Q4 2019. Italy and Indonesia saw growth of 30% and 25%, respectively. In the U.S., time spent in apps grew 15%.

App Annie says now the average user is spending 4 hours and 20 minutes per day on their smartphones.

Image Credits: App Annie

But consumers aren’t just launching apps they already have installed on their phones — they’re also downloading new ones. In the second quarter, consumers downloaded nearly 35 billion new apps, an all-time high.

Google Play accounted for 25 billion of those downloads, representing 10% year-over-year growth. India and Brazil were the the two largest markets for Google Play in the quarter.

Image Credits: App Annie

iOS downloads grew 20% year-over-year to reach nearly 10 billion. The U.S. and China were iOS’s biggest markets for downloads, but the U.S. and Saudi Arabia saw the most quarter-over-quarter growth. The latter was likely attributed to a nationwide lockdown and school closures, driving app downloads in the country to a all-time high in April and 100% year-over-year growth on iOS.

Games were downloaded at record levels in the quarter, App Annie noted, totaling 14 billion games. In the first week of Q2, weekly mobile game downloads broke records at over 1.2 billion, and weekly download levels remained at 1 billion on average throughout the quarter, up 20% year-over-year.

Image Credits: App Annie

Non-gaming apps represented over half (55%) of the new downloads on Android and 70% of those on iOS.

More specifically, top categories outside of games included “Tools” and “Entertainment” on Google Play and “Photo and Video” and “Entertainment” on iOS. But other categories saw strong growth, including “Business,” “Health & Fitness” and “Education,” which saw quarter-over-quarter growth in downloads of 115%, 75% and 50% respectively on Google Play.

On iOS, “Health and Fitness,” “Shopping” and “Medical” apps saw strong quarter-over-quarter growth of 30%, 25% and 20%, meanwhile.

With record downloads and usage, consumer spending also grew significantly as a result, particularly among streaming video services.

Image Credits: App Annie

In the second quarter, consumers spent a record $27 billion in apps, up 15% year-over-year to $17 billion on iOS and up 25% to $10 billion on Android.

Games accounted for $19 billion of the spend, up 15% quarter-over-quarter. Google Play saw sizable growth at 25% quarter-over-quarter, which was 2x the growth rate on iOS.

Image Credits: App Annie

Non-gaming apps were 35% of the spend on iOS. The U.S. and China the largest contributors in both games and non-game apps on iOS in the quarter. However, the U.S. notably took back the top position as the largest market for consumer games — a spot previously held by China — with 30% quarter-over-quarter growth in Q2.

Non-games were 15% of the spend on Google Play. The U.S., Japan, and South Korea were the largest markets in both non-games and games alike on Google Play.

Top Google Play categories in addition to “Games” included “Social” and “Entertainment.” Growth in the “Entertainment” category was driven largely by Disney+ and Twitch, App Annie noted.

On iOS, “Entertainment” and “Photo and Video” were the largest categories by consumer spend, in addition to “Games.” Here, TikTok drove growth for the “Photo and Video” category, becoming the No. 1 top-grossing app on iOS App Store globally in Q2 2020 thanks to sales of virtual gifts used to tip streamers.

Image Credits: App Annie

While much of the activity taking place on mobile devices during the pandemic is related to having fun — like watching videos or playing games, for example — several of the top apps in the quarter were work-related.

Zoom, for instance, became the No. 2 of most downloaded app globally in Q2 2020. Google Meet was No. 7.

TikTok, meanwhile, was the top app by downloads and spending, and the No. 7 by monthly active users. That will likely change in the months ahead, due to its ban in India. A proposed U.S. ban has also recently seen TikTok rivals gaining ground. Amid this disruption, local competitors in India have seen increased usage, and elsewhere, competitors like Byte and Likee have surged.

YouTube Kids app is now available on Amazon Fire TV

YouTube Kids, the family-friendly version of YouTube with built-in parental controls and a curated selection of kids content, is now available on Amazon’s Fire TV. The app’s arrival comes after Google and Amazon came to a mutually beneficial agreement that also allowed YouTube to launch on Fire TV last year and Amazon’s Prime Video to make its way to Chromecast and Android TV.

The agreement was meant to soon see the additions of other YouTube apps, including YouTube TV and YouTube Kids, on the Fire TV platform. But while YouTube TV arrived on Fire TV last September, YouTube Kids has seen a significant delay, considering it was promised to arrive sometime in 2019.

