Alumni Ventures Group is the most active venture fund you’ve never heard of

Alumni Ventures Group’s (AVG) limited partners aren’t endowment or pension funds. Its typical LP is a heart surgeon in Des Moines, Iowa.

The firm has both an unorthodox model of fundraising and dealmaking. Across 25 micro funds, AVG is raising and investing upwards of $200 million per year for and in tech startups.

Tucked away in Boston, far from the limelight of Silicon Valley, few seem to be paying attention to AVG. There are a few reasons why, and those seem to be working to the firm’s advantage.

Today, AVG is announcing a close of roughly $30 million for three additional funds: Green D Ventures, Chestnut Street Ventures and Purple Arch Ventures, which represent capital committed by Dartmouth, the University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern alums, respectively.

“People don’t really know what to make of us”

AVG walks and talks like a venture fund, but a peek under the hood reveals its unconventional fundraising mechanisms.

Rather than collecting $5 million minimum investments from institutional LPs, AVG takes $50,000 directly from individual alums of prestigious universities. The firm pools the capital and creates university-specific venture funds for graduates of Duke, Stanford, Harvard, MIT and several other colleges. 

“People don’t really know what to make of us because we’re so different,” said Michael Collins, AVG’s founder and chief executive officer.

Collins started AVG to make venture capital more accessible to individual people. He’s been a VC since 1986, formerly of TA Associates, and had grown tired of the hubris that runs rampant in the industry. In 2014, he started a $1.5 million fund for alums of his alma mater, Dartmouth. Since then, AVG has grown into 25 funds, each of which fundraise annually and are seeing substantial growth over their previous raises.

“What we observed is VC is a really good asset class but it’s really designed for institutional investors,” Collins (pictured below) said. “It’s really hard for individual people to put together a smart, simple portfolio unless they do it themselves. That’s why we created AVG.”

AVG and its team of 40 investment professionals make 150 to 200 investments per year of roughly $1 million each in U.S. startups across industries. In the second quarter of 2018, PitchBook listed the firm as the second most active global investor, ranked below only Plug and Play Tech Center and above the likes of Kleiner Perkins, NEA and Accel. 

Unlike the Kleiners, NEAs and Accels of the world, AVG never leads investments. Collins says they just “tuck themselves into” a deal with a great lead investor. They don’t take board seats; Collins says he doesn’t see any value in more than one VC on a company board. And they don’t try to negotiate deal terms.

Though unusual, all of this works to their advantage. Founders appreciate the easy capital and access to AVG’s network, and other VC firms don’t view AVG as a threat, making it easier for the firm to get in on great deals.

“We are low friction, we are small and we have a hell of a Rolodex,” Collins said.

VC doesn’t have to be a star business

Despite a deal flow that’s unmatched by many VC firms, AVG manages to fly under the radar — and the firm is totally OK with that.

“A lot of VC is a bit of a star business where people try to build their own individual brand,” Collins said. “They get out there; they like publicity; they blog; they speak at conferences; they want to be known as the person to bring great deals to. We don’t lead. We work in the background. We just don’t feel the need to put the energy into PR.”

“Most VC returns are really achieved through investing in great companies as opposed to changing the trajectory of a company because you’re on the board,” he added. “If you’re a seed investor in Airbnb or Google, you were really great to be an early investor in that company, not because you sat on the board and you’re brilliance created Google’s success.”

AVG has completed 115 investments in the last 12 months. It’s investing out of 10-year funds, so at just four years in, it has some more waiting to do before it’ll see the full outcomes of its investments. Still, Collins says 65 of their portfolio companies have had liquidity events so far, including Jump, which sold to Uber in April, and Whistle, acquired by Mars Petcare a few years back.

“I hope that we can be a catalyst to bring more people into this asset class,” he concluded.

“I am a big believer that it’s really important that America continues to lead in entrepreneurship and I think the more people that own this asset class the better.”

Smart home makers hoard your data, but won’t say if the police come for it

A decade ago, it was almost inconceivable that nearly every household item could be hooked up to the internet. These days, it’s near impossible to avoid a non-smart home gadget, and they’re vacuuming up a ton of new data that we’d never normally think about.

