About.me acquired by mobile-first small business startup Broadly

Personal homepage startup About.me has been acquired. Again! The company, once bought by Aol for a reported $35 million, decided a couple years after the deal to go it alone, and spun About.me back out to become an independent company. Today, About.me announced it’s being acquired by the Oakland-based startup Broadly.

About.me founder and True Ventures partner Tony Conrad called the deal “definitely a meeting of the minds,” as About.me has been more recently focused on helping people and companies showcase their professional talents and skills, while Broadly creates tools that help small businesses stay connected to their customers.

Today Broadly offers web chat, text, email, online review collection, and team messaging – all in its own mobile app.

However, it’s biggest draw is its online review platform that makes it easier for happy customers to quickly leave the business a positive review on any review site, including Google, Facebook, TripAdvisor, and others.

Last September, Broadly raised $10 million in Series B funding co-led by original investor Foundry Group and new partner Calibrate Ventures. The funding was allocated towards further product development and hiring – both things which an About.me acquisition can now help to speed up. The company also last year launched its small business-focused web chat feature in its app, and snagged the #107 spot on the 2018 Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing private companies in the U.S., which cited its 2017 revenue as $4.7 million.

Terms of the About.me deal were not disclosed, but it is an all-stock acquisition we understand and one Conrad feels positive about.

In addition, the majority of About.me’s team is joining Broadly as a result of the acquisition which will bring Broadly’s total team to over 75. This includes About.me’s CEO Mindy Lauck, whose background includes time at Adobe Systems, NBC-Universal, and E*Trade Financial. She becomes Broadly’s Vice President of Product following the deal’s closure.

Conrad said he wanted to find About.me a new home with a company that was a good fit.

“It was important to the About.me leadership team to join forces with a company that had a strong go-to-market strategy and a similar level of passion for serving small business owners, who are an integral part of
keeping our economy strong and vibrant,” said Conrad. “We found that in Broadly and see the very real potential for powerful future growth as a result of this alignment,” he added.

At Broadly, Lauck will be focused on expanding the company’s existing product suite to support the full range of the small business owners’ needs – that will include About.me’s technology. The plan is to offer the About.me pages to Broadly’s small business user base going forward.

“The About.me product is another frictionless mechanism for helping small businesses promote themselves and start capturing leads, which aligns well with our mission and brand,” said Josh Melick, CEO and Co-founder of Broadly, in a statement. “More personally, we’re thrilled to welcome the About.me team to the Broadly family – we’re even stronger together,” he added.

HiHello raises $2.5 million to finally fix contact management

HiHello, the latest startup to take aim at business cards with its own digital alternative, has now raised a $2.5 million seed round to continue its efforts in building a better contact management solution designed for the mobile era. The new financing was led by August Capital, K9 Ventures and TenOneTen Ventures, and will see Villi Iltchev from August Capital joining the HiHello board as a result.

The now six-month-old startup was dreamed up by K9 Ventures founder Manu Kumar, along with co-founder and Caltech and Columbia alum Hari Ravi. Notably, Kumar has been trying to solve the problem of contact management for years, having co-founded and sold his startup CardMunch to LinkedIn — a decision he later regretted, saying last year he was “still peeved” at LinkedIn for ruining and eventually killing the product. (LinkedIn later pawned off its ashes to Evernote.)

With HiHello, Kumar is giving contact management and business networking another shot. Version 1 of the app offered a simple solution that lets users exchange contact information by way of scanning a QR code with their phone’s native camera app, or by sharing information using SMS or email. The mobile app lets you create custom profiles in order to share with another person either your work contact information, personal details or any other custom profiles you want.

As HiHello enters its next phase, the company aims to pick up some of the better ideas from past apps in this space — like Plaxo, Bump and even CardMunch — while also overcoming their limitations.

For example, Bump had once required that both people have the app installed in order to work. HiHello today already works if only one person has the app. But it will roll out a more elegant solution for when two HiHello users are present. A “Nearby” screen in the app will allow people to share contact information with one another based on a dual opt-in system.

From Plaxo, HiHello will adopt the idea of automatically updating contact information for everyone who has the user in their address book when information is changed.

