Daily Crunch: Microsoft-TikTok acquisition inches closer to reality

A possible Microsoft -TikTok acquisition is causing plenty of drama, we review Google’s new budget Pixel and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon returns to Earth. Here’s your Daily Crunch for August 3, 2020.

Microsoft-TikTok acquisition inches closer to reality

This weekend, Microsoft confirmed reports that it’s in talks to acquire TikTok, the popular mobile video app currently owned by Chinese company ByteDance. It sounds like the outcome of those talks may ultimately have less to do with Microsoft and more with President Donald Trump.

“Following a conversation between Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and President Donald J. Trump, Microsoft is prepared to continue discussions to explore a purchase of TikTok in the United States,” the company said in a statement. “Microsoft fully appreciates the importance of addressing the President’s concerns. It is committed to acquiring TikTok subject to a complete security review and providing proper economic benefits to the United States, including the United States Treasury.”

And indeed, Trump said today that he’s not opposed to an acquisition, but that “a very substantial portion of that price is going to have to come into the Treasury of the United States.” Meanwhile, Chinese internet users are calling ByteDance’s CEO a traitor.

The tech giants

Google’s budget Pixel 4a addresses its premium predecessor’s biggest problem — Brian Heater reviews the new $349 handset.

Facebook launches commerce and connectivity-focused accelerator programs — Facebook’s Commerce Accelerator will select 60 startups from the EMEA and LATAM regions, while Connectivity will feature 30 startups from LATAM and North America.

Adobe’s plans for an online content attribution standard could have big implications for misinformation — The project was first announced last November, and now the team has a whitepaper going into the nuts and bolts about how its system would work.

Startups, funding and venture capital

YC-backed Artifact looks to make podcasts more personal — Using professionally contracted interviewers, Artifact conducts short interviews with a person’s closest friends or family and turns them into a personal podcast.

Founded by a lifelong house-flipper, Inspectify is a marketplace for home inspections and repairs — Through the platform, buyers can instantly book inspections and receive repair estimates.

Mobile banking startup Varo is becoming a real bank — The company announced that it has been granted a national bank charter from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and secured regulatory approvals from the FDIC and Federal Reserve to open Varo Bank, N.A.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

The essential revenue software stack — Tim Porter and Elise La Cava of Madrona Ventures outline the set of services used by sales, marketing and growth teams across their portfolio to identify and manage their prospects and revenue.

Is the 2020 SPAC boom an echo of the 2017 ICO craze? — Alex Wilhelm looks at two new pieces of SPAC news.

After Shopify’s huge quarter, BigCommerce raises its IPO price range — BigCommerce now intends to price its IPO between $21 and $23 per share.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

SpaceX and NASA successfully return Crew Dragon spacecraft to Earth with astronauts on board — SpaceX’s Crew Dragon appears to have performed exactly as intended throughout the mission, handling the launch, ISS docking, undocking, de-orbit and splashdown in a fully automated process that kept the astronauts safe and secure throughout.

Original Content podcast: Netflix’s ‘Say I Do’ offers a wedding-focused twist on the ‘Queer Eye’ formula — I’m not someone who cares about weddings, but this show made me cry. Multiple times!

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

The 4a and 5 will be Google’s first 5G-enabled Pixels

Surprise. The latest version of Google’s budget Pixel device will be one of the first two to get its next-gen technology. It’s an odd strategy, to be sure, but sometimes roadmaps work out like that, I guess. You can read basically everything you need to know about the Pixel 4a in my review here. It’s a pretty basic addition to the line, albeit one that bumps up battery life from its predecessors and maintains the brand’s focus on excellent imaging with limited hardware.

At some point in the fall, it will be joined by a 5G version, priced at $499. That’s a fairly significant bump over the standard 4a’s $349 starting price, but still pretty reasonably priced for a 5G phone. Obviously the Pixel 5 will be going 5G as well — Google even said as much in a blog post this morning (with a rare peak behind the curtains). From the sound of things, the devices will be released in roughly the same timeframe, but the details are understandably still very limited on that front.

Image Credits: Google

It’s promised more on both in the coming months, though we do know for sure that both models will be available in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Ireland, France, Germany, Japan, Taiwan and Australia. It’s a strange strategy that bucks previous next-gen technology roll outs (not the mention how virtually every other manufacturer has approached 5G). Likely it has more to do with timing that any, though there’s notably been an aggressive push to democratize 5G access, led by the likes of Qualcomm. 

