Match confirms plans for Tinder Platinum, a new top-level subscription for power users, arriving Q4

Tinder is testing a new top-level subscription plan, Tinder Platinum, which it expects to roll out before year-end. The news of the coming service was announced this week by Tinder parent Match Group during its Q2 2020 earnings call with investors. Match described the subscription as providing additional value beyond Tinder’s current paid plan, Tinder Gold, but noted the feature was still in the very early stages of testing and was essentially still considered a minimum viable product.

The company added the version of Platinum that’s live now doesn’t yet have all the features Tinder plans to test. Though Match didn’t offer specifics as to the feature set itself, it broadly described Platinum as a way to give power users “more control, a better experience, and more advantages.”

The confirmation of the test follows a recent report by a user who had spotted Platinum in the wild.

According to a U.K.-based Tinder user, the offer for Platinum popped up when they were using Tinder on the web. But they weren’t able to make a purchase, they said.

However, in the screenshots they provided and posted to Reddit, Platinum is described as offering everything already available through Tinder Gold, along with a handful of extra options. Specifically, Tinder’s marketing touted that Platinum subscribers would have the ability to message users before matching via Super Likes. They would also get “prioritized likes” (meaning subscribers’ likes would be seen first) and they’d have ability to see who already liked them for instant matching purposes.

The image also showed price points as £5.97 per month, if on an annual plan; £8.35 per month, if on a 6-month plan; or £14.32 per month, if paying monthly.

Of course, these prices could change. Tinder typically tests different price points alongside new features, before launching them publicly.

Match Group told investors on the call it expects Platinum to mostly be an ARPU (average revenue per user) driver. Tinder’s ARPU was down 2% on a quarter-over-quarter basis in Q2, the company noted.

“Unlike Gold, which was by far the most successful and unique revenue feature we’ve ever launched, [and] which drove meaningful ARPU increases along with almost doubling of subscriber conversion, [Platinum] is not at all expected to be anywhere close to Gold,” explained Match Group CEO Shar Dubey. “There’s a fair bit of testing still to be done and our goal is, that if all goes well, we should be able to globally roll this out by the end of the year, later in Q4,” she added.

Match’s plans to squeeze more revenue out of its flagship app Tinder comes at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted how people use dating apps. The company said the health crisis had led to weaker a la carte purchases and some shifts among users to lower-priced packages. Tinder also had to revamp its Tinder U product for college students, as students left their respective campuses. And it lost momentum in India, a key international market, as well as Brazil.

Despite these issues, Match beat on earnings with $103.1 million in profits, or $0.51 per share, on revenues of $555.5.million, topping Wall St. estimates. The company cited its launches of video dating products as helping it continue to drive revenue through the pandemic — a time when people may be less willing to immediately meet up in person.

Specifically, Tinder’s average subscriber base increased by 128,000 in Q2, up 18% year-over-year, to reach 6.2 million. Tinder’s direct revenue grew 15% year-over-year, the company said.

TikTok updates policies to ban deepfakes, expand fact-checks, and flag election misinfo

As uncertainty swirls around TikTok’s future in the U.S., the company this morning announced new Community Guidelines focused on helping keep misleading and deceptive content off its platform. The new rules aim to better clarify what’s allowed and not allowed on TikTok, broaden the app’s fact-checking partnerships ahead of the U.S. election, and ban the use of “deepfakes” (manipulated content) designed to deceive. In addition, TikTok has added an in-app reporting option for election misinformation. It also claims to have worked with experts, including the Countering Foreign Influence Task Force (CFITF), run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to help counter the threat of foreign influence on elections.

That latter item is a particularly clever spin on TikTok’s current situation, given that it’s the foreign interference of TikTok itself that the Trump Administration is concerned about, along with the potential security risk that comes from the possibility of China’s authoritarian government collecting massive amounts of data on TikTok’s American users.

TikTok, however, says it has worked with CFITF and other experts to help stop the dangers of foreign influence on U.S. elections. The task force shares insight about possible disinformation campaigns across the industry and connects local election officials with online platforms and law enforcement. TikTok didn’t clarify the extent of its work in this area, but CFITF has only existed since 2018 so these would be fairly recent efforts.

The company also says it’s expanding its relationships with PolitiFact and Lead Stories to fact check potential misinformation related to the 2020 U.S. election. The organizations were previously focused on other fact-checks, like those related to COVID-19 and climate change.

However, fact-check organizations’ ability to actually find and fact-check misleading content can be difficult as much of this content is framed by users as “just my opinion.” A quick search on TikTok this morning for “climate change hoax,” for example, pulled up videos with dissenting user opinions on the topic with no fact-check applied. This isn’t a problem unique to TikTok, of course. Social media platforms in general struggle the line between free speech and misinformation, especially when content goes viral that shares a viewpoint not held by a majority of the scientific or academic community.