The startup is taking a different approach to privacy than Plaxo did, saying it won’t spam or sell user data, nor will it ask permission to access your contacts. Instead, HiHello will act as an address book provider whose database of contacts you can add to your device. This keeps it isolated and separate from other address sources, and ensures it won’t “mess up” your own contacts in the process.

Some of the forthcoming features will be paid features, but the company will continue to offer a free tier as well.

Kumar says he doesn’t want to make the same mistake he did with CardMunch. Instead, he wants the company to be sustainable, “so that we never have to sell HiHello to an acquirer who will then proceed to ruin the service and kill it.”

Yep, that LinkedIn deal still stings, it seems… Hopefully HiHello will meet a better fate.

Google Assistant Actions up 2.5x in 2018 to reach 4,253 in the U.S.

In addition to competing for smart speaker market share, Google and Amazon are also competing for developer mindshare in the voice app ecosystem. On this front, Amazon has soared ahead – the number of available voice skills for Alexa devices have grown to top 80,000 the company recently announced. According to a new third-party analysis from Voicebot, Google is trailing that by a wide margin with its own voice apps, called Google Assistant Actions, which total 4,253 in the U.S. as of January 2019.

For comparison, 56,750 of Amazon Alexa’s total 80,000 skills are offered in the U.S.

The report notes that the number of Google Assistant Actions have grown 2.5 times over the past year – which is slightly faster growth than seen on Amazon Alexa, whose skill count grew 2.2 times during the same period. But the total is a much smaller number, so growth percentages may not be as relevant here.

In January 2018, there were 1,719 total Google Assistant Actions in the U.S., the report said. In 2017, the number was in the low hundreds in the beginning of the year, and reached 724 by October 2017.

Voicebot also examined which categories of voice apps were popular on Google Assistant platforms.

It found that three of the eighteen categories accounted for over one-third of all Google Assistant Actions: Education & Reference; Games & Fun; and Kids & Family.

The Education category topped the list with over 15 percent of all Actions, while Games & Fun was 11.07 percent and Kids & Family was 9.29 percent.

Local and Weather were the least popular.

On Alexa, the top categories differ slightly. Though Games & Fun is popular on Google, its Alexa equivalent – Games & Trivia – is the No. 1 most popular category, accounting for 21 percent of all skills. Education was second most popular at around 14 percent.

It’s interesting that these two top drivers for voice apps are reversed on the two platforms.

That could indicate that Alexa is seen to be the more “fun” platform, or one that’s more oriented towards use by families and gaming. Amazon certainly became aware of the trend towards voice gaming, and fanned the flames by making games the first category it paid developers to work on, by way of direct payments. That likely encouraged more developers to enter the space, and subsequently helped boost the number of games – and types of gaming experiences – available for Alexa.

Voicebot’s report rightly raises the question as to whether or not the raw skill count even matters, though.

After all, many of the Alexa skills offered today are of low quality, or more experimental attempts from developers testing out the platform. Others are just fairly basic – the voice app equivalent of third-party flashlight apps for iPhone before Apple built that feature into iOS. For example, there now are handful of skills that turn on the light on Echo speakers so you can have a nightlight by way of the speaker’s blue ring.

But even if these early efforts sometimes fall short, it does matter that Alexa is the platform developers are thinking about, as it’s an indication of platform commitment and an investment on developers’ part. Google, on the other hand, is powering a lot of its Assistant’s capabilities itself, leaning heavily on its Knowledge Base to answer users’ questions, while also leveraging its ability to integrate with Google’s larger suite of apps and services, as well as its other platforms, like Android.

In time, Google Assistant may challenge Alexa further by capitalizing on geographic expansions, but for the time being, Alexa is ahead on smart speakers as well as, it now seems, on content.

 

Amazon aims to make half of its shipments carbon neutral by 2030

Perhaps hoping to distract from Greenpeace’s latest report on its “dirty cloud, Amazon this morning announced a new environmental commitment, focused on reducing its carbon footprint. The company says it aims to reach 50 percent of all Amazon shipments with net zero carbon by 2030.