In any event, the YouTube Kids app is here now, offering parents a somewhat less risky version of YouTube’s service for younger children. Parents can create individual profiles for each child, customized to one of several age groupings, like preschool, younger and older — the latter meant for the tween crowd. However, the app’s content isn’t hand-selected. Instead, YouTube’s automated systems determine what’s considered age-appropriate. This can sometimes lead to mistakes, which parents can report using in-app tools.

For those who want a more customized and controlled experience, YouTube Kids also allows parents to handpick which channels the child can access.

Amazon says the YouTube Kids app will begin to roll out to Fire TV customers starting today, July 9, 2020.

For those not on Fire TV, YouTube Kids also recently launched on Apple TV earlier this spring. It’s not yet available on Roku.

In addition to news of the YouTube Kids launch, Amazon also today announced that Fire TV Cube owners in the U.S. and select markets will be able to watch over-the-air TV and use Alexa to tune to various channels. This will require customers to attach their own over-the-air tuner, which is configured in the Settings menu under “Equipment Control/Manage Equipment/Add Equipment” and then “Live TV.”

Once set up, customers can ask Alexa to change the channel using either its name or number.

These Fire TV updates follow yesterday’s news about Fire TV updating its Live TV experience to integrate top live TV streaming services, YouTube TV, Sling TV, and Hulu + Live TV.

 

Amazon US sellers will have to display their name and address starting Sept. 1, 2020

Amazon on Wednesday informed its U.S. sellers they will soon have to display their business name and address on their Amazon.com seller profile page. For individual sellers, this will include the individual’s name and address. A similar system is already in place across Amazon’s stores in Europe, Japan and Mexico, due to local laws. Amazon says it’s making the change to ensure there’s a more consistent baseline of seller information across its platform, so online shoppers can make informed buying decisions.

The change, of course, is not just about transparency.

Amazon’s U.S. marketplace is its oldest and largest, with 461,000 active U.S. sellers out of its 2.2 million worldwide actives. In total, there are 8.6 million registered sellers worldwide and Amazon adds around a million more per year, according to Marketplace Pulse data.

Amazon’s marketplace also accounts for around half the retailer’s sales. But as it has grown, it has been afflicted by a variety of issues and fraud, including problems with counterfeit goods.

Though Amazon has long been accused of avoiding these issues, it’s more recently pledged to spend billions to address the problem. Amazon even inserted itself into legal battles with fraudulent sellers and counterfeiters over the past couple of years, including those with designers and accessory makers, as well as others participating in the fake reviews economy.

Last year, Amazon also launched a set of tools for brands and manufacturers under its “Project Zero” initiative, which work to proactively combat counterfeiting.

And just this April, Amazon announced it was piloting a new system aimed at verifying the identity of third-party sellers over video-conferencing — a shift from its in-person verifications that had to stop due to the coronavirus outbreak. Through this system, Amazon checks that the individual seller’s ID matches the person and the documents they shared with their application, among other things.

Now Amazon is telling its U.S. sellers their business name and address will need to be on their profile by September 1, 2020.

The change will help businesses fighting fraud or taking legal action against sellers over counterfeit goods. Consumers will also have an address in case the product has caused harm and they need to contact the seller or even initiative legal action of their own.

Once the new system goes live in the U.S., the seller’s storefront on Amazon.com will display an expanded set of information about their business.

A photo from Marketplace Pulse shows how this may look, with a comparison of a U.K. seller page with its current U.S. counterpart:

Image Credits: Marketplace Pulse

In a statement, Amazon says the change is about consistently, avoiding the topic of online fraud.

“Over the years, we have developed many ways for sellers to share more about their business, including through features like the seller profile pages, ‘Store’ pages for brand owners, and Handmade ‘Maker Profile’ pages,” an Amazon spokesperson said. “These features help customers learn more about sellers’ businesses and their products. Beginning September 1, we will also display sellers’ business name and address on their Amazon.com seller profile page to ensure there is a consistent baseline of seller information to help customers make informed shopping decisions,” they said.

K4Connect, a startup bringing tech to senior living centers, closes its $21M Series B

K4Connect, a startup focused on bringing new technologies like voice assistance, home automation, digital messaging and more to older adults and those living with disabilities, has closed on $21 million in Series B funding. The B round had originally wrapped in October 2018, but was extended with the recent addition of $7.7 million led by Forte Ventures.

Others taking part in the round include existing investors Sierra Ventures, Intel Capital, AXA Venture Partners, the Ziegler Link•Age Fund, Revolution’s Rise of the Rest, Topmark Partners (formerly Stonehenge Growth Equity Partners) and Traverse. As a result of the new funding, Forte Ventures’ Louis Rajczi will join the startup’s board. To date, K4Connect has raised $31 million in venture funding.