TikTok also says today it will roll out an election misinformation option to its in-app reporting feature in the “coming weeks.” But it didn’t offer a clear launch date, despite elections now being months away.

The company says it’s clarifying its policy to ban the use of “synthetic or manipulated content,” too. This will now include deepfakes meant to deceive or distort the truth. The policy continues to be questionably enforced. For example, TikTok easily pulled up the recent viral video that claims to show House Speaker Nancy Pelosi drunk — a video that has been manipulated from the original where she speaks normally. There is no fact-check applied. Facebook, by comparison, labeled the video “partly false,” given the digital slowing down of the original video.

None of these problems around fake content or attempts to deceive are unique to TikTok, of course. U.S. companies don’t have things under control, either.

TikTok, in addition, notes it releases Transparency Reports and recently added new Transparency webpage with information for lawmakers and users alike.

Its policy around “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” has also been restated to be clearer, TikTok says.

The new policy reads:

Do not engage in coordinated inauthentic activities (such as the creation of accounts) to exert influence and sway public opinion while misleading individuals, our community or the larger public about the account’s identity, location or purpose

The Trump administration has put the TikTok ban on hold for at least 45 days for now, ostensibly so TikTok could work out a deal with Microsoft. The U.S. government wants the company to spin out its U.S. operations to distance itself from China.

TikTok users, naturally, have their own theories about why Trump is coming down so hard on their prefered social app. Some number of TikTok teens pranked the Trump campaign over the rally in Tulsa, for starters. Other TikTok users pointed out that Trump’s real concern is that TikTok doesn’t allow political ads — and microtargeting voters on Facebook helped Trump win the last election.

These theories are interesting to debate (may not be entirely wrong!), but the reality is that the concerns over TikTok’s connection to China have some bipartisan support.

Instagram Reels launches globally in over 50 countries, including US

Instagram Reels, the company’s significant effort in challenging TikTok on short-form creative content, is launching globally, starting today. The feature is being made available across 50 countries, including the U.S., as TechCrunch had previously reported. The expansion means Reels will now be available in key international markets, such as India, Brazil, France, Germany, the U.K., Japan, Australia, Spain, Mexico, Argentina and several others.

The timing is fortuitous, given TikTok’s uncertain future in the U.S. as the Trump administration weighs either banning the Chinese-owned app entirely or forcing it to sell off its U.S. operations.

However, Facebook’s plans to respond to the TikTok threat were underway well before now.

In late 2018, Facebook launched a TikTok clone called Lasso. The app didn’t take off and was shuttered this year. Though unsuccessful as a standalone product, Lasso represents Facebook’s ability to run what are essentially large-scale beta tests that don’t have to generate revenue. This allows Facebook to collect a sizable amount of user behavioral data that can then be put to use when building new features for flagship apps, like it’s doing with Instagram Reels.

Following Lasso’s tests, Instagram released Reels in Brazil in November 2019, where it was called Cenas, to see how Instagram users would respond to a different sort of mobile video experience.

Those tests steadily expanded outside the U.S. to markets like India and parts of Europe in 2020.

With Reels, Instagram’s goal is not just to capture the now potentially up-for-grabs TikTok audience in the U.S. — it’s to steal them away even if TikTok remains.

Image Credits: Instagram

Today, Instagram caters to a certain kind of creator community that doesn’t always overlap with the younger, Gen Z (and up) user base that’s found a home on TikTok. (And Gen Alpha, if we’re being honest.) Instead, Instagram users either share polished, curated photos to their Feed; publish personal and casual videos in Stories; or share almost YouTube-like creator content to IGTV. Meanwhile, Instagram’s browsing experience hasn’t offered a way to quickly swipe through videos like on TikTok.

Image Credits: Instagram

Reels aims to change that. The feature lets users create and publish 15-second videos using a new set of editing tools that include options like AR effects, a countdown timer, a new align tool to line up different takes and, of course, music. Instagram’s deals with major record labels mean users won’t have to wonder if their sound will later be removed due to a rights issue and will offer a variety of musical content right out of the gate.

A comprehensive audio catalog could be a competitive advantage for Reels — not to mention a feature that’s difficult for smaller apps to acquire due to the complicated nature of record label negotiations.

When TikTok users recently descended on rival apps upon news of a potential TikTok ban in the U.S., one of their chief complaints was the lack of good music or popular sounds. Some even republished their favorites under hashtags like #sounds or #TikToksounds in an effort to rebuild TikTok’s catalog via user-generated uploads.

Instagram understood the importance of music — not just editing tools, workflow and discovery — in helping its TikTok competitor thrive. TikTok, after all, has its own record label contracts — though the extent of those deals haven’t been widely published.

“We think it’s really important to honor the rights of the music labels — and that’s one we’ve been working on for years now,” said Instagram head of Product, Vishal Shah. “We’re launching Reels now in countries where we have rights. We think that the catalog is quite deep and it has some unique content that you can’t really find, at that depth, in other platforms. At the same time, we wanted to make sure that all the restrictions that we needed to put in place — whether that was on the country basis or what could people download and use and remix etc. — were all built into the product from from day one. That’s something we’ve been working with the labels on and was an important consideration in the launch,” he added.

