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Rockstar programmer: Rivers Cuomo finds meaning in coding

“Hi, I’m Rivers from the band, Weezer,” Rivers Cuomo says with a slight smile and a wave. He turns away from the camera for a bit, before launching into his best infomercial pitch. “Imagine you’re on tour, and you’re sitting in your dressing room or your tour bus. You’re backstage. You have stage fright, you’re stressing out. You’re pacing back and forth. And then on top of that, your tour manager is constantly calling you, asking you logistical questions.”

As far as internet pitch videos go, it’s not the most universal. If anything, the three-minute clip loses any hope of populist appeal by the end. In a final shot, the singer in a maroon SpaceX hoodie is the last up the ramp onto a private jet. The plane door closes revealing a Weezer flying “W” logo.

“Download Drivetimes now, on GitHub,” Cuomo adds in voice-over. “This is CS50X.”

It’s not the most polished app pitch video, and Cuomo’s elevator pitch could probably do with a bit of refining before approaching venture capitalists about a seed round. As far as final projects for online programming courses go, however, it’s something to behold. The images alternate between pages of code, Google spreadsheets and POV shots as he takes the stage for a co-headlining tour with the Pixies.

It helped earn Cuomo a 95 in the class.

But while, in its current configuration, the Drivetime tour scheduling tool might have limited appeal, the musician’s final project from Harvard’s follow-up course, CS50W, is immediately apparent for an army of fans who have followed his quarter-century-plus career. This week Cuomo dropped more than 2,400 demos totaling more than 86 hours. Spanning 1976 to 2015, the songs range in quality from tape-recorded sketches to more polished fare. Some would eventually find their way onto Weezer’s 13 albums, or assorted side projects. Others wouldn’t be so lucky.

Available through Cuomo’s “Mr. Rivers’ Neighborhood” site, the tracks are gathered into nine bundles, each available for $9 a piece. “By the way,” Cuomo writers at the bottom of a disclaimer, “this market is my final project for a course I’m taking in web programming.”

For half-a-decade, the platinum-selling rock star has been moonlighting as a computer programming student.

“I was always a spreadsheet guy,” Cuomo tells TechCrunch. “Around 2000, I think I started in Microsoft Access and then Excel. Just keeping track of all my songs and demos and ideas. Spreadsheets got more and more complicated to the point where it was like, ‘Well, I’m kind of almost writing code here in these formulas, except it’s super hard to use. So maybe I should actually do programming instead.’ ”

It would be an odd side hustle for practically any other successful musician. For Cuomo, however, it’s the next logical step. In the wake of the massive success of Weezer’s self-titled debut, he enrolled as a sophomore at Harvard, spending a year living in a dorm. He would ultimately leave school to record the band’s much-loved follow-up, Pinkerton, but two more more enrollments in 1997 and 2004 found the musician ultimately graduating with an English BA in 2006.

CS50 found Cuomo returning to Harvard — at least in spirit. The course is hosted online by the university, a free introduction to computer science.

“I went through some online courses and was looking for something that looked appealing and so I saw the Harvard CS50 was very popular,” Cuomo says. “So I was like, ‘Well, I’ll give this a shot.’ It didn’t take immediately. The first week course was using Scratch. I don’t know if you know that, but it’s like kind of click and drag type of programming, and you’re making a little video game.”

A six-week course stretched out for six months for the musician. That same year, the musician — now a father of two — played dozens of shows and recorded Weezer’s 10th album, the Grammy-nominated White Album.

“When we hit Python halfway through the course,” Cuomo says, “I was just amazed at how powerful it was and intuitive it was for me, and I could just get so much done. Then by the end of the course, I was writing programs that were really helping me manage my day-to-day life as a traveling musician and then also managing my spreadsheets and managing my work as a creative artist.”

For Cuomo, productivity has never been much of an issue. The band has two albums completed beyond this year’s Black Album, and he’s already begun work on two more follow-ups. What has seemingly been a bigger issue, however, is organizing those thoughts. That’s where the spreadsheets and database come in.

The “thousands” of spreadsheets became a database, cataloging Cuomo’s own demos and work he was studying from other artists.

“For years it seemed like kind of a waste of time or an indulgence,” he says. “I should be writing a new song or, or recording a song rather than just cataloging these old ideas, but I’ve found that, years later, I’m able to very efficiently make use of these ancient ideas because I can just tell my Python program, ‘Hey, show me all the ideas I have at 126 BPM in the key of A flat that start with a third degree of the scale and the melody and are in Dorian mode and that my manager has given three stars or more to.’ ”

He admits that the process may be lacking in some of the rock and roll romanticism for which fans of the bands might hope. But in spite of drawing on pages of analytics, Cuomo insists there’s still magic present.

For Cuomo, productivity has never been much of an issue. Given his level of productivity, however, organizing all of those thoughts can get tricky. That’s where the spreadsheets and database come in.

“There’s still plenty of room for spontaneity and inspiration in what we traditionally think of as human creativity,” Cuomo explains. “One of my heroes in this realm is Igor Stravinsky. There’s a collection of his lectures called “The Poetics of Music.” And he had a note in that collection. He said he has no interest in a composer that’s only using one of his faculties, like a composer that says, ‘I am only going to write what pops into my head spontaneously when I’m in some kind of a creative zone. I won’t use any of my other tools.’

“He says, ‘No, I prefer to listen to the music of a composer who’s using every faculty at his disposal, his intuition, but also his intellect and his ability to analyze and categorize and make use of everything he has.’ I find that those ended up being the most wild and unpredictable and creative compositions.”

And there’s been no shortage of compositions. Cuomo says the band has two albums completed beyond this year’s Black Album, and he’s already begun work on two more follow-ups. After decades of feeling beholden to the 18-month major label album release cycle, the singer says that after the Demos project, he has a newfound interest in finding more ways to release music directly to fans.

“I don’t feel like I’m really good at understanding the big-picture marketplace and how to make the biggest impact in the world,” he says. “My manager is so good at that, but I just told them like, ‘Hey, this feels like something here. First of all, it’s really fun. The fans are really happy. It’s super easy for everyone involved.’ The coding part wasn’t easy, but for everyone else, it’s a couple of clicks and you’ve got all this music, and it’s a cheap price, and there’s no middleman. PayPal takes a little bit, but it’s nothing like a major label. So, this could be something. And there’s just something, it feels so good when it’s directly from me to the audience.”

For now, computer science continues to take up a major chunk of his time. Cuomo estimates that he’s been spending around 70% of his work hours on programming projects. On Wednesday nights, he helps out with programming for a meditation site (another decades-long passion), and he plans to take Harvard’s follow-up CS50M course, which centers around developing for mobile apps.

There are, however, no immediate plans to quit his day job.

“I can’t see me getting a job at a startup or something or maintaining somebody’s website,” he says. “But maybe the line between rock star and web developer is getting blurred so that musicians will be making more and more use of technological tools. Besides just the music software, we’ll be making more and more use of means of distribution and organization and creativity that’s coming out in the way we code our connection to the audience.”

 

ByteDance asks federal appeals court to vacate U.S. order forcing it to sell TikTok

In a new filing, TikTok’s parent company ByteDance asked the federal appeals court to vacate the United States government order forcing it to sell the app’s American operations.

President Donald Trump issued an order in August requiring ByteDance to sell TikTok’s U.S. business by November 12, unless it was granted a 30-day extension by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). In today’s filing (embedded below) with the federal appeals court in Washington D.C., ByteDance said it asked the CFIUS for an extension on November 6, but the order hasn’t been granted yet.

It added it remains committed to “reaching a negotiated mitigation solution with CFIUS satisfying its national security concerns” and will only file a motion to stay enforcement of the divestment order “if discussions reach an impasse.”

Security concerns about TikTok’s ownership by a Chinese company were at the center of the executive order Trump signed in August, banning transactions with Beijing-headquartered ByteDance.

The executive order claimed that TikTok posed a threat to national security, though ByteDance maintains that it does not. But in order to prevent the app, which has about 100 million users in the U.S., from being banned, ByteDance reached a deal in September to sell 20% of its stake in TikTok to Oracle and Walmart. With the Biden administration set to take office in January and ByteDance’s ongoing legal challenge against the divestment order, however, the future of the deal is now uncertain.

The new filing is part of a lawsuit TikTok filed against the Trump administration on September 18. It won an early victory when the court stopped the U.S. government’s ban from going into effect on its original deadline that month.

In a statement emailed to TechCrunch, a TikTok spokesperson said it has been working with the CFIUS for a year to address its national security concerns “even as we disagree with its assessment.”

Facing continual new requests and no clarity on whether our proposed solutions would be accepted, we requested the 30-day extension that is expressly permitted in the August 14 order,” the statement continued.

“Today, with the November 12 CFIUS deadline imminent and without an extension in hand, we have no choice but to file a petition in court to defend our rights and those of our more than 1,500 employees in the US.” 

TikTok asks U.S. federal appeals court to vacate U.S. divestment order by TechCrunch on Scribd

PUBG Mobile plots return to India following ban

PUBG Mobile, the sleeper hit title that was banned in India two months ago over cybersecurity concerns, is plotting to make a return in the world’s second largest internet market, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The South Korean firm has engaged with global cloud service providers in recent weeks to store Indian users’ data within the country to allay New Delhi’s concerns about user data residency and security, one of the sources said.

The gaming giant has privately informed some high-profile streamers in the country that it expects to resume the service in India before the end of this year, the other source said. Both the sources requested anonymity as they are not authorized to speak to the press. PUBG Corporation did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

The company could make an announcement about its future plans for India as soon as this week. It also plans to run a marketing campaign in the country during the festival of Diwali next week, one of the sources said.

In recent weeks, PUBG has also engaged with a number of local firms including SoftBank-backed Paytm and telecom giant Airtel to explore whether they would be interested in publishing the popular mobile game in the country, an industry executive said. A Paytm spokesperson declined to comment.

Chinese giant Tencent initially published PUBG Mobile apps in India. After New Delhi banned PUBG Mobile, the gaming firm cut publishing ties with Tencent in the country. Prior to the ban, PUBG Mobile’s content was hosted on Tencent Cloud.

Late last month, two months after the ban order, PUBG Mobile terminated its service for Indian users. “Protecting user data has always been a top priority and we have always complied with applicable data protection laws and regulations in India. All users’ gameplay information is processed in a transparent manner as disclosed in our privacy policy,” it said at the time.

With more than 50 million monthly active users in India, PUBG Mobile was by far the most popular mobile game in the country before it was banned. It helped establish an entire ecosystem of  esports organisations to teams and even a cottage industry of streamers that made the most of its spectator sport-friendly gameplay, said Rishi Alwani, a long-time analyst of Indian gaming market and publisher of news outlet The Mako Reactor.

PUBG Mobile’s return, however, could complicate matters for several industry players, including some that are currently building similar games to cash in on its absence and their conversations with venture capital firms over ongoing financing rounds.

It would also suggest that more than 200 other Chinese apps that India has banned in recent months could hope to allay New Delhi’s concerns by making some changes to where they store their users data. (That was also the understanding between TikTok and Reliance when they engaged in investment opportunities earlier this year.)

Google delays mandating Play Store’s 30% cut in India to April 2022

Google is postponing the enforcement of its new Play Store billing policy in India to April 2022, days after more than 150 startups in the world’s second largest internet market forged an informal coalition to express concerns over the 30% charge the Android-maker plans to mandate on its store and started to explore an alternative marketplace for their apps.

The company, which is going live globally with the new Play Store rule in September 2021, is deferring the enforcement of the policy only in India, it said. It is also listening to developers and willing to engage to allay their concerns, it said.

“We are setting up listening sessions with leading Indian startups to understand their concerns more deeply. We will be setting up Policy Workshops to help clear any additional questions about our Play Store policies. And we’re also extending the time for developers in India to integrate with the Play billing system, to ensure they have enough time to implement the UPI for subscription payment option that will be made available on Google Play — for all apps that currently use an alternative payment system we set a timeline of 31st March 2022,” said Purnima Kochikar, Director of Business Development of Games & Applications at Google Play, in a statement.

“We have always said developers should have a choice in how they distribute their apps, and that stores should compete for consumers’ and developers’ business,” she added.

Last week, Google said it would no longer allow any apps to circumvent its payment system within the Play Store. The move, pitched by Google as a “clarification” of its existing policy, would allow the company to ensure it gets as high as a 30% cut on in-app purchases made through Android apps operating in a range of a categories.

Google’s announcement today is a direct response to the loudest scrutiny it has received in a decade in India — its biggest market by users but also a place where, compared to Western markets, it generates little revenue. More than 150 startups in India last week formed an informal coalition to fight the company’s strong hold on Indian app ecosystem. Google commands 99% of the smartphone market in India, according to research firm Counterpoint.

Among the startups that have expressed concerns over Google’s new policy are Paytm, India’s most valuable startup, payments processor Razorpay, fantasy sports firm Dream11, social network ShareChat, and business e-commerce IndiaMART.

More than 50 Indian executives relayed these concerns to India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology over a video call on Saturday, according to three people who attended the call.

Several businesses in India have long expressed concerns with the way Google has enforced its policies in India, but the matter escalated last month after the company temporarily pulled Paytm app from the Play Store for promoting gambling.

Google said Paytm had repeatedly violated its policies, and the company’s Play Store has long prohibited apps that promote gambling in India. Google has sent notices about warnings over gambling to several more firms in India in recent weeks.

A senior industry executive told TechCrunch that the company should have expressed these concerns months before the popular cricket tournament IPL was scheduled to commence. Fantasy sports apps allow users to pick their favorite players and teams. These players stand to win real money or points that they can redeem for physical goods purchase based on the real-world performance of their preferred teams and players. IPL season sees a huge surge in popularity of such fantasy sports apps.