Thermostats know the temperature of your house, and smart cameras and sensors know when someone’s walking around your home. Smart assistants know what you’re asking for, and smart doorbells know who’s coming and going. And thanks to the cloud, that data is available to you from anywhere — you can check in on your pets from your phone or make sure your robot vacuum cleaned the house.

Because the data is stored or accessible by the smart home tech makers, law enforcement and government agencies have increasingly sought data from the companies to solve crimes.

And device makers won’t say if your smart home gadgets have been used to spy on you.

For years, tech companies have published transparency reports — a semi-regular disclosure of the number of demands or requests a company gets from the government for user data. Google was first in 2010. Other tech companies followed in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations that the government had enlisted tech companies’ aid in spying on their users. Even telcos, implicated in wiretapping and turning over Americans’ phone records, began to publish their figures to try to rebuild their reputations.

As the smart home revolution began to thrive, police saw new opportunities to obtain data where they hadn’t before. Police sought Echo data from Amazon to help solve a murder. Fitbit data was used to charge a 90-year old man with the murder of his stepdaughter. And recently, Nest was compelled to turn over surveillance footage that led to gang members pleading guilty to identity theft.

Yet, Nest — a division of Google — is the only major smart home device maker that has published how many data demands it receives.

As first noted by Forbes last week, Nest’s little-known transparency report doesn’t reveal much — only that it’s turned over user data about 300 times since mid-2015 on over 500 Nest users. Nest also said it hasn’t to date received a secret order for user data on national security grounds, such as in cases of investigating terrorism or espionage. Nest’s transparency report is woefully vague compared to some of the more detailed reports by Apple, Google and Microsoft, which break out their data requests by lawful request, by region and often by the kind of data the government demands.

As Forbes said, “a smart home is a surveilled home.” But at what scale?

We asked some of the most well-known smart home makers on the market if they plan to release a transparency report, or disclose the number of demands they receive for data from their smart home devices.

For the most part, we received fairly dismal responses.

What the big four tech giants said

Amazon did not respond to requests for comment when asked if it will break out the number of demands it receives for Echo data, but a spokesperson told me last year that while its reports include Echo data, it would not break out those figures.

Facebook said that its transparency report section will include “any requests related to Portal,” its new hardware screen with a camera and a microphone. Although the device is new, a spokesperson did not comment on if the company will break out the hardware figures separately.

Google pointed us to Nest’s transparency report but did not comment on its own efforts in the hardware space — notably its Google Home products.

And Apple said that there’s no need to break out its smart home figures — such as its HomePod — because there would be nothing to report. The company said user requests made to HomePod are given a random identifier that cannot be tied to a person.

What the smaller but notable smart home players said

August, a smart lock maker, said it “does not currently have a transparency report and we have never received any National Security Letters or orders for user content or non-content information under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA),” but did not comment on the number of subpoenas, warrants and court orders it receives. “August does comply with all laws and when faced with a court order or warrant, we always analyze the request before responding,” a spokesperson said.

Roomba maker iRobot said it “has not received any demands from governments for customer data,” but wouldn’t say if it planned to issue a transparency report in the future.

Both Arlo, the former Netgear smart home division, and Signify, formerly Philips Lighting, said they do not have transparency reports. Arlo didn’t comment on its future plans, and Signify said it has no plans to publish one. 

Ring, a smart doorbell and security device maker, did not answer our questions on why it doesn’t have a transparency report, but said it “will not release user information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us” and that Ring “objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.” When pressed, a spokesperson said it plans to release a transparency report in the future, but did not say when.

Spokespeople for Honeywell and Canary — both of which have smart home security products — did not comment by our deadline.

And, Samsung, a maker of smart sensors, trackers and internet-connected televisions and other appliances, did not respond to a request for comment.

Only Ecobee, a maker of smart switches and sensors, said it plans to publish its first transparency report “at the end of 2018.” A spokesperson confirmed that, “prior to 2018, Ecobee had not been requested nor required to disclose any data to government entities.”

All in all, that paints a fairly dire picture for anyone thinking that when the gadgets in your home aren’t working for you, they could be helping the government.

As helpful and useful as smart home gadgets can be, few fully understand the breadth of data that the devices collect — even when we’re not using them. Your smart TV may not have a camera to spy on you, but it knows what you’ve watched and when — which police used to secure a conviction of a sex offender. Even data from when a murder suspect pushed the button on his home alarm key fob was enough to help convict someone of murder.