Image Credits: K4Connect

Notably, the additional funds were raised amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has been disproportionately impacting older adults in care facilities, cutting off their communication from loved ones and disrupting their daily activities.

The K4Connect platform, which today serves over 800 continuing care, independent living and assisted living communities across the U.S., can help to address many of the challenges these communities are now facing.

The startup was co-founded in 2013 by Scott Moody, the entrepreneur whose biometrics company AuthenTec sold to Apple, where it became the basis for Touch ID.

Now K4Connect’s CEO, Moody had moved to Raleigh, N.C. to retire, but soon realized he still had energy left to start another company. Originally, the startup’s focus had been on bringing smart home technologies together through what’s now K4Connect’s patented operating system, FusionOS. But the team hadn’t initially narrowed in on a particular market.

That changed when Moody met a man, Eric, who was an advocate for the homeless and living with MS. He told the founder that when he wakes up the morning, he has the energy for about a thousand good steps during his day — and how he uses those steps defines the quality of his life. He said the smart home tech K4Connect was developing could help him make his life better.

Moody immediately pivoted the company to redirect its focus on serving those in similar situations, which didn’t just include individuals living with disabilities but also the broader senior market.

Image Credits: K4Connect

Today, the FusionOS-powered platform integrates a suite of solutions designed for residents in independent or assisted living facilities as well as other care facilities. This includes tools to stay connected to their families though voice and video messaging, as well as those for accessing a digital resident directory, playing games, and staying informed on the latest community news — ranging from COVID-19 updates to daily meal menus to updated visitation policies, or anything else the facility wants to broadcast.

For the facilities who purchase the software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution for their communities, there are other productivity tools they can use, like those for event management, resident surveys, resident and family management, communications, prospect communications, and more. Due the coronavirus outbreak, K4Connect is even developing an expanded video chat service that will allow residents to video call staff for their requests, instead of having staff enter their rooms.

 

Another key aspect to K4Connect’s solution is its smart home automation functionality.

The company provisions Alexa devices for residents, so they don’t have to configure devices themselves — they just plug them in. It also supports other home automation devices like smart thermostats, smart lights, motion sensors, sleep tracking devices, and more. 

This is all managed by way of the company’s “K4Community” solution powered by the underlying FusionOS technology. Residents can access this as an app their own smartphones, on preprovisioned tablets, or even through digital signage in the facility itself.

The SaaS solution is priced based on per-resident basis and the cost depends on which modules the facility wants to use in their own setup. This can range from a few dollars per month per resident to tens of dollars per month per resident, Moody says, and includes support.

Image Credits: K4Connect

As it turns out, K4Connect had a bit of a head start in terms of working on solutions more specifically designed to meet the needs of its communities amid the coronavirus outbreak, thanks to advice from its investors.

“Having investors like Intel and AXA did provide a wider perspective,” says Moody. “I figured, look, they’re really concerned. They’re seeing this issue from a wider geographic perspective than we are,” he explains.

Moody already knew that even the flu impacted older adults more than the general population. Due to K4Connect’s market of seniors, he multiplied what investors were saying could be the impact of coronavirus by a much larger factor.

“We kind of saw it coming,” Moody admits. “Many people were not completely bought in yet at the end of February. But just at the start of March, we launched something called ‘Project COVID 911.’ I just thought it was going to have a significant impact on the economy, but more importantly, the people we serve. And we had to be in a position to react and support,” he adds.

“If I was wrong, then we were going to be more prepared. And if I was right, then we would be in a situation where we can actually help serve people,” says Moody.

K4Connect adjusted its roadmap to focus on specific areas, like communications, content delivery, and pre-provisioning the Alexa Dot speakers, in order to limit time spent installing in residents’ rooms, among other things. Today, its solution offers features like resident-to-resident video chat for those now stuck in their rooms, tools for booking time slots in the dining area for facilities limiting large groups, access to live streamed content — like those yoga classes you can’t attend in person — and more.

With the added funding, K4Connect, now a team of 57 full-time, plans to further expand into the senior market, including not only those in facilities and senior communities, but also those living in affordable housing on their own. The team is actively developing solutions for this market segment, Moody says.

We are incredibly fortunate in our investor relationships in that they not only believe in our vision but equally value our mission,” Moody said, in a statement about the new funding. “Forte Ventures is a prime example of that relationship and we’re proud to welcome them to the bench of our valued investors. With their support, and all of our investors, we’re continuing to accelerate to serve as many older adults through technology as possible.”