The company is calling this program “Shipment Zero.” Details on this long-term project weren’t yet available, but Amazon says it plans to share its company-wide carbon footprint “along with related goals and programs,” at a later date. That seems to indicate Amazon will offer an update on the progress of its other sustainability goals, as well.

It’s important for Amazon to be transparent on these plans, as the size of its business means its impact to the environment, energy consumption, and ultimately climate change, is significant.

The company today runs programs including Frustration Free Packaging and Ship in Own Container, and has a network of solar and wind farms, solar on its fulfillment center rooftopsinvestments in the circular economy, the company noted in the announcement. It said it employs over 200 scientists, engineers, and product designers who are dedicated to developing new ways to leverage Amazon’s scale for the “good of the customers and the planet.”

For example, Amazon has been able to pressure suppliers to reduce their environmental impact, with the frustration-free packaging and ship in own container programs.

But Amazon doesn’t have the cleanest environmental record, according to Greenpeace.

The organization dinged the internet giant only days ago for failing to deliver on its commitment to shifting to renewable energy. Its new report said Amazon’s data centers in Virginia are powered by only 12 percent renewable energy, compared with Facebook’s 37 percent and Microsoft’s 34 percent.

In between the lines of this morning’s news, Amazon briefly addressed the Greenpeace report.

“Amazon has a long-term goal to power our global infrastructure using 100 percent renewable energy, and we are making solid progress,” its corporate blog post read.

Amazon did, however, offer a longer statement to Windpower Engineering shortly after the report’s publication, claiming Greenpeace’s data was inaccurate. In particular, it pointed out that the report had failed to highlight AWS and Amazon’s investment in solar projects in Virginia.

Amazon says it will offer more details on Shipment Zero and its other programs later this year.

 

 

 

SeaBubbles shows off its ‘flying’ all-electric boat in Miami

We were promised flying cars but, as it turns out, flying boats were easier to build.

SeaBubbles, a “flying” boat startup that uses electric power instead of gas, hit Miami this weekend to show off one of its five prototype boats — or six, if you count an early, windowless white boat they’ve lovingly dubbed the “soapdish.” This innovative boat design combines technology from nautical industries, aviation, and intelligent software to raise the hull of the boat out of the water using foils, which helps it to consume less energy by allowing it to travel on rougher waters with reduced drag, while also keeping the passenger cabin relatively comfortable.

When raised, the boat is “flying” above the water, so to speak.

Founded only three years ago in Paris, the idea for SeaBubbles was dreamed up by Alain Thébault, a sailor who previously designed and piloted the Hydroptère, an experimental hydrofoil trimaran, using a similar system that lifts the boat up in order to reduce drag. That boat went on to break the world record for sailing speed twice, at 50.17 knots. Meanwhile, SeaBubbles co-founder, Anders Bringdal, is a four-times windsurf world champion, who also set a windsurfing world record, at 51.45 knots.

Together, the two have envisioned SeaBubbles as a way for cities to reduce traffic congestion and help the environment by taking advantage of the area’s waterways to move people around in fast water taxis.

“The cities today have one thing in common: pollution and congestion,” explains Bringdal. “Every city has waterways — ones that are fairly unused. Think about having a giant freeway that goes straight down the center of the city, and no one uses it… why is that?,” Bringdal continues.

“You could do this with a normal boat,” he admits. “But with a normal boat with a normal combustion engine, the fuel price you’re paying is between $70 and $130 per hour. With us, it’s $2 dollars,” he says.

The cost savings come from an all-electric design, which means the boat charges at a power station — preferably one that’s solar charged, of course, instead of guzzling gas.

The company has experimented with all sorts of designs and models before settling on its first-to-market SeaBubbles water taxi: a smaller, 4.5-meter version that seats four in addition to the pilot. However, the technology itself is scalable to larger boats or even ferries.

According to SeaBubbles’ U.S. partner, Daniel Berrebi, whose company Baja Ferries has made a “small” investment in SeaBubbles, even larger boats like his could eventually benefit from the technology.

Beyond his obvious business interest on that front, Berrebi is also working with SeaBubbles to help the company make its first U.S. sales. He says he’s sold four boats to private individuals in the area — yes, sold as in “checks in hand, and signed on the dotted line.” These buyers don’t want to be named, but may include well-known names in music and sports. (Of course one has to wonder how much anonymity they will really have when tooling about Miami waterways in one of only a handful of these flying boats currently in existence?)