“The IPL even got delayed by months. Why did Google wait for so long? And why does the company have a problem with so-called gambling in India, when it permits such activities in other markets? The Indian government has no problem with it,” the executive said, requesting anonymity.

Paytm mini app store

Paytm on Monday announced its own mini-app store featuring several popular services including ride-hailing firm Ola, health care provides 1mg and Practo, fitness startup Cure.fit, music-streaming service Gaana, car-rental provider Zoomcar, Booking.com, and eateries Faasos, Domino’s Pizza, and McDonald’s. The startup claimed that more than 300 firms have signed up for its mini store and that its app reaches more than 150 million users each month. (In a written statement to TechCrunch, Paytm said in June its app reached more than 50 million users in India each month.

Paytm, which says its mini-app store is open to any developer, will provide a range of features including the ability to support subscriptions and one-step login. The startup, which claims  said it will not charge any commission to developers for using its payments system or UPI payments infrastructure, but will levy a 2% charge on “other instruments such as credit cards.”

“There are many challenges with traditional mobile apps such as maintaining multiple codebases across platforms (iOS, Android or Web), costly user acquisition and requirement of app release and then a waiting period for user adoption for any change made in the app. Launching as a Mini Apps gives you freedom from all these hassles: implying lesser development/testing and maintenance costs which help you reach millions of Paytm users in a Jiffy,” the Indian firm said in its pitch.

The launch of a mini-store further cements Alibaba-backed Paytm’s push into turning itself into a super-app. Its chief rivals, Walmart-backed PhonePe and Google Pay, also operate similar mini stores on their apps.

Whether Paytm’s own mini app store and postponement of Google’s new Play Store policy are enough to calm other startups’ complaints remain to be seen. PhonePe is not one of the mini apps on Paytm’s store, a Paytm spokesperson told TechCrunch.

“I am proud that we are today launching something that creates an opportunity for every Indian app developer. Paytm mini app store empowers our young Indian developers to leverage our reach and payments to build new innovative services,” said Vijay Shekhar Sharma, co-founder and chief executive of Paytm, in a statement.

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Indonesian cloud kitchen startup Yummy gets $12 million Series B led by SoftBank Ventures Asia

Yummy Corporation, which claims to be the largest cloud kitchen management company in Indonesia, has raised $12 million in Series B funding, led by SoftBank Ventures Asia. Co-founder and chief executive officer Mario Suntanu told TechCrunch that the capital will be used to expand into more major cities and on developing its tech platform, including data analytics.

Other participants in the round included returning investors Intudo Ventures and Sovereign’s Capital, and new backers Vectr Ventures, AppWorks, Quest Ventures, Coca Cola Amatil X and Palm Drive Capital. The Series B brings Yummy Corporation’s total raised so far to $19.5 million.

Launched in June 2019, Yummy Corporation’s network of cloud kitchens, called Yummykitchen, now includes more than 70 HACCP-certified facilities in Jakarta, Bandung and Medan. It partners with more than 50 food and beverage (F&B) companies, including major brands like Ismaya Group and Sour Sally Group.

During COVID-19 movement restrictions, Suntanu said Yummykitchen’s business showed “healthy growth” as people, confined mostly to their homes, ordered food for delivery. Funding will be used to get more partners, especially brands that want to digitize their operations and expand deliveries to cope with the continuing impact of COVID-19.

The number of cloud kitchens in Southeast Asia has grown quickly over the past year, driven by demand for food deliveries that began increasing even before the pandemic. But for F&B brands that rely on deliveries for a good part of their revenue, running their own kitchens and staff can be cost-prohibitive. Sharing cloud kitchens with other businesses can help increase their margins.

Other cloud kitchen startups serving Indonesia include Hangry and Everplate, but these companies and Yummy Corporation are all up against two major players: “super apps” Grab and Gojek, which both operate large networks of cloud kitchens that have the advantage of being integrated with their on-demand delivery services.

Suntanu said Yummy’s main edge compared to other cloud kitchens is that it also offers fully-managed location and kitchen operation services, in addition to kitchen facilities. This means Yummy’s partners, including restaurants and and F&B brands, don’t need to hire their own teams. Instead, food preparation and delivery is handled by Yummy’s workers. The company also provides its clients with a data analytics platform to help them with targeted ad campaigns and making their listings more visible on food delivery apps.

In a statement, Harris Yang, Souteast Asia associate at SoftBank Ventures Asia, said the firm invested in Yummy because “given the company’s strong expertise in the F&B industry and unique value proposition to brands, we believe that Yummy will continue to be the leader in this space. We are excited to support the team and help them scale their business in this emerging sector.”

Times Internet is growing despite influx of US tech firms in India

Times Internet said on Thursday it reaches more than 557 million active users in India each month and over 111 million users a day as several of its digital offerings demonstrated strong growth in the past year.

The Indian conglomerate — which operates over three-dozen properties, including on-demand streaming services MX Player and Gaana, and newspapers Times of India and Economic Times — added 107 million monthly active users in the financial year that ended in March, it said.

Its platform clocked over 67 billion page views in FY 2020, up from 47 billion from the year prior.

MX Player, which has now amassed over 200 million monthly active users, and Gaana, which now reaches 185 million monthly active users, grew 75% in the year, Satyan Gajwani, vice chairman of Times Internet told TechCrunch in an interview.

These figures put Times Internet, a subsidiary of 182-year-old Bennett Coleman and Company Limited (BCCL), at the centre of the world’s largest open battleground (well, almost), which is otherwise dominated by Google, Facebook and Amazon.

According to analytics firm Comscore, Google reached 98% of the digital population in India on web (desktop as well as mobile) in the month of June. During the same month, Facebook reached 94.9% of the population, Times Internet 77.7% and Amazon settled at fourth place with 76%. (The figures do not include app usage data.)

Founded over 20 years ago, Times Internet had a huge headstart over nearly every firm that dominates the digital landscape today. But it largely failed to cash in on that for several years, critics say. Under the current leadership, however, the firm has followed a steady path and grown.

Comscore data for the month of May (Image credit: Times Internet)

Gajwani acknowledged that some of Times Internet’s offerings weren’t in great shape at the beginning of the last decade. “So we put a lot more emphasis on just product quality during 2013 to 2016. The next few years after that we also bought and built good products.”

“We’ve sold products or exited products where we didn’t think we could be competitive. We’ve got a reasonably strong portfolio now,” he added.

The most recent phase of Times Internet’s growth, said Gajwani, is the push to find revenue channels beyond ads. Gaana, MX Player, ET Prime (ad-free tier for Economic Times) and Times Prime (which bundles and resells a range of third-party subscription offerings) are helping it find subscribers, while MensXP’s e-commerce section, ETMoney, MagicBricks, GradeUp and Dineout are driving transactions.

Overall, Times Internet said its revenue grew 24% to $221.5 million in FY20. The firm did not disclose how much revenue it clocked from subscriptions, but said it had over 2 million paying subscribers and its transacting businesses grew 68%. Its ad business was also up 22%.

But its heavy reliance on ads means it has also been hit by the coronavirus, which slashed consumers’ spendings across the industry, resulting in advertisers cutting their budget.

Gajwani said the month of March saw a “big drop” in ad revenue for the firm, but the next three months were “soft” and July and August delivered a big rebound. “The gains of July and August have now made up for the losses of April, May, June in terms of our net year over year,” he added.

The virus and New Delhi’s ban on Chinese apps in recent months haven’t been a complete downer. Both MX Player and Gaana are attempting to fill the void left by the ban on TikTok in India and have received better traction than some of the more heavily-funded firms such as Twitter-backed ShareChat, according to mobile insight firm App Annie, data of which an industry executive shared with TechCrunch.

MX TakaTak, the short-video app from MX Player, has amassed over 10 million daily active users and 45 million monthly active users, it claimed earlier this week. Users have uploaded more than 15 million videos on the app and clocked over a billion views within a month, it said.

Moving forward, Gajwani said the firm will also continue to try to deepen its relationship with users. “The number of people who consumed two or more of our businesses grew 48%. And the number of people who consumed three or more of our businesses, grew 120%,” he said, without disclosing the number of users.

BCCL has engaged in conversations with investors in recent months to sell stake in Times Internet, a person familiar with the matter said. The deal, if secured, would make Times Internet — which employs more than 6,000 people, up from 5,000 last year — financially stronger to explore more acquisition opportunities, the person said. Gajwani declined to comment. Bloomberg first reported about the talks.

Facebook bans politician of India’s ruling party for violating hate speech

Facebook has banned a politician from India’s ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party, for violating its policies against hate speech on its platform, the company said today, weeks after inaction on the politician’s posts landed the social giant in hot water in its biggest market by users.

The company said it had removed profiles of T. Raja Singh, who had posted about Rohingya Muslim immigrants to be shot among other anti-Muslim sentiments. Singh will no longer be allowed to create profiles across Facebook services and unofficial groups and posts affiliated to him will also be nuked.

Singh, termed as a “dangerous individual” by Facebook, has a history of voicing problematic and hateful views on social platforms and in public appearances. Several of those posts, for which Facebook has banned him, remain online on Twitter and YouTube.

Today’s move comes weeks after the Wall Street Journal reported that a top Facebook executive in India had chosen to not take any actions on Singh’s posts because she was afraid it could hurt the company’s business prospects in the country.

A person familiar with the matter and local media reports claim that Facebook had removed some of Singh’s posts in the past. The Wall Street Journal also reported that the aforementioned Facebook executive — Ankhi Das — also showed support to BJP’s Narendra Modi before he was elected as Prime Minister in 2014 and disparaged the opposition party, Indian National Congress.

In a statement today, a Facebook spokesperson said, “the process for evaluating potential violators is extensive and it is what led us to our decision to remove his account.” 

In the last few weeks, Facebook has received some of the harshest criticism to date in India, where it reaches more than 400 million users. Politicians from both sides — the opposition and ruling party — have accused the company of having political biases.

In a letter to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, India’s IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad earlier this month expressed concerns about the alleged political leanings of the company’s staff and accused them of suppressing pages that support right-wing views.

Apple alum’s jobs app for India’s workers secures $8 million

Javed, a middle-aged man, worked as a driver before losing that job earlier this year as coronavirus spread across India, prompting New Delhi to enforce a nationwide lockdown and temporarily curb several business activities.

There are millions of people like Javed in India today who have lost their livelihood in recent months. They are low-skilled workers and are currently struggling to secure another job.

An Apple alum thinks he can help. Through his app startup Apna, Nirmit Parikh is helping India’s workers learn new skills, connect with one another, and find jobs.

Parikh’s app is already changing lives. Javed, who could barely speak a few words in English before, recently posted a video on Apna app where he talked about his new job — processing raisins — in English.

In less than one year of its existence, Apna app — available on Android — has amassed over 1.2 million users.

The startup announced on Tuesday it has raised $8 million in its Series A financing round led by Lightspeed India and Sequoia Capital India . Greenoaks Capital and Rocketship VC also participated in the round.

In an interview with TechCrunch last week, Parikh said that these workers lack an organized community. “They are daily-wage workers. They rely on their friends to find jobs. This makes the prospects of them finding a job very difficult,” he said.

Apna app comprises of vertical communities for skilled professionals like carpenters, painters, field sales agents and many others.

“The most powerful thing for me about Apna is its communities — I’ve seen people help each other start a business, learn a new language or find a gig! Communities harbinger trust and make the model infinitely scalable,” said Vaibhav Agrawal, a Partner at Lightspeed India, in a statement.

The other issue they struggle with is their skillset. “An electrician would end up working decades doing the same job. If only they had access to upskilling courses — and just knew how beneficial it could be to them — they would stand to broaden their scope of work and significantly increase their earnings,” said Parikh.

Apna is addressing this gap in multiple ways. In addition to establishing a community, and rolling out upskilling courses, the startup allows users — most of whom are first time internet users — easily generate a virtual business card. The startup then shares these profiles with prospective employers. (Some of the firms that have hired from Apna app in recent weeks include Amazon, Big Basket, and HDFC Bank.)

In the last one month, Parikh said Apna has facilitated more than 1 million job interviews — up more than 3X month-on-month. During the same period, more than 3 million professional conversations occurred on the platform.

Parikh said he plans to use the fresh capital to expand Apna’s offerings, and help users launch their own businesses. He also plans to expand Apna, currently available in five Indian cities, outside of India in the future.

There are over 250 million blue and grey collar workers in India and providing them meaningful employment opportunities is one of the biggest challenges in our country, said Harshjit Sethi, Principal at Sequoia Capital India, in a statement.

“With internet usage in this demographic growing rapidly, further catalysed by the Jio effect, apps such as Apna can play a meaningful role in democratizing access to employment and skilling. Apna has built a unique product where users quickly come together in professional communities, an unmet need so far,” he added.

A handful of other players are also looking for ways to help. Last month, Google rolled out a feature in its search engine in India that allows users to create their virtual business card. The Android-maker also launched its jobs app Kormo in the country.

Apple ordered to not block Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, but Fortnite to stay off App Store

A district court denied Epic Games’ motion to temporarily restore Fortnite game to the iOS App Store, but also ordered Apple to not block the gaming giant’s ability to provide and distribute Unreal Engine on the iPhone-maker’s ecosystem in a mixed-ruling delivered Monday evening.

U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers said Apple can’t retaliate against Epic Games by blocking the gaming firm’s developer accounts or restrict developers on Apple platforms from accessing Unreal Engine. 

“The record shows potential significant damage to both the Unreal Engine platform itself, and to the gaming industry generally, including on both third-party developers and gamers,” she said.

But the ruling was not a complete win for Epic Games, which had also requested the sleeper hit title Fortnite to be restored on the iOS App Store. Rogers said the game will remain off the App Store unless Epic Games attempted to bring it back in accordance with App Store guidelines. 

More to follow…

Singapore’s trade finance startup Incomlend raises $20M led by Sequoia Capital India

Incomlend, a Singapore-headquartered startup that operates a trading platform to connect exporters and importers with investors, has raised $20 million in a new financing round, it said on Tuesday.