Two years ago, former U.S. director of national intelligence James Clapper said the government was looking at smart home devices as a new foothold for intelligence agencies to conduct surveillance. And it’s only going to become more common as the number of internet-connected devices spread. Gartner said more than 20 billion devices will be connected to the internet by 2020.

As much as the chances are that the government is spying on you through your internet-connected camera in your living room or your thermostat are slim — it’s naive to think that it can’t.

But the smart home makers wouldn’t want you to know that. At least, most of them.

Building a great startup requires more than genius and a great invention

Many entrepreneurs assume that an invention carries intrinsic value, but that assumption is a fallacy.

Here, the examples of the 19th and 20th century inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla are instructive. Even as aspiring entrepreneurs and inventors lionize Edison for his myriad inventions and business acumen, they conveniently fail to recognize Tesla, despite having far greater contributions to how we generate, move, and harness power. Edison is the exception, with the legendary penniless Tesla as the norm.

Universities are the epicenter of pure innovation research. But the reality is that academic research is supported by tax dollars. The zero-sum game of attracting government funding is mastered by selling two concepts: Technical merit, and and broader impact toward benefiting society as a whole. These concepts are usually at odds with building a company, which succeeds only by generating and maintaining competitive advantage through barriers to entry.

In rare cases, the transition from intellectual merit to barrier to entry is successful. In most cases, the technology, though cool, doesn’t give the a fledgling company the competitive advantage it needs to exist among incumbents, and inevitable copycats. Academics, having emphasized technical merit and broader impact to attract support for their research, often fail to solve for competitive advantage, thereby creating great technology in search for a business application.

Of course there are exceptions: Time and time again, whether it’s driven by hype or perceived existential threat, big incumbents will be quick to buy companies purely for technology.  Cruise/GM (autonomous cars), DeepMind/Google (AI), and Nervana/Intel (AI chips). But as we move from 0-1 to 1-N in a given field, success is determined by winning talent over winning technology. Technology becomes less interesting; the onus on the startup to build a real business.

If a startup chooses to take venture capital, it not only needs to build a real business, but one that will be valued in the billions. the question becomes how a startup can create durable, attractive business, with a transient, short-lived technological advantage.

Most investors understand this stark reality. Unfortunately, while dabbling in technologies which appeared like magic to them during the cleantech boom, many investors were lured back into the innovation fallacy, believing that pure technological advancement would equal value creation. Many of them re-learned this lesson the hard way. As frontier technologies are attracting broader attention, I believe many are falling back into the innovation trap.

So what should aspiring frontier inventors solve for as they seek to invest capital to translate pure discovery to building billion-dollar companies?  How can the technology be cast into an unfair advantage that will yield big margins and growth that underpin billion-dollar businesses?

Talent productivity: In this age of automation, human talent is scarce, and there is incredible value attributed to retaining and maximizing human creativity.  Leading companies seek to gain an advantage by attracting the very best talent. If your technology can help you make more scarce talent more productive, or help your customers become more productive, then you are creating an unfair advantage internally, while establishing yourself as the de facto product for your customers.

Great companies such as Tesla and Google have built tools for their own scarce talent, and build products their customers, in their own ways, can’t do without. Microsoft mastered this with its Office products in the 90s, through innovation and acquisition, Autodesk with its creativity tools, and Amazon with its AWS Suite. Supercharging talent yields one of the most valuable sources of competitive advantage: switchover cost.  When teams are empowered with tools they love, they will loathe the notion of migrating to shiny new objects, and stick to what helps them achieve their maximum potential.

Marketing and Distribution Efficiency: Companies are worth the markets they serve.  They are valued for their audience and reach.  Even if their products in of themselves don’t unlock the entire value of the market they serve, they will be valued for their potential to, at some point in the future, be able to sell to the customers that have been tee’d up with their brands. AOL leveraged cheap CD-ROMs and the postal system to get families online, and on email.

Dollar Shave Club leveraged social media and an otherwise abandoned demographic to lock down a sales channel that was ultimately valued at a billion dollars. The inventions in these examples were in how efficiently these companies built and accessed markets, which ultimately made them incredibly valuable.