What he didn’t mention is that Instagram’s music industry relationships aren’t only with the record labels. The company has deals with other publishers and independents as well, which have been part of the company’s ongoing partnership efforts and strategic negotiations that are helping fuel other Facebook products, like the recent launch of Music Videos. 

Image Credits: Instagram

Using Reels is easy because it’s built into the Instagram Camera that people already know how to use. To create a new Reel, you’ll select the option at the bottom of the Instagram Camera, next to Story. The editing tools then pop up on the left side of the screen, which is where you’ll find the AR effects and other options, like the timer, speed and align features.

Like other Instagram posts, Reels can be saved to Drafts while they’re a work in progress. When ready to go live, Reels can be pushed out across key surfaces in the app — including Stories, Stories with Close Friends only or as a DM. If you have a public Instagram account, you also can publish Reels to the wider Instagram audience, which will discover them within a new space in Explore.

Image Credits: Instagram

Reels can also be captioned and hashtagged, and friends can be tagged — allowing Instagram to leverage the size and scale of its user base to help the new feature go viral. If Reels are published to Stories, they’ll disappear in 24 hours. Otherwise, Reels will continue to live on in a new tab on users’ profiles.

To watch Reels from Explore, users are presented in a vertical feed personalized to your interests, similar to TikTok. “Featured” Reels are those chosen by Instagram to guide users to original content and will be labeled accordingly.

Overall, what Instagram has built isn’t all that differentiated from TikTok. But nor is it a direct clone.

Instead, Instagram has turned the entirety of the TikTok experience into a single feature among many others within its own app. That’s been a formula for success in the past — Instagram Stories is now bigger than all of Snapchat, for instance.

But TikTok has built something that may not be as easily replicated: a community of users who started their social media lives with underage accounts on Musical.ly. They grew up with the app, lived through the TikTok rebranding and now may see no need to switch — unless TikTok actually does disappear.

Or, as my tween put it when a friend told her TikTok wasn’t really going to be banned: “So Instagram built Reels for nothing?”

Springboard raises $31 million to expand its mentor-guided education platform to more geographies

Springboard, an online education platform that provides upskilling and reskilling training courses to people looking to learn in-demand roles, has raised $31 million in a new financing round as it looks to expand to more geographies.

The Series B financing round for the San Francisco-headquartered startup was led by investment firm Telstra Ventures . Vulcan Capital and SJF Ventures, as well as existing investors Costanoa Ventures, Pearson Ventures, Reach Capital, International Finance Corporation (IFC), 500 Startups, Blue Fog Capital, and Learn Capital also participated in the round, said the seven-year-old startup, which has raised more than $50 million to date.

Springboard offers a range of six-month and nine-month courses on data-science, design, coding, analytics and other upskilling subjects to help students and those who are already employed somewhere land better jobs.

The startup, which expanded to India last year, also connects students with mentors — people who are working at Fortune 500 companies — to guide them better navigate professional decisions, Vivek Kumar, Managing Director at Springboard, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Startups offering upskilling courses have gained traction in recent years as companies across the globe complain about not being satisfied with a large portion of the undergraduate students who are applying for a job with them.

In many markets like India, one of the global hubs for tech consulting firms, it has become a common sight for several major IT giants to spend months in retraining their new hires. Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in elimination of tens of thousands of additional jobs.

Springboard offers these courses at customized price points to students based on where they live. For instance, a nine-month course that sells for around $7,500 in the U.S., is priced at $3,300 in India, explained Kumar.

“Technology used to be a niche area but that’s no longer the case. As more and more companies are built on tech, the need to understand concepts like Data Science, AI, ML, UI/UX has become more homogenous. For learning to be meaningful, it needs to encompass state-of-the-art curriculum with real-world projects as well as mentorship and that is what Springboard stands for. With this funding we are in a good position to build on our strengths to provide in-demand job skills and holistic support at every step,” he said.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Hollywood’s Triller sets its own rhythm even as it gains from TikTok troubles

Triller, the short video app backed by a Hollywood mogul and music celebrities, is rapidly ballooning in both user size and valuation. It’s now seeking a new funding round of $250 million that will push its valuation to over $1 billion, according to a source with knowledge of the matter.

That’s a leap from its $130 million valuation reported last October. Triller’s founder and CEO Mike Lu declined to comment, although another executive confirmed the funding with Dot.la.

The app has emerged as what many see as a TikTok replacement, but it has been around since 2015, two years before TikTok’s debut, and has its own “identity and ecosystem,” the founder insisted.

According to Lu, Triller was already recording “significant growth” even before the Trump administration began mulling a ban or a forced sale of TikTok, although he also admitted the app is getting a boost from the TikTok backlash. 35 million new active users joined Triller just within the last few days. The app has so far collected 250 million downloads worldwide.