Sequoia India, the India and SEA investment arm of the storied U.S. headquartered venture firm, led the Series A round in four-year-old Incomlend. The CMA CGM Group, one of the world’s largest shipping and logistics firms, also participated in the round.

Incomlend’s invoice trading platform is solving three pain points. Exporters typically get paid weeks or months after shipping goods and lack working capital to move to service other orders until they have received the due. Incomlend says its platform employs AI-powered underwriting technology to enable exporters to receive early payment.

Similarly, the startup says importers on its platform are able to minimize the risk of supply chain disruption and set more favorable payment terms. And investors have found a new alternative asset class to invest in through Incomlend that offers returns in shorter durations.

These roadblocks have prompted traditional banks to pull back from financing such deals, creating a cash crunch among cross-border trading firms worldwide. “This has led to a $1.5 trillion trade finance gap, hitting mid-cap companies hard. This gap has worsened with Covid-19,” the startup said, citing its own research.

“The impact is acute in high-growth Asia where SMEs — which account for more than 95% of all businesses and provide two out of three private-sector jobs in the region — need more financing options to meet their growing demand. Further, low-interest rates in Asia — and negative rates in Europe — are prompting many global investors to seek alternative asset classes,” the startup said.

Morgan Terigi, co-founder and chief executive of Incomlend, said the startup’s trading platform is able to onboard clients and process deals in a more timely fashion with higher flexibility. Incomlend has facilitated over $330 million in financing and covered invoice finance trades across 50 countries to date.

“The massive trade finance gap, combined with declining global interest rates and the high credit quality of Incomlend’s customers, has helped them create a compelling business that helps solve one of the most important challenges faced by global SMEs,” said Abheek Anand, Managing Director at Sequoia Capital India, in a statement.

Terigi said the startup will deploy the fresh capital to expand into Europe, Southeast Asia, and North Asia and bulk up its technology stack.

Booze delivery app Drizly hit by massive data breach affecting 2.5 million accounts

Booze delivery app Drizly hit by massive data breach affecting 2.5 million accounts

Alcohol delivery app Drizly has been hit with a huge data breach, revealing customers’ email addresses, birthdays, encrypted passwords, and even delivery addresses. You’d hope hackers would at least have the decency to leave our liquor alone amidst this incredibly trying pandemic, but apparently nothing is sacred.

In a statement to Mashable, Drizly said it first realised customers’ data may have been compromised on July 13, and “quickly took steps to tighten security and further reduce risk of attack.”

“In terms of scale, up to 2.5 million accounts have been affected,” said Drizly. “Delivery address was included in under 2% of the records. And as mentioned in our email to affected consumers, no financial information was compromised.” Read more…

More about Apps, Food Delivery Services, Hacks, Data Breach, and Drizly

Organise your team with this impressive project planning app

Organise your team with this impressive project planning app

TL;DR: A lifetime subscription to a Timelinr Personal Plan is on sale for £23.97 as of July 3, saving you 93% on list price.


Completing a project is hard enough, but leading a team? Forget about it.

Between delegating tasks to colleagues and making sure the project is done in a timely manner, the entire thing is stressful. And the last thing you should have to worry about is letting anything slip through the cracks. 

That’s the exact concept behind a service called Timelinr, a solution built to make spearheading any task easy. Start by entering all your project’s pertinent data, and Timelinr will spit out a detailed, high-level plan of action for you and your team to follow. If you’re looking to get into the weeds of your project, you can take a granular look at each step.  Read more…

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Indian startups diversify their businesses to offset COVID-19 induced losses

E-commerce giant Flipkart is planning to launch a hyperlocal service that would enable customers to buy items from local stores and have those delivered to them in an hour and a half or less. Yatra, an online travel and hotel ticketing service, is exploring a new business line altogether: Supplying office accessories.

Flipkart and Yatra are not the only firms eyeing new business categories. Dozens of firms in the country have branched out by launching new services in recent weeks, in part to offset the disruption the COVID-19 epidemic has caused to their core offerings.

Swiggy and Zomato, the nation’s largest food delivery startups, began delivering alcohol in select parts of the country last month. The move came weeks after the two firms, both of which are seeing fewer orders and had to let go hundreds of employees, started accepting orders for grocery items in a move that challenged existing online market leaders BigBasket and Grofers.

Udaan, a business-to-business marketplace, recently started to accept bulk orders from some housing societies and is exploring more opportunities in the business-to-commerce space, the startup told TechCrunch.

These shifts came shortly after New Delhi announced a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The lockdown meant that all public places including movie theaters, shopping malls, schools, and public transport were suspended.

Instead of temporarily halting their businesses altogether, as many have done in other markets, scores of startups in India have explored ways to make the most out of the current unfortunate spell.

“This pandemic has given an opportunity to the Indian tech startup ecosystem to have a harder look at the unit-economics of their businesses and become more capital efficient in the shorter and longer-term,” Puneet Kumar, a growth investor in Indian startup ecosystem, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Of the few things most Indian state governments have agreed should remain open include grocery shops, and online delivery services for grocery and food.

People buy groceries at a supermarket during the first day of the 21-day government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Bangalore on March 25, 2020. (Photo by MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP via Getty Images)

E-commerce firms Snapdeal and DealShare began grocery delivery service in late March. The move was soon followed by social-commerce startup Meesho, fitness startup Curefit, and BharatPe, which is best known for facilitating mobile payments between merchants and users.

Meesho’s attempt is still in the pilot stage, said Vidit Aatrey, the Facebook-backed startup’s co-founder and chief executive. “We started grocery during the lockdown to give some income opportunities to our sellers and so far it has shown good response. So we are continuing the pilot even after lockdown has lifted,” he said.

ClubFactory, best known for selling low-cost beauty items, has also started to deliver grocery products, and so has NoBroker, a Bangalore-based startup that connects apartment seekers with property owners. And MakeMyTrip, a giant that provides solutions to book flight and hotel tickets, has entered the food delivery market.

Another such giant, BookMyShow, which sells movie tickets, has in recent weeks rushed to support online events, helping comedians and other artists sell tickets online. The Mumbai-headquartered firm plans to make further inroads around this business idea in the coming days.

For some startups, the pandemic has resulted in accelerating the launch of their product cycles. CRED, a Bangalore-based startup that is attempting to help Indians improve their financial behavior by paying their credit card bill on time, launched an instant credit line and apartment rental services.

Kunal Shah, the founder and chief executive of CRED, said the startup “fast-tracked the launch” of these two products as they could prove immensely useful in the current environment.

For a handful of startups, the pandemic has meant accelerated growth. Unacademy, a Facebook-backed online learning startup, has seen its user base and subscribers count surge in recent months and told TechCrunch that it is in the process of more than doubling the number of exam preparation courses it offers on its platform in the next two months.

Since March, the number of users who access the online learning service each day has surged to 700,000. “We have also seen a 200% increase in viewers per week for the free live classes offered on the platform. Additionally there has been a 50% increase in paid subscribers and over 50% increase in average watchtime per day among our subscribers,” a spokesperson said.

As with online learning firms, firms operating on-demand video streaming services have also seen a significant rise in the number of users they serve. Zee5, which has amassed over 80 million users, told TechCrunch last week that in a month it will introduce a new category in its app that would curate short-form videos produced and submitted by users. The firm said the feature would look very similar to TikTok.

The pandemic “has also accelerated the adoption of online services in India across all demographics. Many who would not have considered buying goods and services online are starting to adopt the online platforms for basic necessities at a faster pace,” said venture capitalist Kumar.

“As far as expansion into adjacent categories is concerned, some of this was a natural progression and startups were slowly moving in that direction anyway. The pandemic has forced people to get there faster.”

Roosh, a Mumbai-based game developing firm founded by several industry veterans, launched a new app ahead of schedule that allows social influencers to promote games on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, Deepak Ail, co-founder and chief executive of Roosh, told TechCrunch.

ShareChat, a Twitter-backed social network, recently acquired a startup called Elanic to explore opportunities in social-commerce. OkCredit, a bookkeeping service for merchants, has been exploring ways to allow users to purchase items from neighborhood stores.

And NowFloats, a Mumbai-based SaaS startup that helps businesses and individuals build an online presence without any web developing skills, is on-boarding doctors to help people consult with medical professionals.

Startups are not the only businesses that have scrambled to eye new categories. Established firms such as Carnival Group, which is India’s third-largest multiplex theatre chain, said it is foraying into cloud kitchen business.

Amazon, which competes with Walmart’s Flipkart in India, has also secured approval from West Bengal to deliver alcohol in the nation’s fourth most populated state. The e-commerce giant is also exploring ways to work with mom and pop stores that dot tens of thousands of cities and towns of India.

Last week, the American giant launched “Smart Stores” that allows shoppers to walk to a participating physical store, scan a QR code, and pick and purchase items through the Amazon app. The firm, which is supplying these mom and pop stores with software and QR code, said more than 10,000 shops are participating in the Smart Stores program.

This Week in Apps: App Store outrage, WWDC20 prep, Android subscriptions change

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week, one story completely took over the news cycle: Hey vs. Apple. An App Store developer dispute made headlines not because Apple was necessarily in the wrong, per its existing rules, but because of a growing swell of developer resentment against those rules. We’re giving extra bandwidth to this story this week, before jumping into the other headlines.

Also this week we look at what’s expected to arrive at next week’s WWDC20, the TikTok clone Zynn getting banned from both app stores (which is totally fine, I guess!), Facebook’s failed attempts to get its Gaming app approved by Apple, as well as some notable Android updates and other app industry trends.

Main Story: Hey vs. Apple

One story dominated this week’s app news. Unless you were living under the proverbial rock, there’s no way you missed it. After Basecamp received App Store approval for its new email app called Hey, the founders, David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried, turned to Twitter to explain how Apple had now rejected the app’s further updates. Apple told Basecamp it had to offer in-app purchases (IAP) for its full email service within the app, in addition to offering it on the company website. They were not happy, to say the least.

This issue came to a head at a time when regulators are taking a closer look at Apple’s business. The company is facing antitrust investigations in both the U.S. and the E.U. which, in part, will attempt to determine if Apple is abusing its market power to unfairly dominate its competitors. In Hey’s case, the subscription-based app competes with Apple’s built-in free Mail app, which could put this case directly in the regulators’ crosshairs.

But it also brings up the larger concerns over how Apple’s App Store rules have evolved to become a confusing mess which developers — and apparently even Apple’s own App Store reviewers — don’t fully understand. (Apple reportedly told Basecamp that Hey should have never been approved in the first place without IAP.)

Apple has carved out a number of conditions where apps don’t have to implement IAP, by making exceptions for enterprise apps that may have per-seat licensing plans for users and for a set of apps that more directly compete with Apple’s own. These, Apple calls “reader” apps, as they were originally directed making an exception for Amazon’s Kindle. But now this rule offers exceptions to the IAP rule for apps focused on magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, video, VoIP, access to professional databases, cloud storage, and more.

That leaves other digital service providers wondering why their apps have to pay when others don’t.

Apple didn’t help its argument, when earlier in the week it released a report that detailed how its App Store facilitated $519B in commerce last year. The company had aimed to prove how much business flows through the App Store without Apple taking a 30% commission, positioning the portion of the market Apple profits from as a tiny sliver. But after the Hey debacle, this report only drives home how Apple has singled out one type of app-based business — digital services — as the one that makes the App Store its money.

Apple’s decision to squander its goodwill with the developer community the week before WWDC is an odd one. Heinemeier Hansson, a content marketing expert, easily bested the $1.5 trillion dollar company by using Apple’s hesitance to speak publicly against it. He set the discussion on fire, posted App Store review email screenshots to serve as Apple’s voice, and let the community vent.

Amid the Twitter outrage, large publishers’ antitrust commentary added further fuel to the fire, including those from Spotify, Match, and Epic Games.

For more reading on this topic, here are some of the key articles:

  • TechCrunch’s exclusive interview with iOS App Store head, Phil Schiller. The exec said Apple’s position on the Hey app is unchanged and no changes to App Store rules are imminent. “You download the app and it doesn’t work, that’s not what we want on the store,” he argued. (Except of course, at those times when such an experience is totally fine with Apple, as in the case of “reader” apps.) Schiller also said Basecamp could have avoided the problems if Hey had offered a free version with paid upgrades, or if it offered IAP at a higher price than on its own website.
  • Daring Fireball’s comments on the “flimsiness” of Business vs. Consumer as a justification for Apple’s rejection of Hey. John Gruber points out that the line between what’s a business app and a consumer app is too blurred. Apple allows some business apps to forgo IAP if they sell enterprise plans (e.g. per seat plans) that often involve upgraded feature sets that aren’t even iOS-specific. But in this day and age, who’s to say that an email service doesn’t deserve the same ability to opt out of IAP in order to serve its own business user base? After all, what if it upgrades its paid service with web-only features — why should Apple get a cut of that business, too?
  • App Store policy criticism from The Verge. Nilay Patel sat down with Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) and Basecamp CTO David Heinemeier Hansson to discuss the plight of Hey for its The Vergecast podcast. Cicilline said Apple’s fees were “exorbitant” and amounted to “highway robbery, basically.” He said Apple bullied developers by charging 30% of their business for access to its market — a decision which crushes smaller developers. “If there were real competition in this marketplace, this wouldn’t happen,” he added. The Verge’s Dieter Bohn also argued that Apple’s interpretation and enforcement of its App Store policies is terrible.
  • Basecamp CEO’s take on Apple’s App Store payment policies: Basecamp, the makers of the Hey app, put out a company statement about the App Store rules. The statement doesn’t add anything new to the conversation that wasn’t already in the tweetstorm, except the Basecamp response to Schiller’s suggestions which was something along the lines of 😝. The bottom line is that Hey wants to make the choice for its own business whether it needs the benefit of being able to acquire its users through the App Store or not. One way requires IAP and the other does not.
  • Vox’s Recode examines the antitrust case against Apple. The article doesn’t reference Hey, but lays out some of the other antitrust arguments being leveraged against Apple, including its “sherlocking” behavior,

Headlines

Apple has denied Facebook’s Gaming app at least 5 times since February

The Hey debacle is only one of many examples of how Apple exerts its market power over rivals. It has also repeatedly denied Facebook’s Gaming app entry to its App Store, citing the rule (Apple Store Review Guidelines, section 4.7) about not allowing apps whose main purpose is to sell other app, The NYT revealed this week.