Network effects: Its power has ultimately led to its abuse in startup fundraising pitches. LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram generate their network effects through Internet and Mobile. Most marketplace companies need to undergo the arduous, expensive process of attracting vendors and customers.  Uber identified macro trends (e.g., urban living) and leveraged technology (GPS in cheap smartphones) to yield massive growth in building up supply (drivers) and demand (riders).

Our portfolio company Zoox will benefit from every car benefitting from edge cases every vehicle encounters: akin to the driving population immediately learning from special situations any individual driver encounters. Startups should think about how their inventions can enable network effects where none existed, so that they are able to achieve massive scale and barriers by the time competitors inevitably get access to the same technology.

Offering an end-to-end solution: There isn’t intrinsic value in a piece of technology; it’s offering a complete solution that delivers on an unmet need deep-pocketed customers are begging for. Does your invention, when coupled to a few other products, yield a solution that’s worth far more than the sum of its parts? For example, are you selling a chip, along with design environments, sample neural network frameworks, and datasets, that will empower your customers to deliver magical products? Or, in contrast, does it make more sense to offer standard chips, licensing software, or tag data?

If the answer is to offer components of the solution, then prepare to enter a commodity, margin-eroding, race-to-the-bottom business. The former, “vertical” approach is characteristic of more nascent technologies, such as operating robots-taxis, quantum computing, and launching small payloads into space. As the technology matures and becomes more modular, vendors can sell standard components into standard supply chains, but face the pressure of commoditization.

A simple example is Personal Computers, where Intel and Microsoft attracted outsized margins while other vendors of disk drives, motherboards, printers, and memory faced crushing downward pricing pressure.  As technology matures, the earlier vertical players must differentiate with their brands, reach to customers, and differentiated product, while leveraging what’s likely going to be an endless number of vendors providing technology into their supply chains.

A magical new technology does not go far beyond the resumes of the founding team.

What gets me excited is how the team will leverage the innovation, and attract more amazing people to establish a dominant position in a market that doesn’t yet exist. Is this team and technology the kernel of a virtuous cycle that will punch above its weight to attract more money, more talent, and be recognized for more than it’s product?

YouTube has been down for more than an hour

No, it’s not just you. As of Tuesday evening Pacific Time, YouTube was down for many users. The outage appears to have begun some time around 6:15 p.m., making this a pretty long outage for such a major site.

The company is well aware of the issue and tweeting its updates. The account began responding to tweets reporting the outage about an hour ago and has painstakingly replied to many, many reports from users since.

YouTube doesn’t experience downtime very often, making Tuesday’s outage pretty notable. We’ve reached out to YouTube about the cause of the outage and will update this story when we learn more.

Google tweaks Android licensing terms in Europe to allow Google app unbundling — for a fee

Google has announced changes to the licensing model for its Android mobile operating system in Europe,  including introducing a fee for licensing some of its own brand apps, saying it’s doing so to comply with a major European antitrust ruling this summer.

In July the region’s antitrust regulators hit Google with a recordbreaking $5BN fine for violations pertaining to Android, finding the company had abused the dominance of the platform by requiring manufacturers pre-install other Google apps in order to license its popular Play app store. 

Regulators also found Google had made payments to manufacturers and mobile network operators in exchange for exclusively pre-installing Google Search on their devices, and used Play store licensing to prevent manufacturers from selling devices based on Android forks.

Google disputes the Commission’s findings, and last week filed its appeal — a legal process that could take years. But in the meanwhile it’s making changes to how it licenses Android in Europe to avoid the risk of additional penalties heaped on top of the antitrust fine.

Hiroshi Lockheimer, Google’s senior vice president of platforms & ecosystems, revealed the new licensing options in a blog post published today.

Under updated “compatibility agreements”, he writes that mobile device makers will be able to build and sell Android devices intended for the European Economic Area (EEA) both with and without Google mobile apps preloaded — something Google’s same ‘compatibility’ contracts restricted them from doing before, when it was strictly either/or (either you made Android forks, or you made Android devices with Google apps — not both).

“Going forward, Android partners wishing to distribute Google apps may also build non-compatible, or forked, smartphones and tablets for the European Economic Area (EEA),” confirms Lockheimer.

