Alms is a social app focused on real-world impact and positive change

A number of startups are experimenting with what a better social app could look like. For a startup called Alms, the answer is a social network that focuses on users’ well-being through participation in creator-led challenges in areas like personal growth, sustainability, and others with positive impacts. Instead of driving the collection “likes,” as on other social apps, Alms aims to encourage real-world engagement through its challenges and the specific steps and actions that must be taken.

The idea, explains Alms founder Alexander Nevedovsky, is to design an app that guides users to a happier and more meaningful life when they use it. That’s something modern social platforms can’t really promise to do.

Work on the project began during the early days of the pandemic in 2020, Nevedovsky says.

“A lot of us were feeling depressed and sad, at home without much access to friends and family,” he explains. “I felt like the world really needed something that’s a bit more than just meditation, journaling, or mood tracking — all those apps and techniques are great, but they’re not designed to improve your life on a day-to-day basis, interacting in the real world.”

However, the original version of Alms released last year was lacking something that would make the app “sticky.” Users would sign up because they liked the concept, but at some point would drop out and stop participating in the activities. The startup knew it needed something more to tie users to their journeys, which is why it has now shifted to become more of a social community.

Image Credits: Alms

When you first launch the newly designed Alms app, you’re taken through a brief onboarding process where you select your interests from three main topical areas: personal growth, sustainability, and impact. For example, “personal growth” interests may include things like mental health, wellness, spirituality, or relationships. “Sustainability” focuses on interests related to the environment and nature. And “impact” would wrap in things like activism, volunteering, local community, and more.

After setup is complete, you can follow creators who post challenges or choose to join individual challenges, each with their own set of steps that have to be taken in order to fully complete them. For instance, in a challenge focused on improving your work-from-home lifestyle, the steps guide users to take steps to improve their workspace and their work-life balance (by scheduling breaks and hard stops to their day, e.g.), and asks them to add physical activity to their routines, among other concrete actions.

As you participate in a challenge by completing and checking off each step, you’re prompted to post a story about that step in that challenge’s feed to inspire others, who may add an encouraging comment. But gathering likes and comments is not Alms’ goal, says Nevedovsky.

“We see tremendous possibility in allowing more and more people with expertise in these topics — personal growth, sustainability, and impact of various sorts — to basically try to scale their impact with us,” he notes. “We allow them to put all their knowledge or their content in a scalable way so that people can actually — not like it, not comment under it — but actually try to repeat it.”

At launch, Alms has around 30 creators sharing their content in the form of challenges on its app, and 15 more are in the pipeline. It hopes to reach a couple of hundred over the next few months. So far, the new version of the app has attracted a couple of thousand users, as well.

Image Credits: Alms

Many of the challenges on the app have been joined by hundreds of users, so you do feel some sense of participating in a larger event when you click to join. However, I’d personally prefer that posting a story and sharing it to the feed was optional — not every step deserves its own post, I feel. (And sometimes, you may not have anything to say about the minor steps you completed and end up feeling like you’ve cluttered the feed with less-than-helpful posts.)

Alms was co-founded with startup studio Palta, a home to apps like Flo.Health, Simple Fasting, and Zing Fitness Coach. Palta owns a majority stake in Alms, and the company has no other outside investment. A remotely distributed team of fourteen works on the Alms app, which isn’t currently monetized.

Nevedovsky says the team is considering adding some sort of token-based economy or perhaps a DAO which would convey some sort of real-world rewards. This could include being able to participate in Alms’ governance or joining a creator fund, for example. The tokens, at least in the near term, would not be tradeable. The company may also consider simpler ideas, like in-app tipping. But nothing has yet been determined as Alms is still working on product-market fit at this time, and scaling its userbase.

Overall, Alms seems like it could appeal to those who want to be more mindful and impactful about how they’re spending their time on social apps, but who are in search of inspiration that comes with more specific direction.

“I think, a lot of the time, people place hopes on what will happen in the future without actually influencing it. So I think that having an app that helps you with ideas and inspiration from people who know what they share, what they recommend, is super helpful — especially when it’s all about support,” notes Nevedovsky. “People [on Alms] actually care.”

The app, we found, is well-built and attractively designed. But it could still face the original issue of having users drop off, despite its new social components, given the competition for screen time on today’s mobile devices.

Alms is a free download on iOS only for the time being.

Jack is leaving Twitter and we have ~thoughts~

Well, so much for a relaxed post-holiday week on Monday.

News broke this morning that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is stepping down from the company entirely. The company’s CTO, Parag Agrawal, will be taking over at the helm. Saleforce exec Bret Taylor will take over as board chairman.

So, Amanda and Natasha and Alex jumped into onto the mics — and, ironically, a Twitter space — to riff on all things Jack and future of Twitter. From the show:

  • Crypto and the CTO, what can we read from the tea leaves?
  • Jack’s dual role, and its detractors.
  • The fact that Twitter’s product work has been great lately, which we don’t want to stop. When is a good time to leave a company, is it on the up and up or when things are quiet?
  • And, finally, Jack’s somewhat biting words regarding founder-led companies, which are, frankly, a bit at odds with his own behavior until now.

The show is back on Wednesday, unless some other major CEO resigns.