Huawei overtook Samsung in global smartphone shipments for Q2

Things haven’t exactly been smooth sailing for Huawei in recent years. The company’s rapid trajectory has been disrupted by on-going battles with the U.S. government that have, among other things, blocked its access to Google apps and services. But a new report from Canalys paints a reasonably rosy picture as the hardware giant overtook Samsung to snag the top spot in global smartphone shipments for the second quarter of 2020.

The news is a milestone for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that this is first time in nine years that neither Apple nor Samsung has been at the top of Canalys’ charts. Huawei’s figures were almost exclusively boosted by sales in its native China, which currently comprises more than 70% of its total figure.

Image Credits: Canalys

It’s important to note here, however, the fact that the company took the top spot by essentially shrinking at a less rapid rate than Samsung. Huawei’s overall figures are down 5% year-over-year. But that figure pales in comparison to Samsung’s 30% drop. The two Goliaths are currently at 55.8 million and 53.7 million, respectively.

Things were bad for the smartphone industry prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped overall, as people are less inclined toward shelling out hundreds to north of $1,000 for inessential upgrades. And, indeed, Huawei’s numbers dropped by 27% outside of China, but the overall slide was dampened by an 8% growth in China. Samsung, meanwhile, currently controls less than 1% of the Chinese market.

As for what this all means for the future, it seems that it may be difficult for Huawei to maintain its top spot. “Its major channel partners in key regions, such as Europe, are increasingly wary of ranging Huawei devices, taking on fewer models, and bringing in new brands to reduce risk” Canalys’ Mo Jia said of the report. “Strength in China alone will not be enough to sustain Huawei at the top once the global economy starts to recover.”

Where is voice tech going?

2020 has been all but normal. For businesses and brands. For innovation. For people.

The trajectory of business growth strategies, travel plans and lives have been drastically altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a global economic downturn with supply chain and market issues, and a fight for equality in the Black Lives Matter movement — amongst all that complicated lives and businesses already.

One of the biggest stories in emerging technology is the growth of different types of voice assistants:

  • Niche assistants such as Aider that provide back-office support.
  • Branded in-house assistants such as those offered by BBC and Snapchat.
  • White-label solutions such as Houndify that provide lots of capabilities and configurable tool sets.

With so many assistants proliferating globally, voice will become a commodity like a website or an app. And that’s not a bad thing — at least in the name of progress. It will soon (read: over the next couple years) become table stakes for a business to have voice as an interaction channel for a lovable experience that users expect. Consider that feeling you get when you realize a business doesn’t have a website: It makes you question its validity and reputation for quality. Voice isn’t quite there yet, but it’s moving in that direction.

Voice assistant adoption and usage are still on the rise

Adoption of any new technology is key. A key inhibitor of technology is often distribution, but this has not been the case with voice. Apple, Google, and Baidu have reported hundreds of millions of devices using voice, and Amazon has 200 million users. Amazon has a slightly more difficult job since they’re not in the smartphone market, which allows for greater voice assistant distribution for Apple and Google.

Image Credits: Mark Persaud

But are people using devices? Google said recently there are 500 million monthly active users of Google Assistant. Not far behind are active Apple users with 375 million. Large numbers of people are using voice assistants, not just owning them. That’s a sign of technology gaining momentum — the technology is at a price point and within digital and personal ecosystems that make it right for user adoption. The pandemic has only exacerbated the use as Edison reported between March and April — a peak time for sheltering in place across the U.S.

Facetune maker Lightricks brings its popular selfie retouching features to video

Lightricks, the startup behind a suite of photo and video editing apps — including most notably, selfie editor Facetune 2 — is taking its retouching capabilities to video. Today, the company is launching Facetune Video, a selfie video editing app, that allows users to retouch and edit their selfie and portrait videos using a set of A.I.-powered tools.

While there are other selfie video editors on the market, most today are generally focused on edits involving filters and presets, virtually adding makeup, or using AR or stickers to decorate your video in some way. Facetune Video, meanwhile, is focused on creating a photorealistic video by offering a set of features similar to those found in Lightricks’ flagship app, Facetune .