However the company is also changing how it licenses the full Android bundle — which previously required OEMs to load devices with the Google mobile application suite, Google Search and the Chrome browser in order to be able to offer the popular Play Store — by introducing fees for OEMs wanting to pre-load a subset of those same apps under “a new paid licensing agreement for smartphones and tablets shipped into the EEA”.

Though Google stresses there will be no charge for using the Android platform itself. (So a pure fork without any Google services preloaded still wouldn’t require a fee.)

Google also appears to be splitting out Google Search and Chrome from the rest of the Google apps in its mobile suite (which traditionally means stuff like YouTube, the Play Store, Gmail, Google Maps, although Lockheimer’s blog post does not make it clear which exact apps he’s talking about) — letting OEMs selectively unbundle some Google apps, albeit potentially for a fee, depending on the apps in question.

“[D]evice manufacturers will be able to license the Google mobile application suite separately from the Google Search App or the Chrome browser,” is what Lockheimer unilluminatingly writes.

Perhaps Google wants future unbundled Android forks to still be able to have Google Search or Chrome, even if they don’t have the Play store, but it’s really not at all clear which configurations of Google apps will be permitted under the new licensing terms, and which won’t.

“Since the pre-installation of Google Search and Chrome together with our other apps helped us fund the development and free distribution of Android, we will introduce a new paid licensing agreement for smartphones and tablets shipped into the EEA. Android will remain free and open source,” Lockheimer adds, without specifying what the fees will be either. 

“We’ll also offer new commercial agreements to partners for the non-exclusive pre-installation and placement of Google Search and Chrome. As before, competing apps may be pre-installed alongside ours,” he continues to complete his trio of poorly explained licensing changes.

We’ve asked Google to clarify the various permitted and not permitted app configurations, as well as which apps will require a fee (and which won’t), and how much the fees will be, and will update this post with any response.

The devil in all those details should become clear soon though, as Google says the new licensing options will come into effect on October 29 for all new (Android based) smartphones and tablets launched in the EEA.

Google-incubated AdLingo uses chatbot integration to create conversational ads

“Conversational marketing” is a phrase that I hear a lot, but when the team at AdLingo uses it, they mean something specific — namely, bringing chatbots and other conversational assistants into online advertising.

The startup is part of Google’s Area 120, and co-founder and general manager Vic Fatnani said he’s worked on advertising at Google for more than a decade.

“One of the things we saw happening was this paradigm shift with users and consumers going towards more of a conversational medium,” he said. “Everything is becoming more conversational, whether it’s through devices such as your phone, your speaker and eventually your car … We asked ourselves, ‘Hey if this shift is happening, why can’t marketing be more conversational?'”

You may be wondering whether consumers are really clamoring to interact with ads, but Fatnani said he and his co-founder Dario Rapisardi were determined not to build “a solution that needs a problem,” so they spent months talking to marketers and chatbot developers.

Apparently, when they asked about what challenges everyone was facing, the big answer was “discovery.” As Fatnani put it, “Hey, I have this amazing conversational assistant, but it’s really hard for me to bring this in front of audience.”

General Manager Vic Fatnani, Head of Partnerships Stephanie Lyras, Head of Engineering Dario Rapisardi

In his view, advertising provides the perfect medium to solve this problem. Instead of building a chatbot and just letting consumers find it on their own website or app, brands can integrate it into their advertising, allowing people who see the ad to ask questions and provide feedback.

“Imagine you want to launch a new soda drink in Brazil, a market that you’ve never entered before,” he added. “Imagine you can now run a conversational display ad and actually have people vote to say what kind of flavor would you like to drink.”

Or for a real example, there’s the Allstar Kia experience that you can see at the top of this post. Che company’s director of internet marketing Chris Ferrall said in a statement that “AdLingo lets our customers browse inventory, determine car trade-in value and make an appointment with a salesperson — all within an engaging, interactive experience that meets them right where they are.”

To be clear, Adlingo isn’t building the chatbots. Instead, Fatnani said, “The brands and developers bring the conversational experience to us, and we distribute that experience all over the web.”

To do this, the platform integrates with chatbot tools like Dialogue Flow, Microsoftbot Framework, LiveEngage and Blip. It’s also partnered with Valassis Digital and LivePerson (the Kia campaign happened through Valassis).

How does this all fit into Google’s larger plans for advertising? Fatnani said it doesn’t, at least not yet.