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 a.m. PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Balance and Pokémon UNITE top Google Play’s ‘Best of 2021’ Awards

Google today announced the winners of its “Best of 2021” app awards, which highlight both the company’s and users’ picks for the best apps and games from the past year. This year, Google is expanding its awards lineup to include apps and games on tablets, Wear OS and Google TV, it says. Its U.S. winners included meditation app Balance as its app of the year and top game Pokémon UNITE. Meanwhile, Paramount+ and Garena Free Fire MAX won the user’s choice awards.

In 2020, the award winners had reflected a world undergoing a pandemic, where stressed users had turned to apps and soothing games to relax — like top sleep app Loóna, which was last year’s “Best App,” or escapist games like winner Genshin Impact.

With the early days of the pandemic now behind us, some of this year’s award winners are apps that now focus on personal growth and creativity, instead of just relaxing or escaping. This, too, seems to reflect where we are as a society. Over this past year, we saw the “great resignation” where U.S. employees voluntarily quit their unfulfilling, underpaid jobs in search of something better, and the creator economy began to boom as people pursued their passions.

In addition to Best of 2021 app Balance, which offers personalized meditation, other personal development-styled winners include Moonly, an app for “harmonizing your life” with the lunar calendar; a “comedic relaxation” app, Laughscape; a hypnotherapy app for women, Clementine; better sleep app Sleep Cycle; mentorship community Mentor Spaces; habit tracker and planner Rabit; and an app for navigating grief from loss, Empathy.

Other winners showcased how we adapted to pandemic life, as with audio chatroom Clubhouse, tools for reducing screen time, like Speechify, or those for reconnecting with nature, like Blossom.

In addition to winner Balance, the full lineup of app winners includes the following:

Best Apps for Good 

Best Everyday Essentials 

Best for Fun 

Best Hidden Gems

Best for Personal Growth 

Best for Tablets  

Best for Wear 

Popular on Google TV

The year’s best games were led by top game Pokémon UNITE, which focused on cross-platform gaming.

“Pokémon Unite is Pokémon’s first strategic team battle game, co-developed by The Pokémon Company and TiMi Studio Group. We tried to distill the best parts of the MOBA genre to create a new kind of game, but I must admit that I was unsure if it would be well received by players around the world,” noted Masaaki Hoshino, Producer, Pokémon UNITE, in a statement. T”his award shows that our game has been positively received by fans and the media, and while this is a great relief, at the same time it reaffirms our determination to continue doing our best to make Pokémon UNITE an even more exciting experience that meets our players’ expectations,” he added.

The larger lineup also included indie experiences like the introspective Bird Alone, which challenges you to become friends with the “loneliest bird in the world.” Annapurna Interactive’s Donut County won for its physics-based puzzle game, among others.

The full list of game winners included:

Best Competitive 

Best Game Changers

Best Indies 

Best Pick Up & Play

Best for Tablets

Each country will have its own list of winning apps and games which can be found in the new Best of 2021 section of the Play Store. The above are Google Play’s U.S. winners.

Particular Audience takes in $7.5M to give retailers way to take on Amazon

Being in control of customer data is one of the ways retailers, like Amazon, Spotify and Netflix, are able to tap into consumer behavior and create customized experiences whenever a user logs in.

Those are some of the reasons Amazon, in particular, is poised to grab 50% of the U.S. e-commerce market this year, and why Sydney-based Particular Audience wants to break down the data silos going on within e-commerce to give any retailer a chance to gather similar data on their customers to personalize experiences.

Particular Audience provides product discovery tools for retailers that are powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning. In fact, the company wants to go further and offer personalization based on anonymity and without compromising personal data, CEO James Taylor told TechCrunch.

Taylor launched Particular Audience in 2019 after taking a few years to work out the technology. The global pandemic threw a wrench in some plans, with Taylor and a handful of executives taking a pay cut so as to not have to let any employees go. However, with the e-commerce industry growing over the past 18 months, the company was able to get back to where it was, he said.

The company has now amassed a real-time data set on product search, sales, pricing and availability from across the internet, from its browser plugin SimilarInc.com, which gathers the data from its online shopper community without tracking or cookies. Retailers can analyze that data to tell them, for example, how better to promote high-margin or overstocked items.

“Data IP is the current frontier,” he said. “It is data that is going to improve predictions to personalize inventory and reduce waste while also helping with supply chain management. The goal is to create website data visibility that would benefit all of the other merchants other than Amazon.”

To continue developing its technology, the company secured $7.5 million in Series A funding in a round led by Equity Venture Partners and that included existing investors Carthona Capital and a group of angel investors. This latest investment gives the company $9.5 million in total funding raised to date, which includes $1.3 million in seed funding raised in 2019.

Particular Audience

How Particular Audience works on a website. Image Credits: Particular Audience

Particular Audience is working with approximately 100 websites currently. In addition to Sydney, the company also has an office in London. Europe makes up more than 50% of Particular Audience’s global revenue, and the new funding enables the company to open a new office in Amsterdam next year.

North America is also a growth territory for the company, where it has already opened an office in Vancouver, with plans to open a New York office in 2022 as well. The company has 60 employees, up from 20 last year, and Taylor expects to add 40 more in the next year, including rounding out its leadership team with a head of product.

The funding will also be invested into building out an API-first product suite and retail media platform so retailers can gain a revenue stream from cost per clicks. Meanwhile, the company saw 460% year over year in revenue growth and expects to hit $100 million in gross merchandise value through its products this year, up 19 times in the last two years, Taylor said.

As part of the investment, Daniel Szekely, partner at Equity Venture Partners, will join the board.