That means users are able to retouch their face with tools for skin smoothing, teeth whitening, and face reshaping, plus eye color, makeup, conceal, glow, and matte features. In addition, users can tweak tools for general video edits, like adjusting the brightness, contrast, color, and more, like other video editing apps allow for. And these edits can be applied in real-time to see how they look as the video plays, instead of after the fact.

In addition, users can apply the effect to one frame only and Facetune Video’s post-processing technology and neural networks will simultaneously apply an effect to the same area of every frame throughout the entire video, making it easier to quickly retouch a problem area without having to go frame-by-frame to do so.

“In Facetune Video, the 3D face model plays a significant role; users edit only one video frame, but it’s on us, behind-the-scenes, to automatically project the location of their edits to 2D face mesh coordinates derived from the 3D face model, and then apply them consistently on all other frames in the video,” explains Lightricks co-founder and CEO Zeev Farbam. “A Lightricks app needs to be not only powerful, but fun to use, so it’s critical to us that this all happens quickly and seamlessly,” he says.

Users can also save their favorite editing functions as “presets” allowing them to quickly apply their preferred settings to any video automatically.

In a future version of the app, the company plans to introduce a “heal” function which, like Facetune, will allow users to easily remove blemishes.

Image Credits: Lightricks

The technology that makes these selfie video edits work involves Lightricks’ deep neural networks that utilize facial feature detection and geometry analysis for the app’s retouching capabilities. These processes work in real-time without having to transmit data to the cloud first. There’s also no lag or delay while files are rendering.

In addition, Facetune Video uses the facial feature detection along with 3D face modeling A.I. to ensure that every part of the user’s face is captured for editing and retouching, the company says.

“What we’re also doing is taking advantage of lightweight neural networks. Before the user has even begun to retouch their selfie video, A.I.-powered algorithms are already working so that the user experience is quick and interactive,” says Fabram.

The app also does automated segmentation of more complex parts of the face like the interior of the eye, hair, or the lips, which helps it achieve a more accurate end result.

“It’s finding a balance between accuracy in the strength of the face modeling we use, and speed,” Fabram adds.

One challenge here was overcoming the issue of jittering effects, which is when the applied effect shakes as the video plays. The company didn’t want its resulting videos to have this problem, which makes the end result look gimmicky, so it worked to eliminate any shake-like effects and other face tracking issues so videos would look more polished and professional in the end.

The app builds off the company’s existing success and brand recognition with Facetune. With the new app, for example, the retouch algorithms mimic the original Facetune 2 experience, so users familiar with Facetune 2 will be able to quickly get the hang of the retouch tools.

Image Credits: Lightricks

The launch of the new app expands Lightricks further in the direction of video, which has become a more popular way of expressing yourself across social media, thanks to the growing use of apps like TikTok and features like Instagram Stories, for example.

Before, Lightricks’ flagship video product, however, was Videoleap, which focused on more traditional video editing, and not selfie videos where face retouching could be used.

Facetune has become so widely used, its name has become a verb — as in, “she facetunes her photos.” But it has also been criticized at times for its unrealistic results. (Of course, that’s more on the app’s users sliding the smoothing bar all the way to end.)

Across its suite of apps, which includes the original Facetune app (Facetune Classic), Facetune 2, Seen (for Stories), Photofox, Video Leap, Enlight Quickshot, Pixaloop, Boosted, and others, including a newly launched artistic editor, Quickart, the company has generated over 350 million downloads.

Its apps also now reach nearly 200 million users worldwide. And through its subscription model, Lightricks is now seeing what Farbam describes as revenues that are “increasing exponentially year-over-year,” but that are being continually reinvested into new products.

Like its other apps, Facetune Video will monetize by way of subscriptions. The app is free to use by will offer a VIP subscription for more features, at a price point of $8 per month, $36 per year, or a one-time purchase of $70.

Facetune 2 subscribers will get a discount on annual subscriptions, as well. The company will also sell the app in its Social Media Kit bundle on the App Store, which includes Facetune Video, Facetune 2, Seen and soon, an undisclosed fourth app. However, the company isn’t yet offering a single subscription that provides access to all bundled apps.