SeaBubbles has been able to come to market with its technology so soon because it’s not building everything in-house.

The boats’ engines are from Torqeedo, for example, while the fly-by-wire software to control the boat comes from foiling and flight control systems engineer Ricardo Bencatel’s company, 4DC Tech. His software solution also powered America’s Cup teams’ boats, like those from Artemis Racing and Oracle. But the version running on SeaBubbles has customized components to control the boat’s unique features.

“The [SeaBubbles] boat has three main sensors — it has two high altitude sensors to measure the height of the water, then it has a gyroscope — like the one in cell phones,” explains Bencatel.

“The computer combines those measurements from the sensors, then it knows the angles of the boat, the height and the speed,” he says. The software then uses this information to control the flaps on the boat to make adjustments. “For example, the lift — if you want to go higher,” Bencatel says. “Or if it’s rolling to one of the sides, it uses the flaps to turn it to the other side. Or if it’s pitching — bow down or bow up — it uses the front or the rear flaps,” he adds.

And all of these adjusts are being made automatically, by way of software, meaning the boat operator only really has to turn the wheel and drive. They don’t have to think about when to raise or lower the boat — it just happens when the boat reaches a certain speed. Under six knots, the boat is experiencing 100 percent drag, while above eight knots, the boat is ‘flying’ and the drag is reduced to 60 percent. This makes the ride less bumpy, too.

The lithium-ion batteries used by SeaBubbles are IP67 waterproof, and, over time, the boat could make up for its high sticker price — $200,000 at its suggested retail price — with savings on gasoline and reduced maintenance costs.

The prototype version of the SeaBubbles boat has only 1.5 hours autonomy and a five hour battery recharge to show off the technology. But the company claims the versions going into production have 2.5 hours autonomy and a 35 minute recharge. These are the ones they expect to ship this summer to the first purchasers.

In addition to Miami, SeaBubbles also has customers in Russia — a luxury hotel in Moscow and a deal in St. Petersburg — as well as in Rotterdam and Amsterdam. It plans to start building boats for these markets, and hopes to reach Paris by this summer or the next. In Paris, the prototype boats run slower — takeoff speed is six knots, and cruising speed tops out at 15 knots. The production version is faster due to bigger engines, with an average cruising speed of 16 knots and a top speed of 20 knots.

The company is in Miami this week to show off its boat to more buyers, and take meeting with local officials.

Bringdal admits that some of the company’s earlier statements may have been overly ambitious — like having boats in 50 cities by 2024. ”I think, in reality, it’s step by step,” he says  “We’re very happy to be seeing something here in the U.S.”

SeaBubbles, which has seven staff full-time and 25 people including contractors, has raised $14 million to date from investors including the founder of drone maker Parrot, Henri Seydoux; Partech Ventures; the French government-backed BPI fund; MAIF, a French insurance group; as well as friends, family and other angels.

The company is preparing to raise a Series A.

(Photo credits: Alain Thébault and Sarah Perez)

Walmart tech incubator Store No. 8 launches VR startup Spatial&

Walmart’s tech incubator Store N°8 today launched its next startup, a VR merchandising company called Spatial&. The company offers VR experiences that enable customers to connect with merchandise, and is kicking things off by collaborating with DreamWorks Animation VR tour. At select Walmart locations across the U.S., Spatial& will set up a VR experience in the parking lot, allowing customers to visit DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” through VR. Afterwards, customers are directed to a branded, physical gift shop where they can make purchases.

The experience is meant to help DreamWorks market their film ahead of its February 22 release, while Walmart gets to hawk film merchandise to its customers.

It’s not all that different from the “exit through the gift shop” concept found at theme parks.

Upon entering the experience, customers are greeted by the film’s characters Ruffnut and Tuffnut, and are then led into a “dragon’s cave” where they’ll put on VR headsets and get seated in Positron motion VR chairs powered by the HP VR backpack.