“Personalization of the internet is a critical frontier for e-commerce retailers, and in a world of growing online shopping options and diminishing consumer attention spans, delivering an experience that meets individual consumers’ needs is absolutely critical,” he said in a written statement. “James and his outstanding team have tackled this issue in a novel way, and the important need for their solution has been made obvious as the business gets pulled into multiple geographies. We’re thrilled to back them in their Series A and know this is just the beginning of the journey.”

 

Bolt makes first acquisition with Tipser, launches ‘Remote Checkout’

The ability to purchase something at the point of discovery from digital content exists, but checkout technology company Bolt has the opportunity to give that its “one-click” treatment. It announced Monday that it made its first acquisition in Tipser, a Swedish-based technology company enabling direct checkout on any digital surface.

San Francisco-based Bolt is fresh off of raising $393 million in Series D funding in October, bringing total capital raised to date to $600 million. And though the Tipser acquisition is in line with the company’s plans of what it wanted to do with the new capital, Ryan Breslow, founder and CEO of Bolt, told TechCrunch the deal “had been in the works for a while.”

Tipser’s technology enables consumers to purchase products natively from sites like online publications, mobile marketplaces, price comparison sites, social media platforms or search engines. The company is led by Marcus Jacobsson, co-founder and CEO, who started the company in 2012 with Axel Wolrath and Jonas Sjöstedt.

In fact, when Bolt initially began talking to Tipser, the company was not in a place to sell, and was actually working on their next investment round (they raised just over $14 million), but the two companies ended up going into deeper conversations and found their cultural resonances worked better together, Breslow said.

“We saw how significant Tipser could be for Bolt,” he added. “They had been perfecting their embedded commerce technology for a decade and were the only formidable player. They were stronger than us in areas where we were weaker. It is very strategic to have them on our team.”

Exact transaction figures were not disclosed, but Breslow did reveal to TechCrunch that the acquisition, which was an all-stock deal, came in “just shy of $200 million.” The entire Tipser team is staying put, so Bolt will be adding 100 more people to its team. Tipser’s presence in Sweden will now also serve as Bolt’s European headquarters to go with the company’s recent announcement of expanding into Europe.

In addition to the acquisition, Bolt is launching Remote Checkout, a tool for shoppers to make a purchase from the exact point of discovery. Instead of seeing something on social media — where 84% of shoppers look for reviews, according to Pew Research Center — then going to another website to make the purchase,

The new tool is one that Bolt was working on internally for over a year and was inspired by Instagram Checkout, also a tool where you can discover a product and check out directly from the app, Breslow said.

“With the death of tracking and cookies, we could see the need for native checkout so retailers can track conversion,” he added. “It’s better for consumers to not have to click a million things.”

Bolt’s Remote Checkout features include the direct one-click checkout, engagement with Bolt’s network of shoppers and the ability for merchants to boost conversion rates while receiving orders through multiple channels and building direct relationships with visitors. It also turns anonymous visitors into logged-in account holders and monetizes traffic on-site.

The added feature of publishers and creators being able to monetize traffic coming to their sites was one that Jason Wagenheim, president and CRO at media publisher BDG (formerly known as Bustle Digital Group), found particularly interesting. BDG’s brands include Bustle, EliteDaily and Fatherly.

He was a bystander of sorts for the merger, having signed up with Tipser in January as the company’s first U.S. publisher, going live with the product in April on two of BDG’s 13 sites, Wagenheim said in an interview.

“What I love most about this acquisition is that we can accelerate the onboarding of hundreds of more merchants onto our platform,” he said. “This is a marriage of content and commerce.”

Before social media and companies like Bolt and Tipser, shopping directly from a magazine page meant utilizing QR codes, but that didn’t take off like people thought it would, Wagenheim said.

Other publishers tried to crack the code, and he noted Goop being one of the few able to do it. Now with these new technologies, any publisher or creator can close the gap between the upper and lower funnels and drive awareness because its commerce is shoppable and one click away.

He considers BDG’s project with Tipser still in the beta phase, but there are plans to roll out the technology on all of its sites next year. The company already had its audience engage in over 25 million sessions with people, on average, seeing 10 products per session, a metric Wagenheim says means the process is working: people are spending time with the products, are engaged and adding products to carts.

“With hundreds more merchants for editors to write about, and the one-click transaction happening, that is a game-changer,” he added.

India’s Slice becomes unicorn with $220M funding from Tiger Global, Insight Partners and Advent

Rajan Bajaj, founder of fintech Slice, chimed in on a Twitter thread earlier this year and wondered aloud what he needs to do to turn his startup into a unicorn before he turns 30.

At just 28, Bajaj has figured it out.

Slice, which was valued at under $200 million in a financing round in June this year, has joined the unicorn club with a fresh $220 million fundraise, the startup said on Monday.

Tiger Global and Insight Partners co-led the Bangalore-based startup’s Series B round. Private equity firm Advent International’s Sunley House Capital, Moore Strategic Ventures, Anfa, and existing investors Gunosy, Blume Ventures, and 8i also participated in the round.

TechCrunch reported early last month that Tiger Global and Insight Global were in talks to back Slice. A source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that the round could grow further to $250 million.

Slice has established itself as one of the market leading card-issuing firms in India. The startup offers a number of cards that are aimed at tech-savvy, young professionals in the country.

Image credits: Slice

And it’s a huge market.