Facebook’s Gaming app, which launched on Android in April, isn’t just another app store, however. The app offers users a hub to watch streamers play live, social networking tools, and the ability to play casual games like Zynga’s Words with Friends or Chobolabs Thug Life, for example. The latter is the point of contention, as Apple wants all games sold directly on the App Store, where it’s able to take a cut of their revenues.

One of the iterations Facebook tried was a version that looked almost exactly like how Facebook games are presented within the main Facebook iOS app — a single, alphabetized, unsortable list. The fact that this format was rejected when Apple already allows it elsewhere is an indication that even Apple doesn’t play by its own rules.

Zynn gets kicked out of App Store

Image Credits: Zynn

Zynn, the TikTok clone that shot to the top of the app store charts in late May, was pulled from Apple’s App Store on Monday. Before its removal, Sensor Tower estimates Zynn was downloaded 5 million times on iOS and 700,000 times on Google Play.

ByteDance to shut down Vigo apps in India

Chinese internet giant ByteDance has announced plans to discontinue two of its apps in India, its biggest overseas market, and urged users to move to TikTok.

Vigo Video and Vigo Lite, two apps that allow users to create and share short-form sketches and lip-syncing to Bollywood songs, posted a message early Monday (local time) to announce that they would be discontinued at the end of October this year.

In its post, titled “a farewell letter,” ByteDance said it was saddened to shut down the apps but did not offer an explanation for the decision. Indian news outlet Entrackr first spotted the letter.

Unlike TikTok, ByteDance’s most popular app, Vigo Video and Vigo Lite have struggled to make inroads in the world’s second largest internet market. While TikTok has more than 200 million users in India, Vigo Video had about 4 million monthly active users last month and Vigo Lite could only amass 1.5 million users, according to one of the top mobile insight firms — data of which an industry executive shared with TechCrunch.

While Vigo Video gained fewer than 1 million users in a year, Vigo Lite shredded just as many in the same period, the data showed.

Both the apps counted India as their biggest market but have been available in several other markets, including neighboring nation Bangladesh, for instance. It’s unclear whether ByteDance is discontinuing the apps in every market. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The move, despite the apps’ poor reception in India, comes as a surprise. Recruitment posts submitted by ByteDance as late as last month described Vigo as one of the company’s biggest businesses in India.

ByteDance also operates Helo app, which enables users to share their thoughts with friends, and Lark, a productivity suite similar to Google Drive. The company recently stopped charging Lark customers in India for the foreseeable future in response to the coronavirus crises.

Other recent job recruitment posts reveal that the company is looking to hire executives to aggressively explore ways to monetize its services in the country.

ByteDance’s TikTok app has been scrutinized in India in recent weeks for failing to actively remove videos that promoted violence, animal cruelty, racism, child abuse, and objectification of women.

In its message to users on Vigo apps today, ByteDance said it will help them migrate their videos to TikTok. On TikTok, “you will be able to show your talent to a larger group of friends. We are eager to see you [there]!” the message reads.

Save 95% on a lifetime subscription to this language learning app

Save 95% on a lifetime subscription to this language learning app

TL;DR: A lifetime subscription to the language-learning app Mondly is on sale for £79, saving you 95% on list price.


Learning used to be fun when we were kids, right? What changed?

Just because we’re adults now doesn’t mean we can’t learn new things, and it certainly doesn’t mean we can’t have fun doing it. Enter: Mondly

It’s definitely not too late to master a new language, and there are some pretty fun ways to do it as a fully-fledged adult. Mondly is a top-rated language learning app that uses state-of-the-art speech recognition software to listen to your words and give positive feedback only when you speak clearly and correctly. You’ll learn pronunciation by listening to conversations between native speakers, matching core words and phrases, and even immerse yourself in virtual lessons with Mondly’s new AR feature. In short, it gamifies your lessons so you can learn without feeling like you’re learning. The dream. Read more…

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Contact-tracing app caught sharing location data with Foursquare

Contact-tracing app caught sharing location data with Foursquare

Contact-tracing apps are problematic, and that’s before they violate their own privacy policies. 

The Care19 app, developed for the North Dakota Department of Health by developer ProudCrowd, was intended to assist health officials in their battle against coronavirus by logging users’ location data. In the process, according to a report released Thursday, it also sent users’ location data to Foursquare.

The findings, published by the makers of the privacy-focused app Jumbo, highlight the risks inherent in contact-tracing apps. When you have software designed to log your location, or your interactions with other people, and then share that data, you run the risk of said data ending up in unintended hands.  Read more…

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Clubhouse voice chat leads a wave of spontaneous social apps

Forget the calendar invite. Just jump into a conversation. That’s the idea powering a fresh batch of social startups poised to take advantage of our cleared schedules amidst quarantine. But they could also change the way we work and socialize long after COVID-19 by bringing the free-flowing, ad-hoc communication of parties and open office plans online. While “Live” has become synonymous with performative streaming, these new apps instead spread the limelight across several users as well as the task, game, or discussion at hand.

The most buzzy of these startups is Clubhouse, an audio-based social network where people can spontaneously jump into voice chat rooms together. You see the unlabeled rooms of all the people you follow, and you can join to talk or just listen along, milling around to find what interests you. High-energy rooms attract crowds while slower ones see participants slip out to join other chat circles.

Clubhouse blew up this weekend on VC Twitter as people scrambled for exclusive invites, humblebragged about their membership, or made fun of everyone’s FOMO. For now, there’s no public app or access. The name Clubhouse perfectly captures how people long to be part of the in-crowd.

Clubhouse was built by Paul Davison, who previously founded serendipitous offline people-meeting location app Highlight and reveal-your-whole-camera-roll app Shorts before his team was acquired by Pinterest in 2016. This year he debuted his Alpha Exploration Co startup studio and launched Talkshow for instantly broadcasting radio-style call-in shows. Spontaneity is the thread that ties Davison’s work together, whether its for making new friends, sharing your life, transmitting your thoughts, or having a discussion.

It’s very early days for Clubhouse. It doesn’t even have a website. There’s no telling exactly what it will be like if or when it officially launches, and Davison and his co-founder Rohan Seth declined to comment. But the positive reception shows a desire for a more immediate, multi-media approach to discussion that updates what Twitter did with text.

Sheltered From Surprise

What quarantine has revealed is that when you separate everyone, spontaneity is a big thing you miss. In your office, that could be having a random watercooler chat with a co-worker or commenting aloud about something funny you found on the internet. At a party, it could be wandering up to chat with group of people because you know one of them or overhear something interesting. That’s lacking while we’re stuck home since we’ve stigmatized randomly phoning a friend, differing to asynchronous text despite its lack of urgency.

Clubhouse founder Paul Davison. Image Credit: JD Lasica

Scheduled Zoom calls, utilitarian Slack threads, and endless email chains don’t capture the thrill of surprise or the joy of conversation that giddily revs up as people riff off each other’s ideas. But smart app developers are also realizing that spontaneity doesn’t mean constantly interrupting people’s life or workflow. They give people the power to decide when they are or aren’t available or signal that they’re not to be disturbed so they’re only thrust into social connection when they want it.

Houseparty chart ranks via AppAnnie

Houseparty embodies this spontaneity. It’s become the breakout hit of quarantine by letting people on a whim join group video chat rooms with friends the second they open the app. It saw 50 million downloads in a month, up 70X over its pre-COVID levels in some places. It’s become the #1 social app in 82 countries including the US, and #1 overall in 16 countries.

Originally built for gaming, Discord lets communities spontaneously connect through persistent video, voice, and chat rooms. It’s seen a 50% increase in US daily voice users with spikes in shelter-in-place early adopter states like California, New York, New Jersey, and Washington. Bunch, for video chat overlayed on mobile gaming, is also climbing the charts and going mainstream with its user base shifting to become majority female as they talk for 1.5 million minutes per day. Both apps make it easy to join up with pals and pick something to play together.

The Impromptu Office

Enterprise video chat tools are adapting to spontaneity as an alternative to heavy-handed, pre-meditated Zoom calls. There’s been a backlash as people realize they don’t get anything done by scheduling back-to-back video chats all day.

  • Loom lets you quickly record and send a video clip to co-workers that they can watch at their leisure, with back-and-forth conversation sped up because videos are uploaded as they’re shot.

  • Around overlays small circular video windows atop your screen so you can instantly communicate with colleagues while most of your desktop stays focused on your actual work.

  • Screen exists as a tiny widget that can launch a collaborative screenshare where everyone gets a cursor to control the shared window so they can improvisationally code, design, write, and annotate.

Screen

  • Pragli is an avatar-based virtual office where you can see if someone’s in a calendar meeting, away, or in flow listening to music so you know when to instantly open a voice or video chat channel together without having to purposefully find a time everyone’s free. But instead of following you home like Slack, Pragli lets you sign in and out of the virtual office to start and end your day.

Raising Our Voice

While visual communication has been the breakout feature of our mobile phones by allowing us to show where we are, shelter-in-place means we don’t have much to show. That’s expanded the opportunity for tools that take a less-is-more approach to spontaneous communication. Whether for remote partying or rapid problem solving, new apps beyond Clubhouse are incorporating voice rather than just video. Voice offers a way to rapidly exchange information and feel present together without dominating our workspace or attention, or forcing people into an uncomfortable spotlight.

High Fidelity is Second Life co-founder Philip Rosedale’s $72 million-funded current startup. After recently pivoting away from building a virtual reality co-working tool, High Fidelity has begun testing a voice and headphones-based online event platform and gathering place. The early beta lets users move their dot around a map and hear the voice of anyone close to them with spatial audio so voices get louder as you get closer to someone, and shift between your ears as you move past them. You can spontaneously approach and depart little clusters of dots to explore different conversations within earshot.

An unofficial mockup of High Fidelity’s early tests. Image Credits: DigitalGlobe (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

High Fidelity is currently using a satellite photo of Burning Man as its test map. It allows DJs to set up in different corners, and listeners to stroll between them or walk off with a friend to chat, similar to the real offline event. Since Burning Man was cancelled this year, High Fidelity could potentially be a candidate for holding the scheduled virtual version the organizers have promised.

Houseparty’s former CEO Ben Rubin and Skype GM of engineering Brian Meek are building a spontaneous teamwork tool called Slashtalk. Rubin sold Houseparty to Fortnite-maker Epic in mid-2019, but the gaming giant largely neglected the app until its recent quarantine-driven success. Rubin left.

His new startup’s site explains that “/talk is an anti-meeting tool for fast, decentralized conversations. We believe most meetings can be eliminated if the right people are connected at the right time to discuss the right topics, for just as long as necessary.” It lets people quickly jump into a voice or video chat to get something sorted without delaying until a calendared collab session.

Slashtalk co-founder Ben Rubin at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2015

Whether for work or play, these spontaneous apps can conjure times from our more unstructured youth. Whether sifting through the cafeteria or school yard, seeing who else is at the mall, walking through halls of open doors in college dorms, or hanging at the student union or campus square, the pre-adult years offer many opportunities for impromptu social interation.

As we age and move into our separate homes, we literally erect walls that limit our ability to perceive the social cues that signal that someone’s available for unprompted communication. That’s spawned apps like Down To Lunch and Snapchat acquisition Zenly, and Facebook’s upcoming Messenger status feature designed to break through those barriers and make it feel less desperate to ask someone to hang out offline.

But while socializing or collaborating IRL requires transportation logistics and usually a plan, the new social apps discussed here bring us together instantly, thereby eliminating the need to schedule togetherness ahead of time. Gone too are the geographic limits restraining you to connect only with those within a reasonable commute. Digitally, you can pick from your whole network. And quarantines have further opened our options by emptying parts of our calendars.

Absent those frictions, what shines through is our intention. We can connect with who we want and accomplish what we want. Spontaneous apps open the channel so our impulsive human nature can shine through.

India’s lockdown is making life hard for its most popular apps

The coronavirus pandemic, which has forced billions of people to stay home, has led to a surge in new downloads of several consumer and enterprise focused apps in the west. But in India, the biggest open market globally, things have taken a slightly different turn.

Daily downloads for several popular apps including TikTok, WhatsApp, Truecaller, Helo, Vmate, Facebook, Google Pay, and Paytm have either remained unchanged in the last three months or taken a dip, according to a TechCrunch analysis of figures provided by research firm Apptopia.

Additionally, several popular apps that offer in-app purchases have seen their revenue dramatically drop in the last four weeks as most companies in India recommended employees to work from home and New Delhi imposed a 21-day nationwide lockdown — now extended to May 3.

TikTok was downloaded 20.2 million times in India in a 31-day period ending April 12, down from 21.6 million times it was downloaded in the month of January, for instance. During the same period, WhatsApp’s download plummeted to 12 million from 17 million; Hotstar fell from 9.8 million to 3 million; and ByteDance’s Helo dropped from 10.5 million to 7.5 million.

For most of February, TikTok saw more than 700,000 downloads a day in India, peaking at 891,000. In the last one week, volume of daily downloads of the app has fallen below 450,000. WhatsApp’s figure has dropped from about 650,000 to below 250,000, according to Apptopia .