As remote work booms, Everphone grabs ~$40M for its ‘device as a service’ offer

The latest startup to see an uplift in inbound interest flowing from the remote work boom triggered by the coronavirus pandemic is Berlin-based Everphone, which sells a ‘mobile as a service’ device rental package that caters to businesses needing to kit staff out with mobile hardware plus associated support.

Everphone is announcing a €34 million Series B funding round today, led by new investor signals Venture Capital. Other new investors joining the round include German carrier Deutsche Telekom — investing via its strategic investment fund, Telekom Innovation Pool — US-based early stage VC AlleyCorp and Dutch bank NIBC.

The Series B financing will go on expanding to meet rising demand, with the startup telling TechCrunch it’s expecting to see a 70-100% increase in sales volume vs the pre-crisis period, thanks to a doubling of inbound leads during the pandemic.

“The global pandemic has been a catalyst for growth in the field of digitization,” said CEO and co-founder, Jan Dzulko, in a statement. “We are currently experiencing a significant increase in demand at home and abroad, which is why we are aiming for European expansion with the funding.”

Everphone describes its offer as a one-stop-shop, with the service covering not just the rental of (new or refurbished) smartphones and tablets but an administration and management wrapper that covers support needs, including handling repairs/replacements — with the promise of replacements within 24 hours if needed and less client risk from not having to wrangle traditional rental insurance fine print.

Other touted pluses of its “device as a service” approach include flexibility (users get to choose from a range of iOS and Android devices); lower cost (pricing depends on customer size, device choice and rental term but starts at €7,99 a month for a refurbished budget device, rising up to €49,99 a month for high end kit with a 12-month upgrade); and rental bundles which can include standard mobile device management software (such as Cortado and AirWatch) so customers can plug the rental hardware into their existing IT policies and processes.

Everphone reckons this service wrapper — which can also extend to including paid apps (such as Babbel for language learning) as an employee on-device perk/benefit in the bundle — differentiates its offer vs incumbent leasing providers, such as CHG-Meridian or De Lage Landen, and from wholesale distributors.

It also touts its global rollout capability as a customer draw, checking the scalability box.

While its investors (including German carrier, DT) are being fired up by the conviction that the COVID-19 induced shift away from the office to home working will create a boom in demand for well managed and secured work phones to mitigate the risk of personal devices and personal data mingling improperly with work stuff. (On that front Everphone’s website is replete with references to Europe’s data protection framework, GDPR, repurposed as scare marketing.)

“Everphone envisions that every employee will one day work via their smartphone,” added Marcus Polke, partner at signals Venture Capital, in a supporting statement. “With this employee-centric approach and integrated platform, everphone goes far beyond the mere outsourcing of a smartphone IT infrastructure.”

The 2016-founded startup has more than 400 customers signed up at this point, both SMEs and multinationals such as Ernst & Young. It caters to both ends of the market with an off-the-shelf package and self-service device management portal that’s intended for SMEs of between 100 and 1,500 employees — plus custom integrations for larger entities of up to 30,000 employees.

It says it’s able to offer “highly competitive” prices for renting new devices because it gives returned kit a second life, refurbishing and reselling devices on the consumer market. “Thanks to this profitable secondary lifespan, we are able to offer highly competitive prices and extensive service levels on our rental devices,” Everphone writes on its website.

The second hand smartphone market has also been seeing regional growth. Swappie, a European ecommerce startup that sells refurbished iPhones, aligning with EU lawmakers’ push for a ‘right to repair’ for electronics, raised its own ~$40M Series B only last month, for example. Its secondhand marketplace is one potential outlet for Everphone’s rented and returned iPhones.

Nebraska and Iowa win advanced wireless testbed grants for rural broadband

Everyone wants more bandwidth from the skies, but it takes a lot of testing to turn laboratory research projects into real-world performant infrastructure. A number of new technologies, sometimes placed under the banner of “5G” and sometimes not, is embarking on that transition and being deployed in real-world scenarios.

Those research trials are crucial for productizing these technologies, and ultimately, delivering consumers better wireless broadband options.

We’ve talked a bit about one of those testbeds called COSMOS up in northern Manhattan near Columbia University, which is pioneering 5G technologies within a dense urban environment. The same National Science Foundation-funded research group that financed that project, the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research program (PAWR), has now selected two finalists for its fourth location, which has a specific focus on rural infrastructure.