The VR story they engage with will take them on a five-minute journey into the movie’s world, where they interact with other characters, including  Astrid, Hiccup, Toothless, Hookfang and more. During this experience, participants will have a multi-sensory encounter, thanks to hand tracking and 6DOF (6 degrees of freedom) in the Voyager VR motion chair.

When the experience wraps, customers are guided into a themed gift shop where they can buy merchandise like plush toys, action figures, DVDs, video games, and more.

Some merchandise from this collection will also be sold across 2,000 Walmart stores – not only those with the VR experience.

On the technology side, Spatial& and DreamWorks leveraged servers and workstations with Intel Xeon Scalable processors to stitch together high-res images and 360-degree VR videos. For the experience itself, the startup uses HP Windows Mixed Reality headsets, Omen by HP Mindframe Headsets, and PCs with Intel Core processors. Outside, parents can follow along with what their children are viewing via Intel-powered Omen by HP Gaming Laptops.

“We have set an extremely high bar for quality and innovation for the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, and our partners at Spatial& exceeded our expectations with their incredible work on this project,” said Abhijay Prakash, chief operating officer of DreamWorks Feature Animation, in a statement about the launch.“This latest Dragon film displays DreamWorks’ best in class creative abilities combined with state of the art advances in animation technology, and we are thrilled that this experience created by Spatial& lives up to that reputation while allowing fans to journey straight to the center of this unique world we’ve created for the film. It’s a truly exhilarating experience,” Prakash added.

Walmart says the experience will go live at 16 stores in the U.S., starting this weekend and continuing through early April.

Those locations include the following:

  • Burbank, California (1301 N Victory Place) – February 15-16
  • Pico Rivera, California (8500 Washington Boulevard) – February 17-19
  • Anaheim, California (440 Euclid Street) – February 22-23
  • San Bernardino, California (4001 Hallmark Parkway) – February 24-26
  • Las Vegas, Nevada (5200 S Fort Apache Road) – March 1-2
  • North Las Vegas, Nevada (6464 N Decatur Boulevard) – March 3-5
  • Glendale, Arizona (5010 N 95th Avenue) – March 8-9
  • Gilbert, Arizona (2501 S Market Street) – March 10-12
  • San Antonio, Texas (8923 W Military Drive) – March 15-16
  • New Braunfels, Texas (1209 S Interstate 35) – March 17-19
  • Grand Prairie, Texas (2225 I-20) – March 22-23
  • Allen, Texas (730 W Exchange Parkway) – March 24-26
  • Sugar Land, Texas (345 Highway 6) – March 29-30
  • Katy, Texas (1313 N Fry Road) – March 31-April 2
  • Rogers, Arkansas (4208 S Pleasant Crossing Boulevard) – April 5-6
  • Bentonville, Arkansas (406 S Walton Boulevard) – April 7-9

Spatial& is one of several tech startups being incubated by Walmart’s Store No. 8, which launched in 2017 to focus on retail innovation. Other businesses being incubated there include conversational commerce startup Jetblack, from Rent the Runway co-founder Jenny Fleiss; stealth startup Franklin from Wim Yogurt founder Bart Stein; and AI lab Project Kepler.

Happy Valentine’s Day: your dating app account was hacked, says Coffee Meets Bagel

Good news for love-seekers this Valentine’s Day. In a bit of odd timing, users of the dating app Coffee Meets Bagel woke up this morning to find an email in their inboxes warning that their account information had been stolen by a third-party who gained unauthorized access to the company’s systems.

The email keeps most details about the situation vague, saying only that some data from users’ accounts “may” have been acquired by a third-party who gained access to a partial list of user details. It doesn’t say how that breach occurred, or how many users were affected.

This breach was discovered as part of a larger data dump of some 617 million account details, which recently went up for sale on the dark web. According to the seller, the stolen account databases came from a number of sites, including also Dubsmash, MyFitnessPal, MyHeritage, Whitepages, Animoto, HauteLook, 500px, and several others.

The Coffee Meets Bagel breach reportedly included 673MB of data taken in late 2017 and mid-2018. Earlier reports indicated that it could include a name, email, age, registration data and gender.

According to the Coffee Meets Bagel email to users sent out overnight, however, the affected information only included names and emails prior to May 2018.