Aarogya Setu, an app launched by the Indian government to help people know if they have been in the vicinity of someone who has tested positive for coronavirus, is currently topping the chart in India with more than 780,000 downloads a day.

Tinder clocked $319,102 in in-app revenue on the App Store and Google Play Store in India between March 13 to April 12, down from $547,103 in January. Netflix’s in-app revenue fell from $285,562 to $192,154 during the same period. LinkedIn and YouTube also observed a decline.

One app that has seen its in-app revenue improve noticeably is Hotstar, which went from $173,253 to $329,675. Disney launched Disney+ atop Hotstar in India earlier this month.

Grocery delivery apps BigBasket, which raised $60 million last week, and Grofers have surged considerably, while Amazon, Flipkart, and Snapdeal that have halted taking non-essential orders in recent weeks have seen a decline in volume of daily downloads and active users on Android in India, according to marketing research firm SimilarWeb.

Zoom, a popular video chat app, has seen its daily downloads surge to over 500,000 in recent weeks, up from about 9,000 in early February. Ludo King, a popular game in Asian markets, has seen its daily download figure jump from about 150,000 in early February to over 450,000 in India in recent days.

As people stay at home, desktop usage has also increased in India, a mobile-first nation with nearly half a billion smartphone users.

“India has consistently seen mobile web browsing account for the heavy majority compared to the desktop, however from February to March, desktop usage increased its share of total visits to the top 100 sites by 1.6%. While this may seem small, it is 1.6% of 31.32 billion visits, so it is still rather significant,” a SimilarWeb representative told TechCrunch.

Investors tell Indian startups to ‘prepare for the worst’ as Covid-19 uncertainty continues

Just three months after capping what was the best year for Indian startups, having raised a record $14.5 billion in 2019, they are beginning to struggle to raise new capital as prominent investors urge them to “prepare for the worst”, cut spending and warn that it could be challenging to secure additional money for the next few months.

In an open letter to startup founders in India, ten global and local private equity and venture capitalist firms including Accel, Lightspeed, Sequoia Capital, and Matrix Partners cautioned that the current changes to the macro environment could make it difficult for a startup to close their next fundraising deal.

The firms, which included Kalaari Capital, SAIF Partners, and Nexus Venture Partners — some of the prominent names in India to back early-stage startups — asked founders to be prepared to not see their startups’ jump in the coming rounds and have a 12-18 month runway with what they raise.

“Assumptions from bull market financings or even from a few weeks ago do not apply. Many investors will move away from thinking about ‘growth at all costs’ to ‘reasonable growth with a path to profitability.’ Adjust your business plan and messaging accordingly,” they added.

Signs are beginning to emerge that investors are losing appetite to invest in the current scenario.

Indian startups participated in 79 deals to raise $496 million in March, down from $2.86 billion that they raised across 104 deals in February and $1.24 billion they raised from 93 deals in January this year, research firm Tracxn told TechCrunch. In March last year, Indian startups had raised $2.1 billion across 153 deals, the firm said.

New Delhi ordered a complete nation-wide lockdown for its 1.3 billion people for three weeks earlier this month in a bid to curtail the spread of COVID-19.

The lockdown, as you can imagine, has severely disrupted businesses of many startups, several founders told TechCrunch.

Vivekananda Hallekere, co-founder and chief executive of mobility firm Bounce, said he is prepared for a 90-day slowdown in the business.

Founder of a Bangalore-based startup, which was in advanced stages to raise more than $100 million, said investors have called off the deal for now. He requested anonymity.

Food delivery firm Zomato, which raised $150 million in January, said it would secure an additional $450 million by the end of the month. Two months later, that money is yet to arrive.

Many startups are already beginning to cut salaries of their employees and let go of some people to survive an environment that aforementioned VC firms have described as “uncharted territory.”

Travel and hotel booking service Ixigo said it had cut the pay of its top management team by 60% and rest of the employees by up to 30%. MakeMyTrip, the giant in this category, also cut salaries of its top management team.

Beauty products and cosmetics retailer Nykaa on Tuesday suspended operations and informed its partners that it would not be able to pay their dues on time.

Investors cautioned startup founders to not take a “wait and watch” approach and assume that there will be a delay in their “receivables,” customers would likely ask for price cuts for services, and contracts would not close at the last minute.

“Through the lockdown most businesses could see revenues going down to almost zero and even post that the recovery curve may be a ‘U’ shaped one vs a ‘V’ shaped one,” they said.

How sleepcasts helped me tackle insomnia

How sleepcasts helped me tackle insomnia

It’s 4 a.m. again and I’m wandering around a marina, being introduced to a bunch of local cats by name.

Each one has a boat and a backstory, and I’m meeting them all thanks to the most low-key, soothing voice possible. Having encountered the self-indulgent Ginger, grand Saba, and tiny Bebe, I finally, finally nod off to sleep. It’s been a while.

This is just one of the many bedtime audio journeys I took to help conquer a bout of insomnia after moving countries. It’s called a “sleepcast” a kind of sleep meditation-podcast hybrid launched by mindfulness app Headspace in 2018. They’re not the first to do it, but they truly nailed it. Read more…

More about Apps, Sleep, Meditation, Headspace, and Hit Snooze

On-demand tutoring app Snapask gets $35 million to expand in Southeast Asia

Snapask, an on-demand tutoring app, announced today that it has raised $35 million in Series B funding. Earmarked for the startup’s expansion in Southeast Asia, the round was led by Asia Partners and Intervest.

Launched in Hong Kong five years ago, Snapask has now raised a total of $50 million and operates in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan and South Korea. Its other investors have included Kejora Ventures, Ondine Capital and SOSV Chinaccelerator (Snapask participated in its accelerator program).

Founder and CEO Timothy Yu said Snapask will expand into Vietnam and focus on markets in Southeast Asia where there is a high demand for tutoring and other private education services. It will also open a regional headquarter in Singapore and develop video content and analytics products for its platform.

The company now has a total of 3 million students, with 1.3 million who registered over the past twelve months (including a recent surge that Yu attributes to students studying at home after COVID-19 related school cancellations). Over the past year, 100,000 tutors have applied, taking Snapask’s current total to 350,000 applicants.

Yu says that over 2 million questions are asked by students each month on the platform, with each subscriber typically asking about 60 questions a month, during tutoring sessions that last between 15 to 20 minutes. The majority, or about two-thirds, of the questions are about math and science-related topics.

One thing all of Snapask’s markets have in common are highly-competitive public exams to enter top universities, says Yu. The exams have both a positive and negative effect on education, he adds.

“Students have a very clear objective about what topics they need to study, so that is driving a very lucrative market in the tutoring industry. But I think what Snapask focuses on is that exams are important, but you should do it the right way. We’re about self-directed learning. It’s not necessary to go to three-hour classes every day after school. If you need specific help on a question, you can ask for it immediately.”

While at university, Yu worked as a math tutor, and sometimes spent a total of two hours commuting to sessions that lasted the same amount of time. In markets like Malaysia or Indonesia, many educators chose to work in major cities, leaving students in rural areas with less options. The goal of Snapask is to help solve those issues and connect tutors with more students.

Yu says the average time for students to connect with a tutor after asking a question is about 15 to 20 minutes, which it is able to do because of machine learning-based technology that matches them based on educational styles, subject and availability. Snapask’s matching algorithms are also based on how students engage with tutors (for example, if they respond better to concise or longer, more elaborate answers). Students can also pick up to 15 to 20 tutors for their favorites list, who are prioritized when matching.

Yu says Snapask screens tutors by looking at their university transcripts and public exam results. Then they go through a probation period on the platform to assess how they interact with students. The platform also tracks how many messages are sent during a tutoring session and response times to make sure that tutors are explaining students’ questions instead of just giving them the answers.

Tutors can talk to up to 10 students at a time through Snapask’s platform. Yu says Snapask tutors in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and South Korea who spend about two hours per day answering questions usually make about $1,200 a month, while those who work about four to five hours a day can make about $4,000 to $5,000 a month. The company uses different pricing models in Southeast Asian markets, and Yu says tutors there can make about 50% to 60% more than they would at traditional tutoring jobs.

Other study apps focused on students some of the same markets as Snapask include ManyTutors and Mathpresso, whose products combine tutoring services with tools that let students upload math questions, which are then scanned with optical character recognition to provide instant answers. Yu says Snapask is focusing on one-on-one tutoring because it wants to differentiate by creating a “holistic experience.”

“A lot of students come to Snapask after using OCR tools, which we know that user surveys, but they can’t get to certain steps. They still need someone to help them understand what is happening,” he says. “So we try not to use technology for every component in teaching, but to make it more efficient and scalable, and we’re creating a holistic experience to differentiate us.”

Voodoo Games thrives by upending conventional product design

Will Robbins
Contributor

Will Robbins is an early-stage investor at Contrary.
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Voodoo Games is one of the most interesting startups alive today. In mid-2018, it had 150 million MAUs and raised $200 million from Goldman Sachs, yet I’ve never heard anyone mention the company. That might be normal for an obscure enterprise SaaS play, but Voodoo is consumer-facing through and through.

Quantitative success aside, Voodoo upends much of the conventional thinking about product design and gaming. If it can do it, how can similar strategies apply to other products?

But first, some background: What is Voodoo Games?

Voodoo is best described as a product conglomerate. Take a look at its App Store page. It has dozens of generic-looking apps. The basic playbook is:

  • Quickly build a relatively low-quality, single-purpose game.
  • Make sure one mechanic is really fun. It doesn’t matter if users churn 20 minutes after downloading it.

Instagram prototypes “Latest Posts” feature

Instagram users who miss the reverse chronological feed might get a new way to see the most recent pics and videos from who they follow. Instagram has been spotted internally prototyping a “Latest Posts” feature. It appears as a pop-up over the main feed and brings users to a special area showing the newest content from their network.

Instagram Latest Posts

For now, this doesn’t look like a full-fledged “Most Recent” reverse-chronological feed option like what Facebook has for the News Feed. But if launched, Latest Posts could help satisfy users who want to make sure they haven’t missed anything or want to know what’s going on right now.

The prototype was discovered by Jane Manchun Wong, the master of reverse engineering who’s provided tips to TechCrunch on scores of new features in development by tech giants. She generated the screenshots above from the code of Instagram’s Android app. “Welcome Back! Get caught up on the posts from [names of people you follow] and 9 more” reads the pop-up that appears over the home screen. If users tap “See Posts” instead of “Not Now”, they’re sent to a separate screen showing recent feed posts.

We’ve reached out to Instagram for a confirmation of the prototype, more details, and clarification on how Latest Posts would work. The company did not respond before press time. However, it has often confirmed the authenticity of Wong’s findings, and some of the features have gone on to officially launch months later.

Back in mid-2016, Instagram switched away from a reverse-chronological feed showing all the posts of people you follow in order of decency. Instead, it forced all users to scroll through a algorithmic feed of what it thinks you’ll like best, ranked based on who and what kind of content you interact with most. That triggered significant backlash. Some users thought they were missing posts or found the jumbled timestamps confusing. But since algorithmic feeds tend to increase engagement by ensuring the first posts you see are usually relevant, Instagram gave users no way to switch back.

Instagram previously tried to help users get assurance that they’d seen all the posts of their network with a “You’re All Caught Up” insert in the feed if you’d scrolled past everything from the past 48 hours. Latest Posts could be another way to let frequent Instagram users know that they’re totally up to date.

That might let people close the app in confidence and resume their lives.

Instamojo acquires Times Internet’s GetMeAShop to serve more small businesses in India

Instamojo, a Bangalore-based startup that helps merchants and small businesses accept digital payments, establish presence and sell on the web, has acquired Times Internet-owned Gurgaon-based startup GetMeAShop.

The deal is worth $5 million and includes conglomerate Times Internet making an investment in Instamojo, Sampad Swain, co-founder and chief executive of the Bangalore-based startup, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Hundreds of millions of people have come online in India in the last decade thanks to proliferation of low-cost Android smartphones and availability to some of the world’s cheapest mobile data plans. But most small businesses, especially neighbourhood stores and merchants, remain offline.

A wave of startups in the country today are trying to make it easier for these merchants and businesses to come online. GetMeAShop is one such startup. It runs a platform that allows businesses to set up their website, build an online store, and make it easier for merchants or individuals to engage with — and sell to — their customers through social apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook.

For Instamojo, this acquisition is not surprising. The seven-year-old startup began its journey as a payments provider for small businesses. Over the years, it has launched an online store, an app store, and a lending service to serve more needs of a business. “This acquisition will allow us to become a full-fledged operating system for businesses,” said Swain.

Instamojo has amassed 1.2 million merchants on its platform. “It took us seven years to get a million merchants on the platform. Now we are adding more than 2,000 a day. We are on track to hit 2 million merchants by the end of this year,” he said.

More to follow shortly…

Truecaller hits 200 million users

Truecaller, one of the world’s largest caller-identification service providers, has amassed 200 million monthly active users and is increasingly proving that it can turn a profit, it said Tuesday.

In India, Truecaller’s largest market, the service now has 150 million monthly active users, it said.

Reaching the 200 million milestone gives the Swedish firm a significant lead over its Seattle-based chief rival Hiya, which as of October last year had about 100 million users.

But unlike its rivals, Truecaller has expanded beyond its caller ID and spam monitoring service. In recent years, it has added messaging and payments services in some markets. Both of these are gaining adoption, said Truecaller co-founder and chief executive Alan Mamedi (pictured above) in an interview with TechCrunch.

The payments service, currently available only in India, would soon be expanded to some African markets, said Mamedi. In India, Truecaller plans to offer lending service in a few weeks, he said.

Finances

There are scores of startups in India today that are offering payments service to users. Dozens of firms, including Truecaller and giants such as Alibaba-backed Paytm, and Walmart’s PhonePe have rolled out payments service in the country that is built atop of UPI, an infrastructure developed by a coalition of banks — and backed by the government.