“We are completely separate efforts in terms of our product roadmap and what we execute,” he said, later adding, “At this point, we just want to make sure we’re really, really focused on our customer.”

Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks publicly for the first time about its censored China search engine

Commenting publicly for the first time about Google’s censored search engine for China, CEO Sundar Pichai said onstage at the WIRED 25 summit in San Francisco that the company is taking “a longer-term view” about the country. Codenamed Project Dragonfly, the controversial development has been public knowledge since a report in August by the Intercept, generating significant backlash, with several employees resigning in protest.

Google did not confirm Project Dragonfly’s existence until its chief privacy officer, Keith Enright, spoke at a Senate hearing last month. Even then, Enright did not provide much information about the project, so this means Pichai’s comments at WIRED 25 are the most detailed ones made officially by Google’s leadership so far.

Even before Project Dragonfly was revealed by The Intercept, Google had already been quietly working on a strategy to re-enter China, including launching (or re-launching) apps through third-party Android stores (Google Play is not available in China) and working with partners like Xiaomi and Huawei to introduce its ARCore technology for augmented and virtual reality there. Pichai said Google has not decided if it will actually launch Project Dragonfly in China, but if it does, the search engine’s biggest competition would be Baidu.

Pichai said that Chinese tech innovations means it’s time for Google to get an understanding of the market from the inside out. “It’s a wonderful, innovative market. We wanted to learn what it would look like if we were in China, so that’s what we built internally,” adding that “given how important the market is and how many users there are, we feel obliged to think hard about this problem and take a longer-term view.”

Even though it follows China’s strict censorship laws, Pichai claimed that Project Dragonfly will still be able to answer “well over 99% of the queries” put to it and that “there are many, many areas where we would provide information better than what’s available.”

Google once operated a censored search engine in China at Google.cn, but pulled out of the country in 2010. At the time, Google said its decision was prompted by a “sophisticated cyber attack originating from China” that targeted human rights activists, and the country’s efforts to “further limit free speech on the web in China” by blocking websites like Googe Docs, Blogger, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

For its critics, Project Dragonfly’s existence means Google has reneged on the values it avowed nine years ago. While onstage at WIRED 25, however, Pichai said working on a search engine is in line with the company’s mission to “provide information to everyone,” noting that China contains about 20% of the world’s population.

Google only embarked on Project Dragonfly after much deliberation, he said. “People don’t understand fully, but you’re always balancing a set of values” when entering new countries,” adding “but we also follow the rule of law in every country.”

App Store generated 93% more revenue than Google Play in Q3

There’s always been a gap between how much money Apple’s App Store makes when compared with Google Play. But in the third quarter of 2018, that gap widened considerably – possibly to the widest point yet. According to a new report from Sensor Tower, the App Store earned nearly 93% more than Google Play in the quarter, the largest gap since at least 2014 – or, when Sensor Tower began tracking Google Play data.

The firm says that approximately 66% of the $18.2 billion in mobile app revenue generated in Q3 2018 came from Apple’s App Store. The store made $12 billion in the quarter, up 23.3% from the $9.7 billion it made during the same period last year.

Meanwhile, Google Play earned $6.2 billion in the quarter, up 21.5% from the year-ago quarter’s $5.1 billion.

Based on Sensor Tower’s chart of top-grossing apps across both stores, subscriptions are continuing to aid in this revenue growth. Netflix remained the top-grossing non-game app for the third quarter in a row, bringing in an estimated $243.7 million across both platforms. Tinder and Tencent Video remained in the second and third spots, respectively.

Mobile game spending also helped fuel the revenue growth, with spending up 14.9% year-over-year during the quarter to reach $13.8 billion. In fact, it accounted for 76% of all app revenue across both platforms in the quarter, with $8.5 billion coming from the App Store and $5.3 billion from Google Play.

In terms of app downloads, however, Google Play still has the edge thanks to rapid adoption of lower-cost Android devices in emerging markets, the report said. App installs grew 10.9% across both stores, reaching 27.1 billion, up 24.4% from Q3 2017.

The rankings of the most downloaded apps also got a big shakeup in Q3, thanks to Bytedance’s short-video app TikTok absorbing Musical.ly during the quarter. As a result of the merger, it’s now the No. 4 ranked app worldwide, having grown 15% quarter-over-quarter and 440% year-over-year.