The company also reminded users that it never stores any financial information or passwords, which means the impact of this particular breach is relatively minor. (In fact the most newsworthy thing about it could be why the company chose to disclose the breach today of all days!)

Coffee Meets Bagel says it’s now taking several steps to better protect its community going forward, including the hiring of forensic security experts to audit its systems and infrastructure, and its vendor and external systems. In addition, the company notes it’s still monitoring for suspicious activity and engaged with law enforcement about the incident. And it’s working to enhance its systems to better detect and prevent unauthorized access in the future.

Users were reminded to be extra precautious about any unsolicited communications that ask for personal data or direct you to a web page where personal data is collected. But the user passwords were not being proactively reset, according to this notice.

Coffee Meets Bagel isn’t the only dating app under attack as of late. This week, TechCrunch’s Zack Whittaker reported that many users were complaining their OKCupid accounts had been hacked, as well.

However, OKCupid denied a security breach had taken place. That means those account takeovers could be the result of hackers using login information they discovered by way of some other breach – that is, users had re-used the same email/password combination when signing up for OKCupid as had been leaked through another attack on another site.

We’ve asked Coffee Meets Bagel if it would disclose how many accounts were impacted and other details, and will update if the company responds or comments.

The full email from Coffee Meets Bagel is below:

Hello,

We recently discovered that some data from your Coffee Meets Bagel account may have been acquired by an unauthorized party. We would like to make sure you have the facts about what happened, what information was involved, and the steps we are taking to help protect you.

What happened?
On February 11, 2019, we learned that an unauthorized party gained access to a partial list of user details. Once we became aware, we quickly took steps to determine the nature and scope of the problem.

What information was involved?
The affected information only includes your name and email address prior to May 2018. As a reminder, we never store any financial information or passwords.

What are we doing
We have taken steps to protect our community, including the following:

• We have engaged forensic security experts to conduct a review of our systems and infrastructure.
• Vendor and external systems are being audited and reviewed to ensure there are no compliance issues or third party breaches.
• We continue to monitor for suspicious activity and we are coordinating with law enforcement authorities regarding this incident.
• We continue to make enhancements to our systems to detect and prevent unauthorized access to user information.

What you can do
As always, we recommend you take extra caution against any unsolicited communications that ask you for personal data or refer you to a web page asking for personal data. We also recommend avoiding clicking on links or downloading attachments from suspicious emails.

The security of your information is important to us, and we apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you. As always, if you have any questions or need any additional information, please do not hesitate to contact us at [email protected]

 

Wattpad’s latest deal will turn its stories into TV shows and movies in Korea

Wattpad’s ambitions to grow beyond a storytelling community for young adults took another leap forward today with the announcement of a new partnership that will help expand its reach in Asia. The company has teamed up with Huayi Brothers in Korea, who will now be Wattpad’s exclusive entertainment partner in the region. The two companies will co-produce content sourced from Wattpad’s community, as it’s adapted for film, TV and other digital media projects in the country.

Development deals like this are not new to Wattpad at this point.

In the U.S., the storytelling app made headlines for bringing the teen hit “The Kissing Booth” to Netflix, which shot up to become the No. 4 movie on IMDb for a time.

Wattpad also recently announced a 2nd season for “Light as a Feather,” which it produces with AwesomenessTV and Grammnet for Hulu.

It additionally works with eOne, Sony, SYFY, Universal Cable Productions (a division of NBCUniversal), and Germany’s Bavaria Fiction.

Outside the U.S., Wattpad has 26 films in development with iflix in Indonesia.

And WattPad’s feature film “After,” based on Anna Todd’s novel, will arrive in theaters on April 12.

Key to these deals is Wattpad’s ability to source the best content from the 565 million some stories on its platform. Do to so, it uses something it calls its “Story DNA Machine Learning technology,” which helps to deconstruct stories by analyzing things like sentence structure, word use, grammar and more in order to help identify the next big hits using more than just readership numbers alone.

The stories it identifies as promising are then sent over to content specialists (aka human editors) for further review.

This same combination of tech and human curation has been used in the past to help source its writing award winners and is now being used to find the next stories to be turned into novels for its new U.S. publishing arm, Wattpad Books.