What makes Truecaller unique is that it is not burning so much money.

Mamedi said Truecaller was profitable in the quarter that ended in December. “It’s been a very proud moment for us, especially in an industry where most companies spend a lot of money to onboard users,” he said. Truecaller has raised about $99 million to date, per Crunchbase, and counts Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins among its investors.

Truecaller generates more than half of its revenue from ads that it serves to its users. But Mamedi said the firm’s subscription service, which offers a range of additional features including stripping of ads, is gaining traction. Today, it accounts for about 30% of all revenue Truecaller clocks, he said.

The startup will attempt to maintain this momentum — and it did so in January — but Mamedi cautioned that things may change based on immediate business decisions such as potential acquisition of startups. What happens next? IPO is on the cards, but he said the startup will take three years to be ready for that phase of its journey.

PayU acquires controlling stake in Indian credit business PaySense, to merge it with LazyPay

PayU is acquiring a controlling stake in fintech startup PaySense at a valuation of $185 million and plans to merge it with its credit business LazyPay as the nation’s largest payments processor aggressively expands its financial services offering.

The Prosus-owned payments giant said on Friday that it will pump $200 million — $65 million of which is being immediately invested — into the new enterprise in the form of equity capital over the next two years. PaySense, which employs about 240 people, has served more than 5.5 million consumers to date, a top executive said.

Prior to today’s announcement, PaySense had raised about $25.6 million from Nexus Venture Partners, and Jungle Ventures, among others. PayU became an investor in the five-year-old startup’s Series B financing round in 2018. Regulatory filings show that PaySense was valued at about $48.7 million then.

The merger will help PayU solidify its presence in the credit business and become one of the largest players, said Siddhartha Jajodia, Global Head of Credit at PayU, in an interview with TechCrunch. “It’s the largest merger of its kind in India.” he said. The combined entity is valued at $300 million, he said.

PaySense enables consumers to secure long-term credit for financing their new vehicle purchases and other expenses. Some of its offerings overlap with those of LazyPay, which primarily focuses on providing short-term credit to consumers to facilitate orders on food delivery platforms, e-commerce websites and other services. Its credit ranges between $210 and $7,030.

Cumulatively, the two services have disbursed over $280 million in credit to consumers, said Jajodia. He aims to take this to “a couple of billion dollars” in the next five years.

PaySense’s Prashanth Ranganathan and PayU’s Siddhartha Jajodia pose for a picture

As part of the deal, PaySense and LazyPay will build a common and shared technology infrastructure. But at least for the immediate future, LazyPay and PaySense will continue to be offered as separate services to consumers, explained Prashanth Ranganathan, founder and chief executive of PaySense, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“Overtime as the businesses get closer, we will make a call if a consolidation of brands is required. But for now, we will let consumers direct us,” added Ranganathan, who will serve as the chief executive of the combined entity.

There are about a billion debit cards in circulation in India today, but only about 20 million people have a credit card. (The official government figures show that about 50 million credit cards are active in India, but many individuals tend to have more than one card.)

This has meant that most Indians don’t have a traditional credit score, so they can’t secure loans and a range of other financial services from banks. Scores of startups in India today are attempting to address this opportunity by using other signals and alternative data — such as the kind of a smartphone a person has — to evaluate whether they are worthy of being granted some credit.

Digital lending is a $1 trillion opportunity (PDF) over the four and a half years, according to estimates from Boston Consulting Group.

PayU’s Jajodia said PaySense and LazyPay will likely explore building new offerings such as credit for small and medium businesses. He did not rule out exploring getting a stake in more fintech startups in the future. PayU has already invested north of half a billion dollars in its India business. Last year, it acquired Wibmo for $70 million.

“At PayU, our ambition is to build financial services using data and technology. Our first two legs have been payments [processing] and credit. We will continue to scale both of these businesses. Even this acquisition was about getting new capabilities and a strong management team. If we find more companies with some unique assets, we may look at them,” he said.

PayU leads the payments processing market in India. It competes with Bangalore-based RazorPay. In recent years, RazorPay has expanded to serve small businesses and enterprises. In November, it launched corporate credit cards and other services to strengthen its neo banking play.

Indian tech startups raised a record $14.5B in 2019

Indian tech startups have never had it so good.

Local tech startups in the nation raised $14.5 billion in 2019, beating their previous best of $10.5 billion last year, according to research firm Tracxn .

Tech startups in India this year participated in 1,185 financing rounds — 459 of those were Series A or later rounds — from 817 investors.

Early stage startups — those participating in angel or pre-Series A financing round — raised $6.9 billion this year, easily surpassing last year’s $3.3 billion figure, according to a report by venture debt firm InnoVen Capital.

According to InnoVen’s report, early stage startups that have typically struggled to attract investors saw a 22% year-over-year increase in the number of financing deals they took part in this year. Cumulatively, at $2.6 million, their valuation also increased by 15% from last year.

Also in 2019, 128 startups in India got acquired, four got publicly listed, and nine became unicorns. This year, Indian tech startups also attracted a record number of international investors, according to Tracxn.

This year’s fundraise further moves the nation’s burgeoning startup space on a path of steady growth.

Since 2016, when tech startups accumulated just $4.3 billion — down from $7.9 billion the year before — flow of capital has increased significantly in the ecosystem. In 2017, Indian startups raised $10.4 billion, per Tracxn.

“The decade has seen an impressive 25x growth from a tiny $550 million in 2010 to $14.5 billion in 2019 in terms of the total funding raised by the startups,” said Tracxn.

What’s equally promising about Indian startups is the challenges they are beginning to tackle today, said Dev Khare, a partner at VC fund Lightspeed Venture Partners, in a recent interview to TechCrunch.

In 2014 and 2015, startups were largely focused on building e-commerce solutions and replicating ideas that worked in Western markets. But today, they are tackling a wide-range of categories and opportunities and building some solutions that have not been attempted in any other market, he said.

Tracxn’s analysis found that lodging startups raised about $1.7 billion this year — thanks to Oyo alone bagging $1.5 billion, followed by logistics startups such as Elastic Run, Delhivery, and Ecom Express that secured $641 million.

176 horizontal marketplaces, more than 150 education learning apps, over 160 fintech startups, over 120 trucking marketplaces, 82 ride-hailing services, 42 insurance platforms, 33 used car listing providers, and 13 startups that are helping businesses and individuals access working capital secured funding this year. Fintech startups alone raised $3.2 billion this year, more than startups operating in any other category, Tracxn told TechCrunch.

The investors

Sequoia Capital, with more than 50 investments — or co-investments — was the most active venture capital fund for Indian tech startups this year. (Rajan Anandan, former executive in charge of Google’s business in India and Southeast Asia, joined Sequoia Capital India as a managing director in April.) Accel, Tiger Global Management, Blume Ventures, and Chiratae Ventures were the other top four VCs.

Steadview Capital, with nine investments in startups including ride-hailing service Ola, education app Unacademy, and fintech startup BharatPe, led the way among private equity funds. General Atlantic, which invested in NoBroker and recently turned profitable edtech startup Byju’s, invested in four startups. FMO, Sabre Partners India, and CDC Group each invested in three startups.

Venture Catalysts, with over 40 investments including in HomeCapital and Blowhorn, was the top accelerator or incubator in India this year. Y Combinator, with over 25 investments, Sequoia Capital’s Surge, Axilor Ventures, and Techstars were also very active this year.

Indian tech startups also attracted a number of direct investments from top corporates and banks this year. Goldman Sachs, which earlier this month invested in fintech startup ZestMoney, overall made eight investments this year. Among others, Facebook made its first investment in an Indian startup — social-commerce firm Meesho and Twitter led a $100 million financing round in local social networking app ShareChat.

Snapchat will launch Bitmoji TV, a personalized cartoon show

Snapchat’s most popular yet under-exploited feature is finally getting the spotlight in 2020. Starting in February with a global release, your customizable Bitmoji avatar will become the star of a full-motion cartoon series called Bitmoji TV. It’s a massive evolution for Bitmoji beyond the chat stickers and comic strip-style Stories where they were being squandered to date.

Creating original in-house shows for its Discover section that can’t be copied could help Snapchat differentiate from the plethora of short-form video platforms out there ranging from YouTube to Facebook Watch to TikTok. Bitmoji TV could also up the quality of Discover, which still feels like a tabloid magazine rack full of scantly clad women, gross-out imagery, and other shocking content merely meant to catch the eye and draw a click.

With Bitmoji TV, your avatar and those of your friends will appear in regularly-scheduled adventures ranging from playing the crew of Star Treky spaceship to being secret agents to falling in love with robots or becoming zombies. The trailer Snapchat released previews an animation style reminiscent of Netflix’s Big Mouth.

TechCrunch asked Snap for more details, including how long episodes will be, how often they’ll be released, whether they’ll include ads, and if the company acquired anyone or brought on famous talent to produce the series. A Snap spokesperson declined to provide more details, but sent over this statement: “Bitmoji TV isn’t available in your network yet, but stay tuned for the global premiere soon!”

The Snapchat Show page for Bitmoji TV notes it is coming in February 2020. Users can visit here on mobile to subscribe to Bitmoji TV so it shows up prominently on their Discover page, or turn on notifications about its new content.

Snap realizes Bitmoji’s value

Snap has had a tough few years as many of its core features have been ruthlessly copied by the Facebook family of apps. Instagram Stories killed Snap’s growth for years and effectively stole the broadcast medium from its inventor. Facebook also ramped up it augmented reality selfie filters, added more ephemeral messaging features, and launched Watch as a competitor to Snapchat Discover.

Two years ago I wrote that Facebook was crazy not to be competing with Bitmoji too. Six months later we were first to report Facebook Avatars was in the works, and this year they launched as Messenger chat stickers in Australia with plans for a global release in 2019 or early 2020. But Facebook’s slow movement here, Google’s half-assed entry, and Twitter’s lack of an attempt have given Snapchat’s Bitmoji a massive headstart. And now Snap is finally leveraging it.

“TV” is actually a return to Bitmoji’s roots. The startup Bitstrips originally offered an app for customizing the face, hair, clothes, and more of your avatar and then creating comic strips for them to appear in. Snap acquired Bitstrips back in 2016 for just $64.2 million — a steal not far off from Facebook snatching Instagram for under a billion. The standalone Bitmoji app blew up as soon as Snapchat began offering the avatars as chat stickers. It had over 330 million downloads as of April according to Sensor Tower despite Snapchat now letting you create your avatar in its main app.

Eventually, Snap began expanding Bitmoji’s uses. In 2017 Bitmoji went 3D and you could start overlaying them as augmented reality characters on your Snaps. The next year Snap improved their graphics, then launched the Snap Kit developer platform and Bitmoji Kit. This allows apps to build atop Snapchat login and use your Bitmoji as a profile pic. Soon they were appearing as Fitbit smart watch faces, alongside your Venmo transaction, and on Snapchat-sold merchandise from t-shirts to mugs. It’s part of a wise strategy to beat copycats by allowing allies to use real thing rather than building their own knock-off. That’s fueled the “Snapback” comeback which has seen Snap’s share price climb out of the gutter at $5.79 at the start of 2019 to $16.09 now.

One of Snap smartest innovations was Bitmoji Stories — the ancestor to Bitmoji TV. These daily Stories let you tap frame-by-frame through short comic strip-style interactions starring your avatar. Occasionally Bitmoji Stories would include rudimentary animation, but most frames were still images with text bubbles. Bitmoji could once again drive a narrative, rather than just being a communication tool. Still, they seem underutilized.

In 2019, Snapchat wised up. Bitmoji have become nearly ubiquitous amongst teens and Snapchat’s 210 million daily users. They’re the Google or Kleenex of cartoonish personalized avatars. Their goofy nature is also a perfect fit for Snapchat, and a reason they’re tough for stiffer and older tech giants to convincingly copy.

In April, Snap announced its new games platform inside its messaging feature that let you play as your Bitmoji against friends’ avatars in games ranging from Mario Party ripoff Bitmoji Party to tennis, shoot-em ups, and cooking competitions. Snap injects ads into the games, making Bitmoji key to its efforts to monetize its central messaging use case. Last month it launched custom and branded clothing for Bitmoji, which could open opportunities to earn money selling premium outfits or showing off brand sponsorships.

To truly take advantage of Bitmoji’s unique popularity, though, Snap needed to build longer-form experiences with the avatars at the center that . Stickers and Stories and games were fun, but none felt like must-see content. With Bitmoji TV, Snap may have found a way to get users to drag their friends into the app. Since everyone sees their own Bitmoji as the star, the cartoons could be more compelling then ones with impersonal characters you might find elsewhere around the web.

But Bitmoji TV’s success will depend largely on the quality of the writing. If your avatar is constantly getting into funny, meme-worthy situations, you’ll keep coming back to watch. But Snap’s teen audience has a keen nose for inauthentic bullsh*t. If the Shows feel forced, too childish, or boring, Bitmoji TV will flop. Snap would be savvy to invest in great Hollywood talent to produce the episodes.

High quality Bitmoji TV shorts could rescue Snapchat Discover from its own mediocrity. There are a few strong brands like ESPN SportsCenter on the platform, and Snap has several original Shows with over 25 million unique viewers. It’s also greenlit additional seasons of Shows like Dead Girls Detective Agency and new biopic clips from Serena Williams and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Still, a scroll through the Discover and Shows sections reveals plenty of trashy clickbait that surely scares away premium advertisers.

Bitmoji TV could offer video that’s not only fun and snackable, but out of reach for competitors who don’t have a scaled avatar platform of their own. As with the recent launch of Snapchat Cameos, the company has realized that the most addictive experiences center on its users’ own faces. Snapchat turned the selfie into the future of communication. Bitmoji TV could make an animated recreation of your selfie into the future of content.