Despite nearly a billion Indians having a bank account, only a tiny fraction of this population is covered by the South Asian nation’s young credit rating system. As we have outlined in the past, Indian banks heavily rely on archaic methodologies to determine an individual’s creditworthiness and whether they deserve a credit card. Their conclusion: it’s too risky to give a credit card or even a loan to most Indians.

Slice is tackling this by using its own underwriting system. Such is the confidence it has in its underwriting system that in September this year, it launched a card with $27 limit to tap into the nation’s 200 million population. In an interview with TechCrunch, Bajaj (pictured above) said the new card is gaining fast traction, but declined to share any figures.

The startup offers its customers a range of features such as the ability to pay the bill in three interest free instalments and access to discounts on purchase with scores of brands. Slice says it is issuing over 200,000 cards each month. With this, it has become the third largest card issuer in India after two banks, according to a person familiar with the matter.

“Slice has built a product that customers love, which we expect will result in continued growth and market share gains,” said Alex Cook, a partner at Tiger Global, in a statement. “We are excited to partner with Rajan and the team as they expand access to credit and deliver best-in-class customer experience.”

On the business front, the startup is clocking an annual revenue runrate of over $60 million, according to the source quoted above. The source requested anonymity as the details are private.

 

This is a developing story. More to follow…

This Week in Apps: Twitter launches livestream shopping, Netflix snags new games, Tile gets acquired

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

Twitter launches livestream shopping

Image Credits: Twitter

Twitter’s e-commerce initiatives now include livestream shopping, the company announced this week, and Walmart will be the first retailer to test the new platform. The Live Shopping service will take advantage of Twitter’s existing capabilities in livestreaming content and its newer e-commerce features, like the Shop Module for business profiles. During the upcoming livestream event, users will be able to watch the show, tweet to join the conversation from the Live Events page, and browse products on the “Shop” and “Latest” tabs just below the video. When ready to purchase, users will click through to the retailer’s website where the livestream will continue — so they don’t have to miss any of the show.

Walmart was a sensible first partner for the new effort, as the retailer has been increasingly investing in livestream events across social media. Over the past year, it hosted more than 15 livestream events across five platforms, including YouTube, TikTok and its own website, among others.

Its Twitter livestream will focus on Cyber Deals and will kick off on November 28 at 7 PM ET in the U.S. The stream will also be broadcast on Walmart.com/live, and across the retailer’s Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube accounts.

Twitter says this is the first-ever e-commerce livestream on its platform, but it plans to bring more experiences like this to its customers in the future.

The event will also serve as a means of testing the Twitter user base’s appetite for live shopping, which today often takes place on other social apps, like Instagram and Facebook, on dedicated live commerce platforms and on video services like YouTube and TikTok. But Twitter —  a place where users tend to track news, events, pop culture trends, politics and more — hasn’t yet defined itself as a platform. Its overabundance of new features released in the past year feel more like spaghetti being thrown at the wall to see what sticks, instead of a carefully planned roadmap. Twitter today wants to be a home to live audio, creator subscriptions, newsletters, bitcoin tipping, NFTs, private communities and more. But, in reality, only some of these things will actually work. For example, Twitter already had to kill its Stories feature (Fleets) due to lack of traction. And its early days of Super Follow, subscriptions didn’t produce much revenue.

Whether or not it will be able to offer the sort of live commerce experience that resonates with consumers and delivers retailers’ objectives still remains to be seen.

Weekly News

Platforms: Google

  • Google’s Play Store is testing out a new “Offers” section that’s different from the existing “Offers & Notifications” page in the app menu. Instead, it’s being used to bring up carousels of deals, limited-time specials and paid apps going free, while the “Offers & Notifications” section had only delivered a heavily curated list of offers, or, if none were available, the option to add a promo code.
  • Android 10 is still the most-used version of the Android OS, according to numbers crunched by 9to5Google using data provided through Android Studio. The Android 10 OS has a 26.5% market share, edging out Android 11’s 24.2%. Android 12 hasn’t yet made an appearance in the numbers.

E-commerce and delivery services

  • Uber enters the cannabis delivery market. The ride-hailing app announced that users in Ontario, Canada would be able to place cannabis orders on its Uber Eats app following its listing of cannabis retailer Tokyo Smoke on its marketplace. The company had said it would consider expanding cannabis delivery in the U.S. when the legality of doing so is made more clear.
  • Mobile advertising and app monetization company Tapjoy announced the launch of a rewarded shopping product, Tapjoy Shopping. The in-app marketplace lets consumers shop from hundreds of brands and retailers, and earn rewards in their favorite apps — like virtual currency — for their purchases. The feature is available in any of the over 10,000 apps that belong to Tapjoy’s network. Tapjoy says shopping offers like this have been increasingly important to mobile publishers after Cost Per Engagement app ads were banned on iOS.
  • France has asked search engines and app stores to remove the popular e-commerce platform Wish, which mostly sources products from China-based merchants. The order comes following France’s investigations into fraud, product safety and counterfeit goods on Wish, which found that 95% of toys on Wish didn’t comply with EU regulation, 45% were dangerous, 95% of electronics didn’t comply with regulation and 90% were dangerous.