The Los Angeles-based startup still has a long way to catch up with TikTok, which crossed 2 billion downloads in April. The rivals both tout their capability to let users match videos with music, a defining feature for their success. In fact, Triller recently filed a lawsuit accusing its Chinese rival for infringing its patent for “creating music videos synchronized with an audio track.”

Triller attributed part of its achievement to majority investor Proxima Media, the Hollywood studio founded by Ryan Kavanaugh. Lu said his company has spent zero in marketing to reach its size, something that “has never happened in technology history.” But Ryan, the film producer and financier behind hits like The Fast and the Furious and The Social Network, has no doubt brought unmatched media exposure, celebrity connections, and naturally, their fans who convert to Triller users.

Triller has also secured deals with major record labels, clearing the way for users to make music-centered videos. Its roster of angel investors include Snoop Dogg, The Weekend, Marshmellow, Lil Wayne, among other big names.

“Ryan is second to none in Hollywood, entertainment and media,” said Lu. “I give [Proxima Media] a ton of credit for helping us get to this stage, this massive growth. I don’t think we could have done it without them.”

Celebrity-quality content is one thing that sets Triller apart from TikTok, said Anis Uzzaman, general partner of Pegasus Tech Ventures, which invested in Triller in a strategic round.

“TikTok tries to grow its own celebrities. Triller already has all the big celebrities,” the investor said, refering to videos shared by Alicia Keys, Cardi B, Marshmellow, and Eminem via Triller, which is now a popular place for releasing songs. TikTok has also become a testing ground for artists to test new works.

Meanwhile, the app strives to keep its ordinary users engaged, one thing TikTok has done very well. For example, it boasts of AI-powered editing features that enable users to make professionally looking music videos. It’s also lanched a Billboard chart that ranks the biggest Triller songs, leveling the playing field between emerging creators and celebrities.

“It gives the young people a feeling that they are close to celebrities,” observed Uzzaman.

The investor also believes there’s room for multiple players in the short video space, akin to how Uber and Lyft co-exist. Indeed, China has seen TikTok’s Chinese version Douyin going head to head with Kuaishou in recent years.

For Lu, Triller’s identity is anchored in music, especially hip hop music in the early days, with a demographic of 18-25.

Triller’s App Store images.

TikTok, in comparison, can be everything from light-hearted dance videos to goofy skits. One gets a hint of their differences from the visuals they picked for their App Store pages.

TikTok’s App Store images.

The TikTok alts

The fate of TikTok could still change dramatically in the coming weeks, although so far, there’s a decent chance that Microsoft may scoop up the Chinese-owned app. Some startups are betting that their US identity will help them win over users from TikTok, but a survey done by California-based Creative Digital Agency suggests that may not be the case.

65% of the hundreds of TikTok users it asked said they won’t feel more comfortable with their data policies even if TikTok were an American company, and 84.6% believe the proposed ban is motivated by political concerns.

“The vast majority believe that all American social media platforms are doing exactly the same thing in mining personal data, which is the big privacy concern,” the agency’s managing director Kevin Almeida suggested.

That said, TikTok’s growth has slowed down recently, as some creators hedge the risk of losing followers in the case of a ban. The app’s installs in the US last week were down 7% compared to the four-week average, shows data from analytics firm Sensor Tower. Its total downloads in the US are close to 190 million.

Triller is hardly the only US startup thriving against the backdrop of TikTok’s uncertain future. At least three other micro-video apps have seen new downloads in the hundreds of thousands in the US over the past week, according to Sensor Tower, and two are rooted in China.

They are Byte, Dom Hofmann’s new app after Vine was shuttered by Twitter; Zynn, which is run by Kuaishou, TikTok’s Chinese homegrown rival; and Likee, operated by Bigo, a Singapore-based company acquired by China’s YY. These apps totaled downloads of 2.9 million, 6.4 million, and 16.3 million in the US, respectively.

Growth of TikTok’s old rival Dubsmash isn’t as remarkable but the app has the most US installs among the competitors, reaching 41.6 million recently.

In comparison, Triller has accumulated 23.8 million downloads in the US. The app has seen a surge in downloads in India following the country’s TikTok ban, but it has also ranked among the top photo and video apps across multiple European and African countries where TikTok remains accessible.

The company operates a global team of 350 employees, most of whom are in the US and work on content operation and engineering.

Parental control app Boomerang repeatedly blocked from Play Store, losing business

Apple isn’t the only one accused of kicking out competitive solutions from its App Store. Google did the same — for over a month at least — or so alleges parental control app maker Boomerang. The company’s product competes with Google’s own Family Link solution for controlling screen time and children’s use of mobile devices. The company claims Google repeatedly removed its application from the Play Store for a variety of issues, including violations of Google’s “Deceptive Behavior Policy” which relates to users’ inability to easily remove the application from their Android device.