Research teams in Ames, Iowa affiliated with Iowa State University, and Lincoln, Nebraska affiliated with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, each won $300,000 grants to accelerate their planning for the testbeds. Those teams will use the grants to optimize their proposals, with one expected to receive the final full grant next year.

The goal for this latest testbed is to find next-generation wireless technology stacks that can deliver cheaper and better bandwidth to rural America, areas of the country that are not well-served by traditional cable and fiber networks nor current wireless cell tower coverage.

Whoever wins will join the existing three wireless testbeds in New York City, Salt Lake City and the Research Triangle in North Carolina.

PAWR itself is a joint public-private initiative with $100 million in funding to accelerate America’s frontier wireless innovation. It’s co-led by US Ignite, an NSF-run initiative to bring smart city ideas to fruition, and Northeastern University.

Amazon revamps its Alexa app to focus on first-party features, more personalization

After launching a number of new developer tools for Alexa last week, Amazon today introducing an updated version of its Alexa mobile app for consumers. The new app aims to offer a more personalized experience, particularly on users’ home screens, and offers more instructions on how and when consumers can use the digital assistant, among other changes. Notably, the app has moved its third-party skill suggestions off the main screen, to increase focus on how consumers are actually using Alexa.

The redesign offers an updated home screen, with a big Alexa button now at the top informing users they can either tap or say “Alexa” to get started.

This is followed by a list of personalized suggestions based on what consumers’ usage of the app indicates is important to them —  whether that’s reminders, a recently played item like their music or an Audible book, access to their shopping list, and so on.

Image Credits: Amazon

Users may also see controls for features that are frequently accessed or currently active, like the volume level for their Echo devices, so they can pick up where they left off, Amazon says. It’s worth noting that these Echo devices could include Echo Buds, Amazon’s Alexa-powered wireless earbuds, which could be key to its plans of enabling Alexa’s newly announced capabilities for controlling mobile apps.

For first-time users, the Alexa app will offer more tips on what to do on mobile. For instance, new users may see suggestions about playing songs with Amazon Music or prompts to manage their Alexa Shopping List.

Meanwhile, the app’s advanced features — like Reminders, Routines, Skills and Settings — have been relocated under the “More” button as part of the redesign.

The changes don’t necessarily mean Amazon has decluttered the Alexa home screen, however.

Because the update moved the Alexa button to the top of the screen, it has left room in the navigation bar for a new button: “Play,” which encourages media playback.

The revamp also suggests that Alexa’s dedicated app hasn’t exactly found its sweet spot to become part of users’ daily lives.

Before, the app had featured the date and weather at the top of the screen — an indication that Amazon had hoped the app would be something of a daily dashboard. (See below). Now, the company seems to understand that users will launch the app when they want to do something Alexa-specific. That’s why it’s making it easier to get to recent actions, so they can effectively pick up where they left off on whatever they were doing on their Echo smart speaker, for example.

Image Credits: Current Alexa app, screenshot via TechCrunch

In addition, the new app notably deprioritizes Alexa’s third-party voice apps (aka “skills”), which have not yet evolved into an app ecosystem to rival its mobile counterparts, like the Apple App Store for iOS apps or Google Play. Studies have indicated a large number of Alexa skills weren’t being used, and as a result, the pace of new skills releases has slowed.

Instead of showcasing popular skills on the home screen, as before, the app’s “Skills & Games” section has been shuffled off to the “More” tab. Amazon’s first-party experiences, like shopping, media playback and communications, now take up this crucial home screen real estate.

Amazon says the new app is rolling out worldwide over the month ahead on iOS, Android, and Fire OS devices. By late August, all users should be migrated to the new experience.

This Week in Apps: Apple argues for commissions, ‘Find My’ NDA, Alexa to open apps

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch 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 series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

* This Week in Apps was previously available only to Extra Crunch subscribers. We’re now making these reports available to all TechCrunch readers.  

Let’s dive in.

Headlines

Top Story: Apple doubles down on its right to take a 30% cut

app store icon 2

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Ahead of Apple CEO Tim Cook’s testimony before Congress, Apple on Thursday again took to the press to fight back against claims of anti-competitive practices on its App Store.