In addition to its hit-finding technology, studios working with Wattpad also have a way to reach younger users who today are often out of touch with traditional media, as much of youth culture has shifted online.

These days, teens and young adults are more likely to know YouTube stars than Hollywood actors. They’re consuming content online in communities like Reddit, TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and elsewhere. And when it comes to reading, they’re doing more of that online, too – whether that’s through chat fiction apps like Hooked or by reading Wattpad’s longer stories.

Wattpad says it now has 70 million uses worldwide, who now spend 22 billion combined minutes per month engaged with its website and app.

With the Korean deal, Wattpad is further growing its international footprint after several other moves focused on its international expansions.

For example, today’s news follows Wattpad’s raise of $51 million in funding from Tencent; its appointment of its first Head of Asia for Wattpad Studios, Dexter Ong, last year; and its hiring of its first GM of India, Devashish Sharma, who is working with local partners to turn its stories into movies, TV, digital and print in the region.

Huayi Brothers Korea hasn’t announced any specific projects from the Wattpad deal at this point, but those will follow.

“Wattpad’s model is the future of entertainment, using technology to find great storytellers and bring them to an international audience,” said, Jay Ji, CEO, Huayi Brothers Korea, in a statement. “In an era of entertainment abundance, working with Wattpad means access to the most important things in the industry: a data-backed approach to development, and powerful, proven stories that audiences have already fall in love with,” he said.

Report: Voice assistants in use to triple to 8 billion by 2023

The use of voice assistants is set to triple over the next few years, according to a new forecast from the U.K.-based analysts at Juniper Research. The firm estimates there will be 8 billion digital voice assistants in use by 2023, up from the 2.5 billion assistants in use at the end of 2018.

The majority of those assistants will live on smartphones, where Google Assistant and Siri offer voice assistants to Android and iOS users, respectively.

In fact, Google already announced its voice assistant would be enabled on a billion devices as of last month, thanks to its integration with Android. Meanwhile, Amazon’s Alexa – which still primarily lives on smart speakers like Echo – has reached over 100 million devices.

Juniper, however, predicts that the fastest growing category for voice over the next several years will not be smart speakers. It will be smart TVs.

The firm expects the smart TV voice assistant category to grow by 121.3 percent (CAGR) over the next five years, while smart speakers will grow by 41.3 percent. Wearables will also play a significant role, with 40.2 percent growth, the study founds.

Alexa is already the market leader on smart speakers, but in the years ahead it will be challenged by Chinese companies rolling out their own smart devices, the report says.

Also of note, the report challenges the belief that smart speakers aren’t being used for commerce. Instead, it says that voice commerce will grow substantially to reach over $80 billion per year, by 2023. However, there’s a twist to its findings.

Its “voice commerce” figure includes money transfer and purchases of digital goods alongside voice commerce’s use for more traditional purchases. And it doesn’t expect physical purchases to account for the bigger chunk of that $80 billion.

“We expect the majority of voice commerce to be digital purchases, until digital assistants offer truly seamless cross-platform experiences” said research author James Moar, in a statement about the new study. “Connected TVs and smart displays are vital here, as they can provide a visual context that is lacking in smart speakers.”

It’s worth noting, too, that Juniper believes the rise of digital assistants will negatively affect the global mobile app market. Specifically, it says that as consumer demand for multi-platform assistants increase, standalone apps for smartphones and tablets made by independent developers will decline. This will come about because many of the simpler interactions we use apps for today will become outsourced to voice assistants. And this, in turn, will also reduce our screen time.

In addition, there are early indications that smart speakers are becoming a part of users’ daily routines, in ways that voice assistants on other platforms are not. This will lead to increased demand for voice-only interactions in the future, the firm says.

‘Amazon Live’ is the retailer’s latest effort to take on QVC with live-streamed video

Amazon is taking on QVC with the launch of Amazon Live, which features live-streamed video shows from Amazon talent as well as those from brands that broadcast their own live streams through a new app, Amazon Live Creator. On the live shows, hosts talk about and demonstrate products available for sale on Amazon, much like they do on QVC. Beneath that sits a carousel where shoppers can browse product details and make purchases.