The issue itself is complicated and an indication of how poor developer communication processes can make an existing problem worse, leading developers to complain of anti-competitive behaviors.

Like Apple, Google also has a set of rules developers have to agree to in order to publish apps on the Google Play store. The difficulty is that those rules are often haphazardly or unevenly enforced, requests for appeals are met with no replies or automated responses and, at the end of the day, there’s no way for a developer to reach a human and have a real discussion.

You may recall a similar situation involving screen time apps hit a group of screen time app makers last year. Apple then had suddenly removed a host of third-party screen time and parental control apps, shortly after introducing its own Screen Time solution within iOS 12. The company’s move was brought up during last week’s antitrust hearings in Congress, where Apple CEO Tim Cook insisted Apple’s decision was due to the risk to user privacy and security these apps caused.

The case with Boomerang is not that different. A developer gets kicked out of the Play Store and seems to have no way to escalate the appeal to an actual human to discuss the nuances of the situation further.

The Boomerang Ban

For starters, let’s acknowledge that it makes sense that the Play Store would have a policy against apps that are difficult to uninstall, as this would allow for a host of malware, spam and spyware applications to exist and torment users.

However, in the case of a parental control solution, the reality is that parents don’t want their kids to have the option to simply uninstall the program. In fact, Boomerang added the feature based on user feedback from parents.

Google itself puts its Family Link controls behind a parental PIN code and requires parents to sign into to their Google account to remove the child’s account from a device, for instance.

Boomerang’s app required a similar course of action. In “Parent Mode,” parents would toggle a switch that says “prevent app uninstallation” in the app’s Settings to make the protection on the child device non-removable.

Image Credits: Boomerang

But despite the obvious intended use case here, Boomerang’s app was repeatedly flagged for the same “can’t uninstall app” reason by the Play Store’s app review process when it submitted updates and bug fixes.

This began on May 8th, 2020 and took over a month to resolve. The developer, Justin Payeur, submitted the first appeal on May 11th to test if the ban had just been triggered by Google’s “app review robots.” On May 13th, the app was re-approved without any human response or feedback to the appeals message he had sent to Google.

But then on June 30th, Boomerang was again flagged for the same reason: “can’t uninstall app.” Payeur filed a second appeal, explaining the feature is not on by default — it’s there for parents to use if they choose.

On July 6th, Boomerang had to inform users of the problem, as they had become increasingly frustrated they couldn’t find the app on Google Play. In a customer email that didn’t mince words, Boomerang wrote: “Google has become evil.” Complaints from users said that if the app didn’t offer the “prevent uninstall” feature, it wouldn’t be worth using.

On July 8th, Boomerang received a reply from Google with more information, explaining that Google doesn’t allow apps that change the user’s device settings or features outside the app without user’s knowledge or consent. Specifically, it also cited the app’s use of the “Google Accessibility Services API” in a manner that’s  in violation with the Play Store terms. Google said the app wouldn’t be approved until it remove functionality that prevented a user from removing or uninstalling the app from their device.

This requirement, though rooted in user security, disadvantages parental control apps compared with Google’s own Family Link offering. As Google’s help documentation indicates, removing a child’s account from an Android device requires parents to input a passcode — it can’t simply be uninstalled by the end user (the child).

Boomerang later that day received a second violation notification after it changed the app to be explicitly clear to the end user (the child) that the Device Administrator (a parent) would have permission to control the device, mimicking other apps Boomerang said were still live on Google Play.

After two more days pass with no reply from the Appeals team, Boomerang requested a phone call to discuss. Google sent a brief email, saying it was merging the two active Appeals into one but no other information about the Appeal was provided.

On July 13th, Boomerang was informed Google was still examining the app. The company replied again to explain why a parental control app would have such a feature. The same day, Boomerang was alerted that older versions of its app in its internal testing area in the Play Console were being rejected. These versions were never published live, the company says. The rejections indicated Boomerang was “degrading device security” with its app.

The next day, Boomerang informed its user base that it may have to remove the feature they wanted and emailed Google again to again point out the app now has clear consent included.

Image Credits: Boomerang; Email complains of “material impact” to business 

Despite not having made any changes, Google informs Boomerang on July 16th it’s in violation of the “Elevated Privilege Abuse” section of the Google Play Malware policy. On July 19th, the company removed the additional app protection feature and on July 21st, Google again rejected the app for the same violation — over a feature that had now been removed.

Despite repeated emails, Boomerang didn’t receive any message from Google until an automated email arrived on July 24th. Again, Google sent no response to the emails where Payeur explains the violating feature had now been removed. Repeated emails through July 30th were also not responded to.

After hearing about Boomerang’s issues, TechCrunch asked Google on July 27th to explain its reasoning.