Augmented Reality

Image Credits: Snap

  • Snapchat is bringing AR to holiday shopping. On Black Friday (11/26), the company will launch the Snap Holiday Market, which will feature immersive AR experiences from a half-dozen brand partners, including Amazon Prime Video, Coca-Cola, Hollister, Under Armour, Verizon and Walmart. Each brand will have a dedicated storefront where Snapchat users can browse their products and deal in an AR space designed for each brand. The market will be available from the Lens Carousel and the top of the “For You” tab in the Lens Explorer.
  • Snap also plans to offer AR try-on and e-commerce Lenses throughout the holiday shopping season, including those from brands like American Eagle, Fendi, Diork Kaja Beauty, NYX Cosmetics, Shein and Tory Burch.
  • The company announced a new AR stat, as well: Snapchat now sees over 6 billion AR Lens plays every day on average, it said.

Fintech

  • The German neobank N26 will shutter its U.S. operations. The company’s 500,000 U.S. customers will see their accounts closed on January 11 and will be provided with instructions on how to withdraw their funds. The company said it made the decision to better focus on its core European business and plans to launch to more countries in Eastern Europe, as well as Brazil. The bank had previously shut down its business in the U.K., citing post-Brexit difficulties.

Social

  • TikTok hires a new head of diversity and inclusion. The company has hired Shavone Charles, previously of VSCO, Instagram and Twitter, to fill the newly created role. The exec will be LA-based and report to TikTok’s head of comms, Hilary McQuaide.
  • Kuaishou, the Chinese maker of the largest short-form video platform after TikTok, reported earnings. Revenue rose 33% as the company reported 20.5 billion yuan ($3.2 billion) for the three months ended September, versus the 20.1 billion yuan average forecast. Total MAUs on its main app reached 573 million, though the company had to shut down its U.S. TikTok rival Zynn earlier this year.
  • Twitter made a change to its crowdsourced fact-checking program, Birdwatch, which now allows users to submit their contributions anonymously. Twitter says pilot users “overwhelmingly” requested this feature, particularly women and Black contributors. “Research has shown that aliases have the potential to reduce bias, by putting focus on the content of a note, not the author,” Twitter said, adding that aliases may also “reduce polarization by helping people feel comfortable crossing partisan lines.”

  • Twitter also updated its iOS app to address the annoying bug (which Twitter must have thought was a feature) where your timeline would refresh automatically, making the tweets you were actively reading disappear from view. After first fixing this issue on the web, Twitter is now rolling it out to iOS users.
  • Reddit said it’s shutting down Dubsmash, the short-form video app it acquired late last year, and is integrating video tools into its own app.  Reddit said its camera features will now include the ability to change recording speeds and the option to set a timer, similar to other short-form video apps. Users can now also upload videos in landscape, portrait mode and fill, as well as adjust and trim multiple clips. The company is also adding a new editing screen that includes text Stickers, a drawing tool and filters. And users have the option to add voiceovers or adjust the volume directly on the editing screen.
  • Social networking app for women Peanut announced a new feature called “Go Global,” which will allow its users to connect with other women around the world, instead of only those nearby. The company said there was demand for the option after it launched its live audio feature Pods. But it could also make Peanut more useful in markets where there just aren’t that many local users to connect with.

Image Credits: Peanut

  • The TikTok app ecosystem is huge. Correction! In our last newsletter, we pointed to Sensor Tower’s analysis of the TikTok app ecosystem and mistakenly referred to its “400 or so mobile apps.” The ecosystem saw 400 apps debut in 2020, but in total, there are some 900 apps tied to TikTok to offer things like downloading videos, viewing analytics, tracking hashtags and more. Meanwhile, those 900 apps reached over 1 billion downloads worldwide, not 3 billion. (But TikTok, including its sister app Douyin, have 3.3 billion installs, for comparison.)

Messaging

  • Facebook, err Meta, said it’s delaying the launch of end-to-end encryption (E2EE) across its messaging products until 2023 following warnings from child safety campaigns, including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Such a system would prevent law enforcement and tech platforms from being able to detect child abusers, critics warned, and asked Meta to not proceed until it had a plan in place to prevent child abuse from being undetected on its platform. A former Facebook employee also accused Meta of announcing an absurdly accelerated timeline for E2EE to preempt antitrust action and for “good marketing,” which would have resulted in systems to identify child grooming, sextortion and CSAM distribution operating at less than 10% of the effectiveness of the systems that did inspect content.
  • WhatsApp introduced a new feature that would allow its web and desktop users to make their own custom stickers for use in the messaging app. The sticker maker is available from any chat from the paperclip icon, then clicking on “Sticker.”

Streaming & Entertainment

  • Apple Podcasts gets a suspicious boost in its App Store ratings. At first, it looked like angry podcast listeners and creators would finally have their say about the app’s decline by downrating Apple’s Podcasts app after Apple, for the first time, made its first-party apps reviewable by the public. But soon thereafter, the previously (embarrassingly) 1.8 star-rated app jumped, in a little over a month, to a 4.6 star rating. What gives? Apple critic Kosta Eleftheriou first noticed the change, and theorizes it’s because Apple is now intelligently prompting users for reviews — which, to be fair, is its right. But many of the reviews seem to be people reviewing the podcasts themselves, not the actual app, which is odd and…a bit suspicious.
  • Spotify will drop its shuffle feature on albums, after Adele asked. The streamer would previously default to shuffle mode but Adele had asked Spotify to allow her new album to play in the intended order. The artist tweeted that “our art tells a story and our stories should be listened to as we intended,” when thanking Spotify for the adjustment.
  • Music streaming app Tidal introduced direct artist payments, which aims to more equitably distribute funds to artists, compared with the models used by Apple and Spotify. With this user-centric payment system, subscription fees are directly distributed to the artists a user streams.
  • TikTok expands its TV footprint. The short-form video app rolled out to more TV devices across the U.S. and Canada with the addition of support for Google TV and Android TV OS, as well as LG and Samsung Smart TVs. Amazon Fire TV was previously supported.
  • Spotify tests a TikTok-like feed. The company is the latest to experiment with short-form video in its app as a means of content discovery. Except in Spotify’s case, it’s capitalizing on its existing Canvas video format but presenting it in a new place.
  • Spotify also debuted a “Netflix Hub” on its app, which features playlists, soundtracks and podcasts tied to Netlflix shows and movies. The companies had partnered on other initiatives before now, and see the hub as a way to serve their respective audiences with new and, sometimes exclusive, entertainment content.