That puts it ahead of both Instagram (No. 5) and Snapchat (No. 10), in terms of Q3 app downloads, and sets the stage for Bytedance becoming a more serious player in the social app market.

Sensor Tower’s full report is available here.

Google+ for G Suite lives on and gets new features

You thought Google+ was dead, didn’t you? And it is — if you’re a consumer. But the business version of Google’s social network will live on for the foreseeable future — and it’s getting a bunch of new features today.

Google+ for G Suite isn’t all that different from the Google+ for consumers, but its focus is very much on allowing users inside a company to easily share information. Current users include the likes of Nielsen and French retailer Auchan.

The new features that Google is announcing today give admins more tools for managing and reviewing posts, allow employees to tag content and provide better engagement metrics to posters.

Recently Google introduced the ability for admins to bulk-add groups of users to a Google+ community, for example. And soon, those admins will be able to better review and moderate posts made by their employees. Soon, admins will also be able to define custom streams so that employees could get access to a stream with all of the posts from a company’s leadership team, for example.

But what’s maybe more important in this context is that tags now make it easy for employees to route content to everybody in the company, no matter which group they work in. “Even if you don’t know all employees across an organization, tags makes it easier to route content to the right folks,” the company explains in today’s blog post. “Soon you’ll be able to draft posts and see suggested tags, like #research or #customer-insights when posting customer survey results.”

As far as the new metrics go, there’s nothing all that exciting going on here, but G Suite customers who keep their reporting structure in the service will be able to provide analytics to employees so they can see how their posts are being viewed across the company and which teams engage most with them.

At the end of the day, none of these are revolutionary features. But the timing of today’s announcement surely isn’t a coincidence, given that Google announced the death of the consumer version of Google+ — and the data breach that went along with that — only a few days ago. Today’s announcement is clearly meant to be a reminder that Google+ for the enterprise isn’t going away and remains in active development. I don’t think all that many businesses currently use Google+, though, and with Hangouts Chat and other tools, they now have plenty of options for sharing content across groups.

Google Pixel’s product directors on single cameras and notches

Google hardware launches are never spec-fests. The search giant would rather just sit on the sideline while companies like Apple and Samsung battle it out on that front. In fact, numbers like screen resolution, processor speed and battery capacity were conspicuously absent from today’s presentation.

Instead, the company seems more content to have hardware serve the product’s software — it’s a strategy that certainly makes sense given the company’s background. That often means that products like the Pixel don’t offer major spec upgrades year over year, instead relying on breakthroughs in AI, ML and the like to take them to the next level.

As such, the company regularly tosses out words like “pragmatic” and “practical” when discussing the decisions made in service of producing the Pixel 3. One such move was the continued reliance on a single rear-facing camera, when the competition is adding two or three to get the job done.

“We look at all of the different configurations we can get,” VP of Product Management Brian Rakowski tells TechCrunch. “If we would have added another lens, it would have given us no benefit over what we get with one really good lens.”

The simple answer is that the company was able to accomplish most of what it set out to do with a combination of “one really good camera” and software tricks like digital zoom, ultra low-light shooting and depth perception. That last bit is doubly important both for creating the bokeh effect in portrait mode and helping deliver augmented reality experiences through ARCore.

Senior Director of Product Management Sabrina Ellis says the company did consider a wide-angle lens for the rear of the device, but ultimately, “it wasn’t as much of a pain point.” It was, however, enough of an issue to warrant its addition to the front of the device.

That decision is what lead to the mismatched notches on the Google Pixel 3 (no notch) and Pixel 3 XL (giant notch). While the company has happily embraced hashtag notch life in Android Pie, the smaller Pixel’s slim profile wouldn’t have benefited from the addition of a notch.

“With the small one,” Rakowski explains, “it turns out the space is just too small when you put the wide-angle lens in. It’s a narrower phone, so you have room for an icon or two, whereas on the bigger phone everything you need for the status icons is up there, and it’s a very good use of the space.”

When I suggested the company was “notch agnostic,” both execs laughed in agreement. The hardware, Rakowski explained, is secondary to the overall experience. “We’re not obsessed with the specs,” he says. “We’re obsessed with the features and experiences.”

more Google Event 2018 coverage