The company, after a few follow-ups, told TechCrunch on August 3rd that the issues with Boomerang — as later emails to Boomerang had said — were related to how the app implemented its features. Google does not allow apps to engage in “elevated privilege” abuse. And it doesn’t allow apps to abuse the Android Accessibility APIs to interfere with basic operations on a device.

Google also said it doesn’t allow any apps to use the same mechanism Boomerang does, including Google’s own. (Of course, Google’s own apps have the advantage of deep integrations with the Android OS. Developers can’t tap into some sort of “Family Link API,” for example, to gain a similar ability to control a child’s device.)

“We recognize the value of supervision apps in various contexts, and developers are free to create this experience with appropriate safeguards,” a Google spokesperson said.

More broadly, Boomerang’s experience is similar to what iOS parental control apps went through last year. Like those apps, Boomerang too bumped up against a security safeguard meant to protect an entire app store from abusive software. But the blanket rule leaves no wiggle room for exceptions. Google, meanwhile, argues its OS security is not meant to be “worked around” like this. But it has also at the same time offered no official means of interacting with its OS and own screen time/parental control features. Instead, alternative screen time apps have to figure out ways to basically hack the system to even exist in the first place, even though there’s clear consumer demand for their offerings.

Boomerang’s particular case also reveals the complexities involved with of having a business live or die by the whims of an app review process.

It’s easy enough to argue that the developer should have simply removed the feature and moved on, but the developer seemed to believe the feature would be fine — as evidenced by prior approvals and the approval received upon at least one of its appeals. Plus, the developer is incentivized to fight for the feature because it’s something users said they wanted — or rather, what they demanded, to make the app worth paying for.

Had someone from Google just picked up the phone and explained to Boomerang what’s wrong and what alternative methods would be permitted, the case may not have dragged on in such a manner. In the meantime, Boomerang likely lost user trust, and its removal definitely impacted its business in the near-term.

Reached for a follow-up, Payeur expressed continued frustration, despite the app now being re-approved for Play Store distribution.

“It took Google over a month to provide us with this feedback,” he said, referencing the forbidden API usage that was the real problem. “We are currently digesting this”  he said, adding how difficult it was to not be able to talk to Google’s teams to get proper communication and feedback over the past several weeks.

Boomerang has begun collecting the names of other similarly impacted apps, lile Filter Chrome, Minder Parental Control, and Netsanity. The company says other apps can reach out privately to discuss, if they prefer.

 

 

 

Serialized fiction startup Radish raises $63.2M from SoftBank and Kakao

Radish is announcing that it has raised $63.2 million in new funding.

Breaking up book-length stories into smaller chapters that released over days or weeks is an idea that was popularized in the 19th century, and startups have been trying to revive it for at least the past decade. Still, this round represents a major step up in funding, not just for Radish (which only raised around $5 million before this), but also compared to other startups in a relatively nascent market. (Digital fiction startup Wattpad is the notable exception.)

When I first wrote about Radish at the beginning of 2017, the startup was focused on user-generated content. Last year, however, the company launched the Radish Originals program, where Radish is able to produce more content using teams of writers lead by a showrunner, and where the startup owns the resulting intellectual property.

“Instead of becoming YouTube or Wattpad for serial fiction, we want to be more like Netflix and create our own originals,” Kim told me. “I got a lot of inspiration from platforms in Korea, China and Japan, where serial fiction is huge and established on mobile.”

One of the ideas Radish took from the Asian markets is rapidly updating its stories. For example, its most popular title, “Torn Between Alphas” (a romance story with werewolves) has released 10 seasons in less than a year, with each season consisting of more than 50 chapters — in fact, later seasons have more than 100 chapters — that are released multiple times a day.

“On Netflix, you can binge-watch three seasons of a show at once,” Kim said. “On Radish, you can binge-read a thousand episodes.”

While Radish borrowed the writing room model from TV — and hired Emmy-winning TV writers, particularly those with a background in soap opera — Kim said it’s also taken inspiration from gaming. For one thing, it relies on micro-payments to make money, where users buy coins that allow them to unlock later chapters of a story (chapters usually cost 20 or 30 cents on average, and more chapters get moved out from behind the paywall over time). In addition, the company can allow readers to determine the direction of stories by A/B testing different versions of the same chapter.

Kim pointed to the fall of 2019 as Radish’s “inflection point,” where the model really started to work. Now, the company says its most popular story has made more than $4 million and has more than 50 million “reads.” Radish stories are mostly in the genres of romance, paranormal/sci-fi, LGBTQ, young adult, and horror, mystery and thriller, and Kim said the audience is largely female and based in the United States.

By raising a big round led by SoftBank Ventures Asia (the early stage investment arm of troubled SoftBank Group) and Kakao Pages (which publishes webtoons, web novels and more, and is part of Korean internet giant Kakao), Kim said he can take advantage of their expertise in the Asian market to grow Radish’s audience in the U.S. That will mean increasing content production in the hopes of creating more hit titles, and also spending more on performance marketing.