Image Credits: Spotify/Netflix

Gaming

  • Netflix’s new gaming service added two more titles, including the return of Gameloft’s “Asphalt Xtreme.” The streamer recently expanded its service worldwide across iOS and Android, with a handful of titles, including a few casual games and two “Stranger Things”-themed games. Now, it’s added another arcade title, “Bowling Ballers,” and a reboot of Gameloft’s action racing game, “Asphalt Xtreme,” which had officially shut down just in September.

Travel and Transportation 

  • Telsa’s app experienced an outage that prevented car owners from opening their doors or starting their vehicles. Users reported getting a 500 server error on their iOS app, leading them to tweet at Elon Musk directly for help.

Government & Policy

  • The EU passed new rules that may impact major European and U.S. tech companies. The Digital Markets Act’ would make messaging apps interoperable, bans behavioral ad targeting to minors and would fine a company as much as 20% of total global annual sales for breaches of the law. The vote was the final step toward finalizing the rules, expected to come into action in 2022.
  • WhatsApp is reorganizing its privacy policy to provide more information on the data it collects and how it’s protected, used and shared across borders, after Irish regulators fined the service a record €225 million ($267 million USD) for breaching EU data privacy rules.
  • Instagram head Adam Mosseri is the next big tech rep who will testify before Congress. The exec will appear before lawmakers for the first time, and will answer the senators’ questions about Instagram’s impact on young people following the whistleblower leaks.
  • China’s state media reported Tencent has to submit new apps or updates for regulatory inspection through December 31 after Beijing determine Tencent’s apps infringed on users’ rights and interests. Tencent said its apps are still functional and available for download.
  • Apple pushed back the feature that would allow U.S. users to store their state’s driver’s license or state ID on their iPhone. The company said Arizona and Georgia would be the first states to get the feature, with Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma and Utah to follow. The feature was originally set to launch in late 2021, but will now arrive in early 2022.

Security & Privacy

  • Privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo added to its Android app the ability to block hidden trackers, as part of its new “App Tracking Protection for Android” feature. The new option, now in beta, aims to block data collection from happening inside apps, where third-party trackers are hidden away in the app’s code.
  • Apple sued NSO Group, the maker of the nation-state spyware Pegasus. The suit is asking for a permanent injunction that would prevent NSO Group from using any Apple product or service, to “prevent further abuse and harm to its users.”

Funding and M&A

🤝 Family locator and communication app Life360 announced it would acquire lost-item tracking company Tile for $205 million. The deal will see Tile continue to be led as its own brand under its existing CEO CJ Prober. The company says no further changes to the Tile team are currently planned and Prober will also now join the Life360 board of directors. Tile, an Apple critic, claims that its business suffered from the AirTag’s arrival and Apple’s anti-competitive practices. It had recently announced a $40 million debt round to keep the business going.

💰 Niantic raised $300 million from Coatue at a $9 billion valuation to build the “real-world metaverse.” The Pokémon GO maker is betting on a metaverse that blends the real world with augmented reality, not virtual reality. This month, Niantic unveiled the Lightship AR Developer Kit which offers tools for AR game development. It also recently launched a new AR game, Pikmin Bloom.

🤝 Triller, the one-time TikTok rival turned live events company, has acquired Thuzio, a live events company co-founded by NY Giants’ Tiki Barber. The business had suffered during the pandemic when live events were shuttered. TrillerNet (Triller’s parent) confirmed the deal to the New York Post but didn’t disclose terms.

💰 Creator-driven marketplace LTK raised $300 million from SoftBank’s Vision Fund, valuing the business at $2 billion. The company, which was previously branded RewardStyle and LIKEtoKNOW.it, helps social media influencers make their posts shoppable from a centralized marketplace on the web and the LTK app. Brands can also use LTK to connect with creators on marketing campaigns.

💰 Mobile DevOps company Bitrise announced a $60 million round of funding led by Insight Partners to help developers build better mobile apps. Bitrise aims to create an end-to-end platform for mobile development that automates core workflows, shortens release cycles and provides a better understanding of how new pieces of code will affect live apps before their release, and counts over 100,000 developers as users.

💰 Column Tax, a company that makes income tax software designed to be embedded in other fintech apps, raised $5.1 million in seed funding led by Bain Capital Ventures. The company’s Tax Refund Unlock feature also recently became available to 2 million users of the cash advance app Klover.