Last month, the company detailed the results of a commissioned study that showed how Apple wasn’t receiving a cut of revenue on the majority of App Store transactions — $519 billion in commerce. This time, Apple is touting the results of another study by the same analyst group that is meant to demonstrate how Apple’s App Store commission rate is similar to those of other app stores and digital content marketplaces.

The study exhaustingly compares the App Store’s 30% commission to all other forms of storefronts, online and off. This includes other app stores, game stores, e-commerce marketplaces, digital platforms and even brick-and-mortar retail. Apple’s conclusion is that it’s not doing anything different from the others, so what’s the big deal?

Of course, this misses the point. The antitrust issues surrounding Apple’s App Store are not about whether Apple is charging more than other digital marketplaces. It’s about whether that commission structure is hindering competition, given Apple’s size, wealth and power.

As indie developer Brent Simmons (of NetNewsWire) put it this week, the cut limits developers’ ability to hire and retain talent.

To an app on the App Store it might mean being able to lower prices — or hire a designer or a couple junior developers. It might be the difference between abandoning an app and getting into a virtuous circle where the app thrives.

Quality costs money, and profitability is just simple arithmetic: anything that affects income — such as Apple’s cut — goes into that equation.

To put it in concrete terms: the difference between 30% and something reasonable like 10% would probably have meant some of my friends would still have their jobs at Omni, and Omni would have more resources to devote to making, testing, and supporting their apps.

Apple’s opening of ‘Find My’ to third-parties isn’t as nice as it seems

5 find my

Image Credits: Apple

Apple announced at WWDC 2020 that third-party developers, like Tile, would be able to tap into Apple’s “Find My” technology platform to locate lost items and gadgets that aren’t made by Apple. The move was meant to counteract Tile’s ongoing complaints and testimony to U.S. antitrust investigators that Apple favored its first-party services at the expense of competitors’ businesses.

Tile was particularly concerned over Apple’s plans to announce a direct competitor, AirTags, which would be allowed to leverage the “Find My” technology at a deeper level. The move could potentially have wiped out Tile’s business with a better product — at least from a consumer standpoint.

The Washington Post reported this week that Apple’s opening of “Find My” is not the olive branch it seems, however. The publication acquired the 50-page confidentially agreement that all developers would have to sign, which indicates there are a lot of restrictions on how this integration works. For instance, Apple customers using “Find My” to locate a device will be barred from using competing services simultaneously, the document said. This is an unusual restriction — and one that makers of Bluetooth devices and smart home products don’t have to agree to for their own products.

Amazon turns Alexa into a mobile app launcher

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

How often do you think Amazon kicks itself over its smartphone failures? Given that the company hasn’t been able to compete directly on mobile, it’s finding another angle by way of Alexa. Amazon this week announced a bevy of new developer tools for its Alexa virtual assistant, including one that will allow the digital helper to launch iOS and Android apps using voice commands.

For example, you’d be able to say things like, “Alexa, start recording a TikTok,” or “Alexa, ask Twitter to search for #BLM.”

It’s unclear how many developers would adopt just a feature, outside of those that already offer one of the more popular Alexa skills. After all, Siri and Google Assistant can already launch and control your apps.

While Amazon is likely hoping that tying Alexa to the world of mobile apps could give it some momentum in terms of building an app ecosystem of its own, consumers so far have seemed to largely prefer using Alexa for first-party activities, like playing music, listening to news, controlling the smart home, asking random questions, making lists, setting reminders and more.

The move, however, may hint that Amazon is thinking about building out a mobile app ecosystem for its Alexa devices with a screen, like forthcoming versions of its Echo Show, for example.

Apple releases beta 3 builds of iOS 14, iPadOS 14

Testers this week received their third set of iOS 14 developer betas, as the software moves closer to its fall launch date. Beyond the usual bug fixes and performance improvements, only small changes were spotted this time around. This includes a new Music app icon, widget and the ability to share music to Snapchat; a new widget from the Clock app; a new pop-up when organizing the home screen that explains how to hide pages; a new pop-up when you use widgets for the first time; an updated design for Memoji masks; and more.