Chinese apps are losing their hold on India to local developers

Apps from Chinese developers have been gaining popularity on Indian app stores for sometime. Last year, as many as 44 of the top 100 Android apps in India were developed by Chinese firms.

But things have changed this year as local developers put on a fight. According to app analytics and marketing firm AppsFlyer, Indian apps as a whole have recaptured their original standing.

41% of top 200 apps in Indian editions of Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store in Q2 and Q3 this year were developed by Indian developers and local firms, up from 38% last year, the report said. Data from App Annie, another research firm, corroborates the claim.

“This uptick happened chiefly at the expense of Chinese apps, which fell from their lead position to 38% from 43% in 2018. Altogether, Chinese and Indian apps make up almost four-fifths (79%) of the list,” the report said.

The shift comes as scores of Indian firms have launched payments, gaming, news, and entertainment apps in the last year and a half, said AppsFlyer, which analyzed 6.5 billion installs in the second and third quarters of this year.

But Chinese developers are not giving up and continue to maintain an “impressive” fight in each category, the report said.

India — which is home to more than 450 million smartphone users and maintains relatively lax laws to support an open market — has naturally emerged as an attractive battleground for developers worldwide.

Many Chinese firms including Xiaomi and ByteDance count India as one of their largest markets. TikTok app has amassed over 200 million users in India, for instance. Xiaomi, which leads the Indian smartphone market, is quickly building a portfolio of services for users in India. It launched a lending app in the country earlier this month.

Gaining traction among first time internet users, most of whom have lower financial capacity, can prove challenging. Those developing travel apps had to spend about 170 Indian rupees ($2.4) for each install, for instance. Food and drink app makers spent 138 Indian rupees ($1.9) per install during the aforementioned period, while games cost 13.5 Indian rupees.

Data from @AppsFlyer state of App Marketing 2019 India – key highights:
– Indian Apps claimed more installs in 2019 vs chinese Apps
– Apps in finance category spent the most in non-organic install (easy to guess which ones)
– As a result, finance Apps saw 59% uninstall on Day 1 pic.twitter.com/ROADpk9VQK

— Deepak Abbot (@deepakabbot) December 23, 2019

Despite the marketing spends, retention rate for these apps was 23.4% on day 1, a figure that plummeted to 2.6% by the end of the month. (This is still an improvement over retention rates of 22.8% on day 1, and 2.3% on day 30 last year.)

Messaging app ToTok is reportedly a secret UAE surveillance tool

Messaging app ToTok is reportedly a secret UAE surveillance tool

Just in time for Christmas, here’s a friendly reminder that technology isn’t always your friend.

Popular messaging app ToTok has been removed from the iOS App Store and Google Play Store, and if you have it on your phone you should probably remove it from there too. U.S. officials and a New York Times investigation published on Sunday found the app to be a spying tool for the United Arab Emirates, making it much less benign than it initially appears.

ToTok was released on July 27, and quickly grew in popularity in the U.A.E. Other messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Skype are blocked in the country, so users were thrilled to have a free, functional alternative. The app quickly spread to other Middle Eastern countries and then the rest of the world, even trending in the U.S App Store.  Read more…

More about Apps, Surveillance, United Arab Emirates, Uae, and Totok

Disney+ to launch in India, Southeast Asian markets next year

Disney plans to bring its on-demand video streaming service to India and some Southeast Asian markets as soon as the second half of next year, two sources familiar with the company’s plans told TechCrunch.

In India, the company plans to bring Disney+’s catalog to Hotstar, a popular video streaming service it owns, after the end of next year’s IPL cricket tournament in May, the people said.

Soon afterwards, the company plans to expand Hotstar with Disney+ catalog to Indonesia and Malaysia among other Southeast Asian nations, said those people on the condition of anonymity.

A spokesperson for Hotstar declined to comment.

Hotstar leads the Indian video streaming market. The service said it had more than 300 million monthly subscribers during the IPL cricket tournament and ICC World Cup earlier this year. More than 25 million users simultaneously streamed one of the matches, setting a new global record.

However, Hotstar’s monthly userbase plummets below 60 million in weeks following IPL tournament, according to people who have seen the internal analytics. The arrival of more originals from Disney on Hotstar, which already offers a number of Disney-owned titles in India, could help the service sustain users after cricket seasons.

The international expansion of Hotstar isn’t a surprise as it has entered the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. in recent years. In an interview with TechCrunch earlier this year, Ipsita Dasgupta, president of Hotstar’s international operations, said so far the platform’s international strategy has been to enter markets with “high density of Indians.”

In an earnings call for the quarter that ended in June this year, Disney CEO Robert Iger hinted that the company, which snagged Indian entertainment conglomerate Star India as part of its $71.3 billion deal with 21st Century Fox, would bring Star India-operated Hotstar to Southeast Asian markets, though he did not offer a timeline.

Disney+, currently available in the U.S, Canada and the Netherlands, will expand to Australia and New Zealand next week, and the U.K., Germany, Italy, France and Spain on March 31, the company announced last week.

Price hike

Disney, which debut its video streaming service in the U.S. this week and has already amassed over 10 million subscribers, plans to raise the monthly subscription fee of Hotstar in India, where the service currently costs $14 a year, one of the two aforementioned people said.

A screenshot of Hotstar’s homepage

The price hike will happen towards the end of the first quarter next year, just ahead of commencement of next IPL cricket tournament season, they said. The company has not decided exactly how much it intends to charge, but one of the people said that it could go as high as $30 a year.

In other Southeast Asian markets, the service is likely to cost above $30 a year as well, both of the sources said. The prices have yet to be finalized, however, they said.

Even at those suggested price points, Disney would be able to undercut rivals on price. Until recently, Netflix charged at least $7 a month in India and other Southeast Asian markets. But this year, the on-demand streaming pioneer introduced a $2.8 monthly tier in India and $4 in Malaysia.

Hotstar offers a large library of local movies and titles syndicated from international cable networks and studios Showtime, HBO, and ABC (also owned by Disney). In its current international markets, Hotstar’s catalog is limited to some local content and large library of Indian titles.

In recent quarters, Hotstar has also set up an office in Tsinghua Science Park in Beijing, China and hired over 60 engineers and researchers as it looks to expand its tech infrastructure to service more future users, according to job recruitment posts and other data sourced from LinkedIn.

Gradeup raises $7M to expand its online exam preparation platform to smaller Indian cities and towns

Gradeup, an edtech startup in India that operates an exam preparation platform for undergraduate and postgraduate level courses, has raised $7 million from Times Internet as it looks to expand its business in the country.

Times Internet, a conglomerate in India, invested $7 million in Series A and $3 million in Seed financing rounds of the four-year-old Noida-based startup, it said. Times Internet is the only external investor in Gradeup, they said.

Gradeup started as a community for students to discuss their upcoming exams, and help one another with solving questions, said Shobhit Bhatnagar, cofounder and CEO of Gradeup, in an interview with TechCrunch.

While those functionalities continue to be available on the platform, Gradeup has expanded to offer online courses from teachers to help students prepare for exams in last one year, he said. These courses, depending on their complexity and duration, cost anywhere between Rs 5,000 ($70) and Rs 35,000 ($500).

“These are live lectures that are designed to replicate the offline experience,” he said. The startup offers dozens of courses and runs multiple sessions in English and Hindi languages. As many as 200 students tune into a class simultaneously, he said.

Students can interact with the teacher through a chatroom. Each class also has a “student success rate” team assigned to it that follows up with each student to check if they had any difficulties in learning any concept and take their feedback. These extra efforts have helped Gradeup see more than 50% of its students finish their courses — an industry best, Bhatnagar said.

Each year in India, more than 30 million students appear for competitive exams. A significant number of these students enroll themselves to tuitions and other offline coaching centers.

“India has over 200 million students that spend over $90 billion on different educational services. These have primarily been served offline, where the challenge is maintaining high quality while expanding access,” said Satyan Gajwani, Vice Chairman of Times Internet.

In recent years, a number of edtech startups have emerged in the country to cater to larger audiences and make access to courses cheaper. Byju’s, backed by Naspers and valued at over $5.5 billion, offers a wide-ranging self-learning courses. Vedantu, a Bangalore-based startup that raised $42 million in late August, offers a mix of recorded and live and interactive courses.

Co-founders of Noida-based edtech startup Gradeup

But still, only a fraction of students take online courses today. One of the roadblocks in their growth has been access to mobile data, which until recent years was fairly expensive in the country. But arrival of Reliance Jio has solved that issue, said Bhatnagar. The other is acceptance from students and more importantly, their parents. Watching a course online on a smartphone or desktop is still a new concept for many parents in the country, he said. But this, too, is beginning to change.

“The first wave of online solutions were built around on-demand video content, either free or paid. Today, the next wave is online live courses like Gradeup, with teacher-student interactivity, personalisation, and adaptive learning strategies, deliver high-quality solutions that scale, which is particularly valuable in semi-urban and rural markets,” said Times Internet’s Gajwani.

“These match or better the experience quality of offline education, while being more cost-effective. This trend will keep growing in India, where online live education will grow very quickly for test prep, reskilling, and professional learning,” he added.

Gradeup has amassed over 15 million registered students who have enrolled to live lectures. The startup plans to use the fresh capital to expand its academic team to 100 faculty members (from 50 currently) and 200 subject matters and reach more users in smaller cities and towns in India.

“Students even in smaller cities and towns are paying a hefty amount of fee and are unable to get access to high-quality teachers,” Bhatnagar said. “This is exactly the void we can fill.”

MediaLab acquires messaging app Kik, expanding its app portfolio

Popular messaging app Kik is, indeed, “here to stay” following an acquisition by the Los Angeles-based multimedia holding company, MediaLab.

It echoes the same message from Kik’s chief executive Tim Livingston last week when he rebuffed earlier reports that the company would shut down amid an ongoing battle with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Livingston had tweeted that Kik had signed a letter-of-intent with a “great company,” but that it was “not a done deal.”

Now we know the the company: MediaLab. In a post on Kik’s blog on Friday the MediaLab said that it has “finalized an agreement” to acquire Kik Messenger.

Kik is one of those amazing places that brings us back to those early aspirations,” the blog post read. “Whether it be a passion for an obscure manga or your favorite football team, Kik has shown an incredible ability to provide a platform for new friendships to be forged through your mobile phone.”

MediaLab is a holding company that owns several other mobile properties, including anonymous social network Whisper and mixtape app DatPiff. In acquiring Kik, the holding company is expanding its mobile app portfolio.

MediaLab said it has “some ideas” for developing Kik going forwards, including making the app faster and reducing the amount of unwanted messages and spam bots. The company said it will introduce ads “over the coming weeks” in order to “cover our expenses” of running the platform.

Buying the Kik messaging platform adds another social media weapon to the arsenal for MediaLab and its chief executive, Michael Heyward .

Heyward was an early star of the budding Los Angeles startup community with the launch of the anonymous messaging service, Whisper nearly 8 years ago. At the time, the company was one of a clutch of anonymous apps — including Secret and YikYak — that raised tens of millions of dollars to offer online iterations of the confessional journal, the burn book, and the bathroom wall (respectively).

In 2017, TechCrunch reported that Whisper underwent significant layoffs to stave off collapse and put the company on a path to profitability.

At the time Whisper had roughly 20 million monthly active users across its app and website, which the company was looking to monetize through programmatic advertising, rather than brand-sponsored campaigns that had provided some of the company’s revenue in the past. Through widgets, the company had an additional 10 million viewers of its content per-month using various widgets and a reach of around 250 million through Facebook and other social networks on which it published posts.

People familiar with the company said at the time that it was seeing gross revenues of roughly $1 million and was going to hit $12.5 million in revenue for that calendar year. By 2018 that revenue was expected to top $30 million, according to sources at the time.

The flagship Whisper app let people post short bits of anonymous text and images that other folks could like or comment about. Heyward intended it to be a way for people to share more personal and intimate details —  to be a social network for confessions and support rather than harassment.

The idea caught on with investors and Whisper managed to raise $61 million from investors including Sequoia, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and Shasta Ventures . Whisper’s last round was a $36 million Series C back in 2014.

Fast forward to 2018 when Secret had been shut down for three years while YikYak also went bust — selling off its engineering team to Square for around $1 million. Whisper, meanwhile, seemingly set up MediaLab as a holding company for its app and additional assets that Heyward would look to roll up. The company filed registration documents in California in June 2018.

According to the filings, Susan Stone, a partner with the investment firm Sierra Wasatch Capital, is listed as a director for the company.

Heyward did not respond to a request for comment.

Zack Whittaker contributed reporting for this article. 

Catalan separatists have tooled up with a decentralized app for civil disobedience

Is our age of ubiquitous smartphones and social media turning into an era of mass civil unrest? Two years after holding an independence referendum and unilaterally declaring independence in defiance of the Spanish state — then failing to gain recognition for la república and being forced to watch political leaders jailed or exiled — Catalonia’s secessionist movement has resurfaced with a major splash.

One of the first protest actions programmed by a new online activist group, calling itself Tsunami Democràtic, saw thousands of protestors coalescing on Barcelona airport Monday, in an attempt to shut it down. The protest didn’t quite do that but it did lead to major disruption, with roads blocked by human traffic as protestors walked down the highway and the cancelation of more than 100 flights, plus hours of delays for travellers arriving into El Prat.

For months leading up to a major Supreme Court verdict on the fate of imprisoned Catalan political leaders a ‘technical elite‘ — as one local political science academic described them this week — has been preparing to reboot Catalonia’s independence movement by developing bespoke, decentralized high-tech protest tools.

A source with knowledge of Tsunami Democràtic, speaking to TechCrunch on condition of anonymity, told us that “high level developers” located all around the world are involved in the effort, divvying up coding tasks as per any large scale IT project and leveraging open source resources (such as the RetroShare node-based networking platform) to channel grassroots support for independence into a resilient campaign network that can’t be stopped by the arrest of a few leaders.