“With its own fast-paced original content production, Radish is best positioned to become a leading player in the global online fiction market,” said SoftBank Ventures Asia CEO JP Lee in a statement. “Radish has proven that its serialized novel platform can change the way people consume online content, and we are excited to support the company’s continued disruption in the mobile fiction space. Leveraging our global SoftBank ecosystem, we hope to support and accelerate Radish’s expansion across different regions worldwide.”

Mobile bank Current launches a points rewards program for debit card users

Amid a crowded market of mobile banking services, which will soon also include Google, U.S. challenger bank Current is launching a new program that will offer points-based rewards to its checking account customers. The program will allow Current members to earn up to 15x points on everyday debit card purchases at over U.S. 14,000 merchants, including national retailers like Subway, Rite Aid, True Value, Cold Stone Creamery, and others.

The points program is an alternative to other credit cards’ “cashback” offerings, which reward users immediately with cash they can keep or apply to their next bill. Instead, Current’s points will accumulate under a user’s account to certain thresholds, then can be redeemed for cash at a rate of 100 points per dollar. They can also be used for subscriptions.

At the moment, the points can be applied only to Current’s own membership subscription — the service offers a Premium tier for $5 per month — but further down the road, the company envisions using points to pay for a wide variety of subscription services.

Image Credits: Current

At launch, Current says around 50% of its user base lives within 2 miles of an offer, but it’s working to get that number to 100%. In addition, Current’s users tend to be out and about in their city, even amid the pandemic, as the majority (around 80%) are classified as “essential workers.” This includes those who work in logistics-related fields, like Walmart, Amazon, Instacart, Doordash, Uber, and Lyft, as well as nurses, military, and government workers.

Because of their jobs, they’re more likely to be out getting gas or eating at restaurants, where they could easily gain points. Current estimates its members will save $165 per year in cash back just from their gas purchases alone, for example.

The company is the first neobank to roll out a points-based rewards program in the U.S., it says. Though plenty of U.S. credit cards offer points or cashback programs, the large market of debit card users is typically ignored. (There are a few rewards-based debit cards, but they’re few and far between).

“People who use debit typically live paycheck to paycheck and have far less money,” explains Current founder and CEO, Stuart Sopp. He says Current primarily wants to improve these users’ financial outcomes, as that’s the company’s core mission.

However, the program will also allow Current to stand out among a growing number of alternative banking apps that are starting to all look the same thanks to a baseline of consumer-friendly features like no-fees banking, free cash withdrawals, and modern mobile budgeting tools, among other things.

“If it means competitively — compared to Varo, Chime, Square and Venmo — that users in an increasingly crowded market see there’s more value with us, then that’s great,” notes Sopp. “We’re very proud to stick our head out and say, we’re the first and only fintech challenger bank to offer points,” he says.

Image Credits: Current

The points program, over time, will also help to generate additional revenue for Current as it establishes a relationship between the bank and merchants — something that could prove valuable as Current expands its product line-up.

At the moment, Current is leveraging several undisclosed third-parties to help power its points program, combined with internal efforts — the latter focused on onboarding the larger brands. Over time, as the points program grows, Current hopes its merchant partners will pay for the privilege of having their offers surfaced to those users who are most likely to redeem them.

Sopp says this wouldn’t involve sharing users’ personal data, but rather would focus on targeting offers more appropriately to end users. For instance, an offer for a restaurant may appear around lunch time. Offers could also be more precisely geolocated, on an opt in basis, so you’ll get an alert to an offer as you walk in a store.

The points program is rolling out now to Current’s 1.3 million members, both Basic (free) and Premium (paid). Combined, Current users have deposited over $1 billion to date in the mobile bank.

Amazon’s 16% bite of Deliveroo finally clears UK competition probe

It’s official: Days after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was peppered with awkward questions by US lawmakers concerned about the market power of his ecommerce empire, the UK’s competition regulator has confirmed it’s happy for the tech giant to take a 16% bite out of local on-demand food delivery app, Deliveroo.

The CMA had been investigating the planned stake for some 15 months, completing phase one of its scrutiny in December. At the time it decided it had enough concerns to move to a phase 2 probe — chewing over whether or not the stake might discourage Amazon from re-entering the online restaurant food market and “further developing its presence within the online convenience grocery delivery market in the UK”, as it put it.

Soon after the regulator started in on this work COVID-19 struck Europe — impacting investigation as it had a marked impact on Deliveroo’s business. Initially the impact of the coronavirus looked negative, with Deliveroo claiming it would have gone out of business without Amazon’s stake. The CMA concurred with this analysis, treating it as a “failing firm” and reasoning that Deliveroo’s exit from the market would have been worse for competition — thereby provisionally clearing the Amazon stake in April.