Facebook takes on Zoom with its latest Messenger Rooms update

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook this week announced a new feature that it hopes will give it a better shot at challenging Zoom’s dominance on web conferencing that came about due to the pandemic. The company upgraded its Messenger Rooms group calls platform to support the ability to live broadcast calls to platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitch — a move that effectively combined Facebook’s live-streaming capabilities with group video chat. Facebook turned around the feature in a relatively short time, given it has only been a matter of months since Zoom has really taken off. That indicates Facebook understands the threat of online chat and socializing exiting its platform.

The goal with the new addition is to make it simpler to broadcast to social platforms, to encourage users to return. Even if they arrive in order to broadcast to competitors’ sites, like YouTube, the company understands that adding Facebook to the list of destinations will increase the output of live broadcasts on its own platform.

In addition, Facebook also this week announced that Messenger now lets you secure your chats with Touch ID or Face ID on iOS. Why don’t more apps offer this feature?

TikTok unveils a $200M fund to back U.S. creators, as it scrambles for a “Plan B”

LOS ANGELES, CA – AUGUST 01: A general view of the atmosphere during the TikTok US launch celebration at NeueHouse Hollywood on August 1, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)

As the U.S. government weighs a ban on the Chinese-headquartered app over privacy concerns, the company announced plans to hire 10,000 employees across the U.S. over the next three years and launched a $200 million fund to invest in new creators. The new fund is aimed at helping top creators in the U.S. supplement their earnings, and potentially find the next big TikTok star in the process. The platform will begin accepting applications from U.S.-based creators starting next month and will then distribute the capital over the coming year.

Meanwhile, TikTok parent company ByteDance continues to discuss a range of other options to keep its popular and profitable app alive in the U.S. The latest, according to The Information, is one that would have a small group of the company’s U.S. investors joining forces to buy a majority stake in TikTok.

The U.S government — and particularly the Trump administration — continues to be skeptical about TikTok’s China ties. This week, the U.S. House voted to ban federal employees from using the app on government-issued devices. The vote passed 336-71, as part of a package of bipartisan amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act.

Robinhood ends plan for a U.K. launch

Image Credits: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Mobile investing app Robinhood said this week it would not be launching in the U.K., as planned. The company said it was now going to hold off on its global expansion plans to instead focus its efforts in its home market, the U.S. The company had already received over 250,000 sign-ups on its U.K. waitlist, which it says will now be deleted in line with local privacy laws. The company said it will transfer 10 U.K. employees to the U.S., but others will be let go.

The app has been more recently facing criticism in the U.S. for how it lures in young, inexperienced traders who then buy and sell some of the riskiest financial products on the market — at rates higher than other retail brokerage firms. With its hip and youthful design and social app-like features, such as confetti and emoji, Robinhood can make investing feel more like a game, The NYT reported in a recent feature. But the reality is that these inexperienced users are taking more speculative risks, sometimes with devastating results. One Robinhood user killed himself after seeing his balance drop to negative $730,000 — a figure that was higher, in part, due to some of his incomplete trades.

Google has its own ‘Onavo’

Image Credits: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Google today already allows Android app developers to collect usage data from devices where their app is installed, so it comes as no surprise that Google was doing this itself, too. The Information revealed Google’s program that allows it to access usage data on any device that has its Google apps pre-installed. Similar to Facebook’s Onavo, the data wasn’t just used to make improvements to Android, but was also used as a competitive advantage.

According to the report, Google had used the data to show how Google’s own services compared to rivals. This is what Facebook had used Onavo for, too — even leveraging those learnings to inform its acquisition strategy. APIs aren’t the only way large tech companies collect data on smartphone user habits. App intelligence firms like App Annie and Sensor Tower provide similar data to customers, obtained through a number of apps that downplay their true purpose, but really serve as data collection machines.

Data collection like this has been underway for years, but with the antitrust investigations now underway, the time may have come for regulators to actually do something about it.