More than one video streams on Amazon Live at the same time, so shoppers can tune to the one that most interests them.

For example, Amazon Live is currently streaming a Valentine’s Day Gift Shop show, a cooking-focused show (In the Kitchen with @EdenEats) and Back to Business Live, which is showing off products aimed at daycare centers and schools.

You can tap on the different videos to change streams, scroll down to watch recordings of those videos that were recently live or view which live shows are coming up next.

On the web, the live-streaming site is available at Amazon.com/Live, but it’s not listed yet in Amazon’s main navigation menus so it remains hard to find. On mobile, there’s now a section labeled “Amazon Live” that’s appearing on both the iOS and Android app’s main navigation menu as of a recent app update.

We’ve confirmed the page Amazon.com/Live is newly added, though this is not the first time Amazon has offered live streams.

The retailer has dabbled in live streaming in the past, with mixed results.

Two years ago, it pulled the plug on its short-lived effort, Style Code Live, which also offered a QVC-like home shopping experience. The live show featured hosts with TV and broadcast backgrounds, and brought in experts to talk about beauty and style tips.

But Style Code Live focused only on fashion and beauty.

Amazon Live, on the other hand, covers all sorts of products, ranging from smart home to games to toys to kitchen items to home goods to electronics to kitchen items and much more. It’s also positioned differently. Instead of being a single live video show featuring only Amazon talent and guests, live streaming is something Amazon is opening up to brands that want to reach a wider audience and get their products discovered.

Above: Amazon Live hosts – according to LinkedIn, they are not Amazon employees

You may have seen some of these live-streamed videos from brands in the past.

On Prime Day 2017 and again in 2018, Amazon aired live video streams promoting some of the Prime Day deals. These videos were produced by the brands, very much like some you’ll now find on Amazon Live.

The company has also aired live-streamed content on its Today’s Deals page, and has allowed brands to stream to their product pages, their Store and on Amazon.com/Live before today.

Amazon now aims to make it easier for brands to participate on Amazon Live, too.

On a website detailing Amazon Live, Amazon touts how live-streaming video can drive sales, allow a brand to interact with their customers in real time — including through chat during the live stream — and reach more shoppers. One early tester, card game maker “Watch Ya’ Mouth,” is quoted saying that live streaming had helped to increase daily visits to its product detail page by 5x and “significantly grew our sales.”

The informational site also points brands to Amazon’s new app for live streaming, Amazon Live Creator.

Available only on iOS, the app allows a brand to stream its video content directly to Amazon.com on desktop, mobile and within the Amazon mobile app. The app supports streaming directly from the smartphone itself or through an encoder using a professional camera.

It also includes built-in analytics so brands can determine how well their stream performed, including things like how much of their budget they’ve spent on “boosting” (a way to pay to reach more shoppers), total views, unmuted views and other metrics.

According to data from Sensor Tower, Amazon Live Creator was released yesterday, on February 7, 2019, and is currently unranked on the App Store. It has no reviews, but has a five-star rating.

Currently, the live-streaming feature is open to U.S. Professional Sellers registered in the Amazon Brand Registry, Amazon’s website says, and live streaming from China and Hong Kong is not supported.

 

Amazon has been interested in live streaming for some time. The company patented its idea around live video shopping last year and was spotted hiring for its Amazon Live efforts before that.

However, Amazon had claimed at the time that its live-stream shopping experiences were “not new.”

That’s true, given that live streams that would sometimes appear around big sales, like Prime Day, for instance. But Amazon has promoted its live video directly to online shoppers since Style Code Live.

This week’s launch of the Amazon Live app for brands and Amazon’s move to create a dedicated link to the Amazon Live streams on its mobile app indicates that live video is becoming a much bigger effort for the retailer, despite its attempt to shoo this away as “old news.”

This increased focus on live video also comes at a time when Instagram is being rumored to be working on a standalone shopping app, and is heavily pushing its creator-focused IGTV product into users’ home feeds. QVC itself just announced its new identity, plans to venture deeper into e-commerce, and shoppable video app. And, of course, YouTube has capitalized on how both live and pre-recorded video demos from brands and influencers can help to sell products like makeup, electronics, toys and more.

Amazon formally declined to comment.