Then again in June the regulator provisionally cleared the deal — although it now no longer considered Deliveroo failing, being as, from April 2020, it found a sharper than expected recovery in the restaurant food delivery market, as well as a shift in the restaurant ‘mix’ (“towards smaller, independent restaurants and away from large fast food chains”) — both of which resulted in money being poured into Deliveroo’s coffers. Yet then — with the startup’s finances experiencing “rapid and significant turnaround” — the regulator felt it necessary to complete a “substantive assessment” to of the risks to competition.

Now it’s finally concluded that Amazon’s 16% stake does not cross the competitive risk threshold. So Bezos can crack out the bubble — assuming he knows what the heck Deliveroo is of course.

The CMA said its decision to clear the deal on competition grounds is “the culmination of extensive analysis of internal documents from Amazon and Deliveroo, a survey of more than 3,000 consumers, and extensive submissions from interested third parties”.

It said the assessment looked at how a 16% shareholding by Amazon would “affect its incentives to compete independently with Deliveroo in both restaurant delivery and online convenience grocery delivery in the coming years”.

“The CMA ultimately found that this level of investment will not substantially lessen competition in either market. However, if Amazon were to acquire a greater level of control over Deliveroo — through, for example, acquiring a controlling interest in the company — this could trigger a further investigation by the CMA,” it added.

Commenting further in a statement, Stuart McIntosh, inquiry chair, said: “Taking account of the higher legal standard that applies at Phase 2, the Group has concluded that the transaction will not result in a substantial lessening of competition in either restaurant delivery or convenience grocery delivery.”

McIntosh was also at pains to emphasize that the decision reflects the scale of the investment and Amazon ‘s “incentives to compete in both markets” — reiterating the warning that should Amazon try to increase its share of Deliveroo a fresh investigation may be triggered. 

The announcement that Amazon was leading a $575 million Series G investment in the UK food delivery app business dates back to May 2019.

The move signalled a second act for the ecommerce behemoth in the UK food delivery market, after it launched an on-demand food delivery offer with London restaurants for Prime members back in 2016. However it went on to shutter the effort a couple of years later — having faced fierce competition from the likes of Deliveroo and Uber Eats.

Responding to the CMA’s clearance of the Amazon stake, Deliveroo emphasized that “none of the five ‘Theories of Harm’ on which the CMA based its investigation have been substantiated”.

A company spokesperson also emailed this statement:

We are delighted that the CMA has concluded its 15 month investigation and that the Amazon minority investment can now go ahead.

This is fantastic news for UK customers and restaurants, and for the British economy. British born Deliveroo will use the investment to increase choice and value for customers, support for restaurants and will be able to offer more riders the flexible work they value as the company expands.

Deliveroo is excited that Amazon, the most customer-obsessed and innovative company in the world, has shown such a huge vote of confidence in Deliveroo and chosen to invest in the company’s future.

The company offered some updated business metrics, saying there are now 100,000 restaurants on its platform globally, with 30,000 joining this year alone — which it claimed points to “the extent to which the Covid crisis has seen restaurants turn to delivery as a vital source of revenue”.

“75,000 of the restaurants who work with Deliveroo globally are small, independent restaurants who have been hit hardest by the pandemic,” it added.

WhatsApp pilots new feature to fight misinformation: Search the web

WhatsApp, one of the most popular instant messaging platforms on the planet, has rolled out a new feature in select markets that makes it easier for users to verify whether the assertions made in messages they have received on the app are true.

The Facebook -owned service has enabled users in Brazil, Italy, Ireland, Mexico, Spain, UK, and US to click on a magnifying glass-shaped icon next to frequently forwarded messages — those that have been forwarded at least five times — to search the web for their contents and verify them.

WhatsApp said the new feature, called ‘search the web’, works by allowing users to upload the message — it could be text or an image — via their browser. This means that WhatsApp itself never sees the content of any message, it said in a blog post.

The feature, available across WhatsApp’s Android, iOS, and Web apps, is in pilot stage, the messaging platform said. It remains unclear how soon WhatsApp intends to roll out this feature, which it began testing several months ago, to users across the globe.

But regardless, the new feature comes at a time when WhatsApp and other messaging platforms are being used more often than ever before as people stay in touch with their friends, families, and colleagues at the height of a global pandemic.

WhatsApp, which has been forced to confront with the spread of misinformation challenge on its platform in recent years, has introduced several features and imposed restrictions to better control the flow in the past year.

In April, WhatsApp put in place additional restriction on how frequently a message could be shared on its platform. WhatsApp said that any message that has been forwarded five or more times will now face a new limit that will prevent a user from forwarding it to more than one chat (contact) at a time. Weeks later, volume of “highly forwarded” messages had already dropped by 70% globally, it claimed.

Though WhatsApp has visibly rushed to take timely actions in recent quarters, misinformation has not vanished from the app. Ill-informed explanations about Indian government’s moves, and “cures” of Covid-19 were still doing rounds on the platform a few months ago in India, its biggest market, for intance. And to be fair, there’s only so much a tech firm can do to fight human stupidity.