Funding and M&A

  • Fintech startup Meemo came out of stealth and launched its social finance app with $10 million in seed funding. Investors including Saama Capital, Greycroft, Monashees and Sierra Ventures led the round with additional participation from Amit Singhal, Hans Tung and several former colleagues from Google and Snap.
  • Swiss keyboard startup Typewise raises $1 million seed round to build its “privacy-safe” next word prediction engine that works entirely offline. The round consists of $700,000 from more than a dozen local business angels; and $340,000 via the Swiss government through a mechanism akin to a research grant.
  • China’s Missfresh raises $495 million for its e-grocery app with deep WeChat integrations. The round was led by state-backed China International Capital Corporation. Other investors included ICBC International Securities, Tencent, Abu Dhabi Capital Group, Tiger Global and a fund managed by the government of Changshu county, home to Missfresh’s east China headquarters
  • Levitate raises $6 million for its “keep-in-touch” email marketing solution for small business that works across web and mobile. Investors include Tippet Venture Partners, Durham, North Carolina-based Bull City Venture Partners and angel investor Peter Gassner, the co-founder and CEO of Veeva Systems and investor in Zoom

Downloads

Dilims

Image Credits: Dilims

This beautifully designed indie iOS app called Dilims lets you display different time zones on one screen, and even name them with aliases or view them as a widget. The simple single-purpose utility is useful for anyone who has to work with teams or clients across time zones, and wants an easier way to see what time it is and where. For $2, that’s kind of a steal, too.

Dark Noise 2

Image Credits: Dark Noise

If you like to play ambient noise to help you focus, sleep or just relax, you’ll want to check out Dark Noise 2. This ambient noise app for iOS just got a big update, which adds new sounds, new icons and introduces iCloud syncing. Plus, it now allows you to create your own custom mix of ambient sounds so you can chill to the sounds of rain at the beach, for example, or whatever else you want to blend. The app is $5.99 on the App Store. 

Further Reading (and Listening)

  • Apple Kills IDFA: How Will the Fallout Really Affect Marketers?: Dig into the implications of the IDFA changes in the latest episode of the Mobile Presence podcast, in a discussion with Shamanth Rao, veteran growth marketer and CEO of RocketShip HQ, a full-service mobile user acquisition agency.
  • What Ever Happened to Digital Contact Tracing?: Lawfare takes a look at how the contact-tracing app landscape is shaping up, given the disappearance of contact tracing apps from the headlines. Though Apple and Google’s API was meant to encourage each country to build their own apps, the U.S. has instead taken a patchwork approach due to its fractured response to COVID-19. Today, there are a handful states with their own apps, and only some that plan to use Apple and Google’s technology. Many states have no plans for an app at all, turning instead to human-led contract tracing efforts.
  • Designed for iPad: What makes a good iPad app today? These things, says LookUp Design in a thoughtful post.

Tweets of the Week

Bangladesh regulator orders telcos to stop providing free access to social media

Bangladesh’s regulator has ordered telecom operators and other internet providers in the nation to stop providing free access to social media services, becoming the latest market in Asia to take a partial stand against zero-rating deals.

Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, the local regulator, said late last week that it had moved to take this decision because free usage of social media services had spurred their misuse by some people to commit crimes. Local outlet Business Standard first reported about the development. Bangladesh is one of the largest internet markets in Asia with more than 100 million online users.

Technology companies such as Facebook and Twitter have struck partnerships, more popularly known as zero-rating deals, with telecom operators and other internet providers in several markets in the past decade to make their services free to users to accelerate growth. Typically, tech companies bankroll the cost of data consumption of users as part of these deals.

In Bangladesh, such zero-rating deals have been popular for several years, said Ahad Mohammad, chief executive of Bongo, an on-demand streaming service (Extra Crunch membership required), in an interview with TechCrunch.

Grameenphone and Robi Axiata, two of the largest telecom operators in Bangladesh, enable their mobile subscribers to access a handful of services of their partners even when their phones have run out of credit. Both telecom firms have said they are in the process to comply with Dhaka’s order. Other zero rating deals remain in effect, a person familiar with the matter said.

It remains unclear whether Free Basics, a program run by Facebook in dozens of markets through which it offers unlimited access to select services at no cost, will continue its presence in Bangladesh after the nation’s order. Facebook relies on telecom networks to offer data access for its Free Basics program.

In Bangladesh, Facebook struck deals with Grameenphone and Robi Axiata, according to its official website, where Facebook continues to identify Bangladesh among dozens of markets where Free Basics is operational.

Several nations in recent years have balked at zero-rating arrangements — though they have often cited different reasons. India banned Free Basics in early 2016 on the grounds that Facebook’s initiative was violating the principles of net neutrality.

Free Basics also ended its program in Myanmar and several other markets in 2017 and 2018. Facebook did not respond to requests for comment.