💰 Berlin-based same-day grocery delivery app Yababa raised $15.5 million in seed funding led by Creandum and Project A, to expand its service within Germany and across Europe. The service, which currently offers items that cater to Turkish and Arabic communities, plans to expand its product mix in the future.

🤝 Coinbase acqui-hired the team behind BRD, a crypto wallet startup that first launched its mobile wallet back in 2014. BRD’s co-founders say nothing will be changing for BRD users for the time being, but users will have the option to migrate to Coinbase’s wallet in 2022.

💰 TabTrader raised $5.8 million in Series A funding for its mobile app that aggregates crypto exchange data. The app has more than 400,000 active users, with a particularly strong presence in Europe and Asia. Investors include 100X Ventures, Hashkey Capital, Spartan Capital, SGH Capital, SOSV and Artesian Venture Partners.

Downloads

Fold AR (Fold)

Image Credits: Fold

Of course, the metaverse has bitcoin? I mean, for sheer rubbernecking purposes we have to check out Niantic’s latest app. The Pokémon GO maker has weirdly teamed up with a bitcoin rewards and payments app, Fold, to launch an AR bitcoin mining experience called Fold AR. Currently in beta, Fold AR lets users earn bitcoin and other in-app benefits by exploring their physical surroundings using augmented reality. Unlike in Pokémon GO, where users seek out rare creatures, Fold users will collect bitcoin and other prizes, including those that increase their bitcoin cashback rewards. The company believes the game will appeal to bitcoin newcomers and existing cryptocurrency fans alike and will drive users to Fold’s app — where the in-app AR experience lives. Before the AR launch, Fold was focused on its bitcoin cashback experience where users connect their credit card, their Fold card or a bitcoin wallet, in order to purchase gift cards and receive cash back in the form of BTC. Fold AR rolls out on November 23 to select users and will add more users over time.

Italy fines Apple and Google for ‘aggressive’ data practices

Apple and Google have been fined €10 million apiece by Italy’s competition and market authority (AGCM) which has found they did not provide their users with clear enough information on commercial uses of their data — in violation of the country’s consumer code.

The regulator also accuses the pair of deploying “aggressive” practices to push users to accept the commercial processing.

Apple and Google were both contacted for a response to the ACGM’s sanction. Both said they will appeal.

Google is accused of omitting relevant information at the account creation phase and as consumers are using its services — information the regulator says should be providing in order for people to decide whether or not to consent to its use of their data for commercial ends.

The AGCM has also accused Apple of failing to immediately provide users with clear information on how it uses their information commercially when they create an Apple ID or access its digital stores, such as the App Store.

It’s the rather more surprising sanction — given Apple’s carefully cultivated image as a champion of consumer privacy (not to mention the premium its devices and services tend to command vs cheaper, ad-supported alternatives, such as stuff made by Google).

The Italian regulator lumps both companies’ practices together in a press release announcing the sanctions — accusing each one of being especially aggressive in pushing self-serving commercial terms on their respective users, especially at the account creation phase.

For Google, the ACGM notes that it pre-sets user acceptance of commercial processing — and also notes that the adtech giant fails to provide a clear way for users to revoke consent for these data transfers later or otherwise change their choice after the account step has been completed.

It also takes the view that Apple’s approach denies users the ability to properly exercise choice over its commercial use of their data, with the regulator arguing the iPhone maker’s data acquisition practices and architecture essentially “condition” the consumer to accept its commercial terms.

It’s an awkward accusation for a company that splashes major marketing cash on suggesting its devices and software are superior to alternatives (such as tech made by Google) exactly because it claims to put user privacy at the core of what it does.

In a statement, Apple rejected the ACGM’s finding — writing:

“We believe the Authority’s view is wrong and will be appealing the decision. Apple has a long-standing commitment to the privacy of our users and we work incredibly hard to design products and features that protect customer data. We provide industry-leading transparency and control to all users so they can choose what information to share or not, and how it is used.”

A Google spokeswoman also disagreed with the findings, sending this statement:

“We have transparent and fair practices in order to provide our users with helpful tools and clear information about their usage. We give people simple controls to manage their information and limit the use of personal data, and we work hard to be fully compliant with the consumer protection rules. We disagree with the Authority’s decision and we will appeal.”

The full text of the ACGM’s decisions can be found here: For Apple and Google.

The Italian regulator has had a busy few days slapping big tech: Earlier this week it issued a $230M fine (total) for Apple and Amazon over alleged collusion around the sale of Apple kit on Amazon’s Italian marketplace.

It has also been stepping up investigations of tech giants over a period of years — earlier this year it fined Facebook over similar issues with its commercial use of people’s data, while this summer it hit Google with a $123M fine related to Android Auto. It also has an open probe into Google’s displaying advertising business.

Other fines from the ACGM in recent years include one for Apple related to misleading iPhone users about the device’s water resistance and another for Apple and Samsung for slowing devices.

Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri will testify before the Senate on teen mental heath

Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri will testify before the Senate for the first time as part of a series of hearings about online safety for children and teens. Per The New York Times, Mosseri’s hearing will take place on December 6.

Mosseri’s upcoming testimony comes after Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) wrote a letter to Facebook (now Meta) CEO Mark Zuckerberg, asking that either he or Mosseri participate in a Senate hearing.

Mosseri posted a video responding to the news of his forthcoming appearance on Capitol Hill. He discussed growing concerns about teen safety online, then outlined past actions Instagram has taken to protect young users, like making young teens’ accounts private by default and restricting the kinds of ads they see.

“I’m going to be talking about these issues with Congress relatively soon,” Mosseri said. “These are important issues, but we all have shared goals. We all want young people to be safe when they’re online.”

When reports leaked in September about Instagram’s knowledge of its dangerous affects on teen girls, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation didn’t take it lightly. The committee first questioned Facebook Global Head of Security Antigone Davis, who was reticent to answer direct questions from the Senate. Then weeks later, the committee heard testimony from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former civic integrity product manager who leaked thousands of internal documents known as the “Facebook Papers.” In her hearing, Haugen told the Senate that Facebook cares more about profits than user safety.

“I am disappointed that Facebook has been unwilling to be fully transparent with me, other members of Congress, and the public, and appears to have concealed vital information from us about teen mental health and addiction,” wrote Senator Blumenthal, who chairs the Senate committee hosting these hearings. “When I sought specific information about Instagram and teens in an August letter, Facebook provided clearly evasive and misleading answers that have now been directly disputed by Ms. Haugen.”

Now, after hearing from executives at Snap, TikTok and YouTube last month, the committee will convene again to hear from the head of Instagram himself. Given the committee’s demonstrated concern about Instagram’s connection to the onset of adolescent eating disorders, it’s expected that Mosseri will be questioned about leaked internal studies that Meta conducted about Instagram’s impact on teen girls.

The internal study, obtained by The Wall Street Journal and later published by Meta itself, found that Instagram makes body image issues worse for one in three teen girls, and that teens blame Instagram for increases in anxiety and depression. Among teens with suicidal thoughts, the study says that 6% of users traced their desire to die by suicide to Instagram. Plus, 32% of surveyed teen girls reported that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made those feelings worse.

Shortly after these documents were leaked, Mosseri announced that Instagram would pause building Instagram Kids. Meta already has products like Messenger Kids, which lets users under 13 chat with people approved by their parents.

“While we stand by the need to develop this experience, we’ve decided to pause this project,” Mosseri wrote. “This will give us time to work with parents, experts, policymakers and regulators, to listen to their concerns, and to demonstrate the value and importance of this project for younger teens online today.”

But critics are skeptical of Meta’s ability to build an Instagram Kids product responsibly. Per research published this month, Facebook allegedly continues to surveil teens for ad targeting.

“It is urgent and necessary for you or Mr. Adam Mosseri to testify to set the record straight and provide members of Congress and parents with a plan on how you are going to protect our kids,” Senator Blumenthal wrote to Zuckerberg.

Spotify tests a TikTok-like vertical video feed in its app

TikTok has seen its short-form video feed copied by a host of competitors, from Instagram to Snap to YouTube and even Netflix. Now it looks like you can add Spotify to that list. The company has confirmed it’s currently testing a new feature in its app, Discover, which presents a vertical feed of music videos that users can scroll through and optionally like or skip. For those who have access to the feature, it appears as a fourth tab in the navigation bar at the bottom of the Spotify app, in between Home and Search.

The new addition was first spotted by Chris Messina, who tweeted out a video of the Discover feature in action. He described it as a “pared-down version” of a TikTok-style feed of music videos.

Messina told us he found the feature in Spotify’s TestFlight build (a beta version for iOS), where a new icon in the navigation toolbar brings you immediately to the video feed when tapped. You can then swipe up and down to move through the feed, much like you would on TikTok. In addition to tapping the heart to like songs, you also can tap the three-dot menu to bring up the standard song information sheet, he notes.

Messina also speculated the feature may be taking advantage of Spotify’s existing Canvas format.

Introduced broadly in 2019, Canvas allows artists to create videos that accompany their music on the Spotify app. The feature had mixed reviews from users, as some reported they preferred to see just the static album art when listening to music and found the video and its looping imagery distracting. But others said they liked it. Canvas, however, appears to drive the engagement metrics that Spotify wants — the company reports that users are more likely to keep streaming, share tracks or save tracks when they see a Canvas.

From the video Messina shared and others we viewed, we can confirm that the videos playing in the vertical feed are the artists’ existing Canvas videos. But Spotify would not confirm this to us directly.

TechCrunch asked Spotify for further information on the feature, including whether it had plans to roll this out further, whether it was available on both iOS and Android, which markets had access to the feature and more. The company declined to share any details about the feature but did confirm, via a statement, it was exploring the idea of a vertical video feed.

“At Spotify, we routinely conduct a number of tests in an effort to improve our user experience,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Some of those tests end up paving the way for our broader user experience and others serve only as an important learning. We don’t have any further news to share at this time,” they added.

In other words, the test is still very early and may not make its way to the public. But if it did, it wouldn’t be a surprising move on Spotify’s part. The company has before looked to popular social media formats to engage its users. In the past, Spotify tested a Stories feature that allowed influencers to post Stories to introduce their own, curated playlists. But that option never became available to all Spotify users.

While the TikTok format has been adopted by top social platforms, including Instagram (Reels), Snapchat (Spotlight), YouTube (Shorts) and Pinterest (Idea Pins), it’s also proving to be an ideal format for content discovery. Netflix, for instance, recently adopted the short-form vertical video feed in its own app with the launch of its “Fast Laughs” feature, which offers clips from its content library and tools to save the programs to a watch list or just start streaming them. Similarly, Spotify’s video-based Discover feature could help introduce users to new music and offer a way to signal their interests to Spotify in a familiar format.