Demonstrators at the airport on Monday were responding directly to a call to blockade the main terminal posted to the group’s Telegram channel.

Additional waves of protest are being planned and programmed via a bespoke Tsunami Democràtic app that was also released this week for Android smartphones — as a sideload, not yet a Google Play download.

The app is intended to supplement mainstream social network platform broadcasts by mobilizing smaller, localized groups of supporters to carry out peaceful acts of civil disobedience all over Catalonia.

Our source walked us through the app, which requires location permission to function in order that administrators can map available human resources to co-ordinate protests. We’re told a user’s precise location is not shared but rather that an obfuscated, more fuzzy location marker gets sent. However the app’s source code has not yet been open sourced so users have to take such claims on trust (open sourcing is said to be the plan — but only once the app has been scrubbed of any identifying traces, per the source).

The app requires a QR code to be activated. This is a security measure intended to manage activation in stages, via trusted circles of acquaintances, to limit the risk of infiltration by state authorities. Though it feels a bit like a viral gamification tactic to encourage people to spread the word and generate publicity organically by asking their friends if they have a code or not.

new 04

Whatever it’s really for the chatter seems to be working. During our meeting over coffee we overheard a group of people sitting at another table talking about the app. And at the time of writing Tsunami Democràtic has announced 15,000 successful QR code activations so far. Though it’s not clear how successful the intended flashmob civil disobedience game-plan will be at this nascent stage.

Once activated, app users are asked to specify their availability (i.e. days and times of day) for carrying out civil disobedience actions. And to specify if they own certain mobility resources which could be utilized as part of a protest (e.g. car, scooter, bike, tractor).

Examples of potential actions described to us by our source were go-slows to bring traffic grinding to a halt and faux shopping sprees targeting supermarkets where activists could spend a few hours piling carts high with goods before leaving them abandoned in the store for someone else to clean up.

One actual early action carried out by activists from the group last month targeted a branch of the local CaixaBank with a masked protestor sit-in.

Our source said the intention is to include a pop-up in the app as a sort of contract of conscience which asks users to confirm participation in the organized chaos will be entirely peaceful. Here’s an example of what the comprometo looks like:

TD-app

Users are also asked to confirm both their intention to participate in a forthcoming action (meaning the app will capture attendance numbers for protests ahead of time) and to check in when they get there so its administrators can track actual participation in real-time.

The app doesn’t ask for any personal data during onboarding — there’s no account creation etc — although users are agreeing to their location being pervasively tracked.

And it’s at least possible that other personal data could be passed via, for example, a comment submission field that lets people send feedback on actions. Or if the app ends up recording other data via access to smartphone sensors.

The other key point is that users only see actions related to their stated availability and tracked location. So, from a protestor’s point of view, they see only a tiny piece of the Tsunami Democràtic protest program. The user view is decentralized and information is distributed strictly piecemeal, on a need to know basis.

Behind the scenes — where unknown administrators are accessing its data and devising and managing protest actions to distribute via the app — there may be an entirely centralized view of available human protest resources. But it’s not clear what the other side of the platform looks like. Our source was unable to show it to us or articulate what it looks like.

Certainly, administrators are in a position to cancel planned actions if, for example, there’s not enough participation — meaning they can invisibly manage external optics around engagement with the cause. Not enough foot soldiers for a planned protest? Just call it off quietly via the app.

Also not at all clear: Who the driving forces are behind the Tsunami Democràtic protest mask?

“There is no thinking brain, there are many brains,” a spokesman for the movement told the El Diario newspaper this week. But that does raise pretty major questions about democratic legitimacy. Because, well, if you’re claiming to be fighting for democracy by mobilizing popular support, and you’re doing it from inside a Western democracy, can you really claim that while your organization remains in the shadows?

Even if your aim is non-violent political protest, and your hierarchy is genuinely decentralized, which is the suggestive claim here, unless you’re offering transparency of structure so as to make your movement’s composition and administration visible to outside scrutiny (so that your claims of democratic legitimacy can be independently verified) then individual protestors (the app’s end users) just have to take your word for it.

End users who are being crowdsourced and coopted to act out via app instruction as if they’re pawns on a high tech chess board. They are also being asked (implicitly) to shoulder direct personal risk in order that a faceless movement generates bottom up political pressure.

So there’s a troubling contradiction here for a movement that has chosen to include the word ‘democractic’ in its name. (The brand is a reference to a phase used by jailed Catalan cultural leader, Jordi Cuixart.) Who or what is powering this wave?

Tsunami Democratic

We also now know all too well how the double-sided nature of platforms means these fast-flowing technosocial channels can easily be misappropriated by motivated interest groups to gamify and manipulate opinion (and even action) en masse. This has been made amply clear in recent years with political disinformation campaigns mushrooming into view all over the online place.

So while emoji-strewn political protest messages calling for people to mobilize at a particular street corner might seem a bit of harmless ‘Pokemon Go’-style urban fun, the upshot can — and this week has — been far less predictable and riskier than its gamified packaging might suggest.

Plenty of protests have gone off peacefully, certainly. Others — often those going on after dusk and late into the night — have devolved into ugly scenes and destructive clashes.

There is clearly a huge challenge for decentralized movements (and indeed technologies) when it comes to creating legitimate governance structures that don’t simply repeat the hierarchies of the existing (centralized) authorities and systems they’re seeking to challenge.

The anarchy-loving crypto community’s inability to coalesce around a way to progress with blockchain technology looks like its own self-defeating irony. A faceless movement fighting for ‘democracy’ from behind an app mask that allows its elite string-pullers and data crunchers to remain out of sight risks looking like another.

None of the protestors we’ve spoken to could say for sure who’s behind Tsunami Democràtic. One suggested it’s just “citizens” or else the same people who helped organize the 2017 Catalan independence referendum — managing the movement of ballot papers into and out of an unofficial network of polling stations so that votes could be collected and counted despite Spanish authorities’ best efforts to seize and destroy them.

There was also a sophisticated technology support effort at the time to support the vote and ensure information about polling stations remained available in the face of website takedowns by the Spanish state.

Our source was equally vague when asked who is behind the Tsunami Democràtic app. Which, if the decentralizing philosophy does indeed run right through the network — as a resilience strategy to protect its members from being ratted out to the police — is what you’d expected.

Any single node wouldn’t know or want to know much of other nodes. But that just leaves a vacuum at the core of the thing which looks alien to democratic enquiry.

One thing Tsunami Democràtic has been at pains to make plain in all (visible) communications to its supporters is that protests must be peaceful. But, again, while technology tools are great enablers it’s not always clear exactly what fire you’re lighting once momentum is pooled and channeled. And protests which started peacefully this week have devolved into running battles with police with missiles being thrown, fires lit and rubber bullets fired.

Some reports have suggested overly aggressive police response to crowds gathering has triggered and flipped otherwise calm protestors. What’s certain is there are injuries on both sides. Today almost 100 people were reported to have been hurt across three nights of protest action. A general strike and the biggest manifestation yet is planned for Friday in Barcelona. So the city is braced for more trouble as smartphone screens blink with fresh protest instructions.

image1 3

Social media is of course a conduit for very many things. At its most corporate and anodyne its stated mission can be expressed flavorlessly — as with Facebook’s claimed purpose of ‘connecting people’. (Though distracting and/or outraging is often closer to the mark.)

In practice, thanks to human nature — so that means political agendas, financial interests and all the rest of our various and frequently conflicting desires — all sorts of sparks can fly. None more visibly than during mass mobilizations where groups with a shared agenda rapidly come together to amplify a cause and agitate for change.

Even movements that start with the best intentions — and put their organizers and administration right out in the open for all to see and query — can lose control of outcomes.

Not least because malicious outsiders often seize the opportunity to blend in and act out, using the cover of an organized protest to create a violent disturbance. (And there have been some reports filtering across Catalan social media claiming right wing thugs have been causing trouble and that secret police are intentionally stirring things up to smear the movement.)

GettyImages 1181713368

BARCELONA, SPAIN – OCTOBER 17: Protesters take to the streets to demonstrate after the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced nine Catalan separatist leaders to between 9 and 13 years in prison for their role of the 2017 failed Catalan referendum on October 17, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

So if a highly charged political campaign is being masterminded and micromanaged remotely, by unknown entities shielded behind screens, there are many more questions we need to be asking about where the balance of risk and power lies, as well as whether a badge of ‘pro-democracy’ can really be justified.

For Tsunami Democràtic and Catalonia’s independence movement generally this week’s protests look to be just the start of a dug-in, tech-fuelled guerrilla campaign of civil disobedience — to try to force a change of political weather. Spain also has yet another general election looming so the timing offers the whiff of opportunity.

The El Prat blockade that kicked off the latest round of Catalan unrest seemed intended to be a flashy opening drama. To mirror and reference the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong — which made the international airport there a focal point for its own protests, occupying the terminal building and disrupting flights in an attempt to draw the world’s attention to their plight.

In a further parallel with protests in Hong Kong a crowdsourced map similar to HKmaps.live — the app that dynamically maps street closures and police presence by overlaying emoji onto a city view — is also being prepared for Catalonia by those involved in the pro-independence movement.

At the time of writing a handful of emoji helicopters, road blocks and vans are visible on a map of Barcelona. Tapping on an emoji brings up dated details such as what a police van was doing and whether it had a camera. A verified status suggests multiple reports will be required before an icon is displayed. We understand people will be able to report street activity for live-mapping via a Telegram bot.

Catmap

Screenshot of Catalan live map for crowdsourcing street intel

Our source suggested police presence on the map might be depicted by chick emojis. Aka Piolín: The Spanish name for the Loony Tunes cartoon character Tweety Pie — a reference to a colorfully decorated cruise ship used to house scores of Spanish national police in Barcelona harbor during the 2017 referendum, providing instant meme material. Though the test version we’ve seen seems to be using a mixture of dogs and chicks.

Along with the Tsunami Democràtic app the live map means there will soon be two bespoke tools supporting a campaign of civil disobedience whose unknown organizers clearly hope will go the distance.

As we’ve said, the identities of the people coordinating the rebooted movement remain unclear. It’s also unclear who if anyone is financing it.

Our source suggested technical resources to run and maintain the apps are being crowdsourced by volunteers. But some commentators argue that a source of funding would be needed to support everything that’s being delivered, technically and logistically. The app certainly seems far more sophisticated than a weekend project job.

There has been some high level public expressions of support for Tsunami Democràtic — such as from former Barcelona football club trainer, Pep Guardiola, who this week put out a video badged with the Tsunami D logo in which he defends the democratic right to assembly and protest, warning that free speech is being threatened and claiming “Spain is experiencing a drift towards authoritarianism”. So wealthy backers of Catalan independence aren’t exactly hard to find.

A message to the world from Pep Guardiola 👇👇pic.twitter.com/WdUKEyLyjO

— Jordi Pu1gnerO (@jordiPuignero) October 14, 2019

Whoever is involved behind the scenes — whether with financing or just technical and organization support — it’s clear that ‘free’ protest energy is being liberally donated to the cause by a highly engaged population of pro-independence supporters.

Grassroots support for Catalan independence is both plentiful, highly engaged, geographically dispersed and cuts across generations — sometimes in surprising ways. One mother we spoke to who said she was too ill to go to Monday’s airport protest recounted her disappointment when her teenage kids told her they weren’t going because they wanted to finish their homework.

Very many protestors did go though, answering calls to action in their messaging apps or via the printable posters made available online by Tsunami Democràtic which some street protestors have been pictured holding.

Thousands of demonstrators occupied the main Barcelona airport terminal building, sat and sang protest songs, daubed quasi apologetic messages on the windows in English (saying a lack of democracy is worse than missing a flight), and faced off to lines of police in riot gear — including units of Spanish national police discharging rubber bullets. One protestor was later reported by local press to have lost an eye.

‘It’s time to make our voice heard in the world,’ runs Tsunami Democràtic’s message on Telegram calling for a blockade of the airport. It then sets out the objective (an airport shut down) and instructs supporters that all forms of transport are “valid” to further the mission of disrupting business as usual. ‘Share and see you all at T1!’ it ends. Around 240,000 people saw the instruction, per Telegram’s ephemeral view counts.

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Demonstrators during a protest against the jailing of Catalan separatists at El Prat airport in Barcelona, Spain, on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. (Photo by Iranzu Larrasoana Oneca/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Later the same evening the channel sent another message instructing protestors to call it a night. ‘Today we have been a tsunami,’ it reads in Catalan. ‘We will make every victory a mobilization. We have started a cycle of non-violent, civil disobedience.’ At the time of writing that follow-on missive has registered 300k+ views.

While Tsunami Democràtic is just one of multiple pro-independence groups arranging and mobilizing regional protests — such as the CDRs, aka Comites de Defensa de la Republica, which have been blocking highways in Catalonia for the past two years — it’s quickly garnered majority momentum since quietly uncloaking this summer.

Its Telegram channel — which was only created in August — has piled on followers in recent weeks. Other pro-independence groups are also sharing news and distributing plans over Telegram’s platform and, more widely, on social media outlets such as twitter. Though none has amassed such a big following, nor indeed with such viral speed.

Even Anonymous Catalonia’s Telegram channel, which has been putting out a steady stream of unfiltered crowdsourced protest content this week — replete with videos of burning bins, siren blaring police vans and scattering crowds, interspersed with photos of empty roads (successful blockades) and the odd rubber bullet wound — only has a ‘mere’ 100k+ subscribers.

And while Facebook-owned WhatsApp was a major first source of protest messaging around the 2017 Catalan referendum, with Telegram just coming on stream as an alternative for trying to communicate out of sight of the Spanish state, the protest mobilization baton appears to have been passed more fully to Telegram now.

Perhaps that’s partly due to an element of mistrust around mainstream platforms controlled by tech giants who might be leant on by states to block content (Tsunami Democràtic has said it doesn’t yet have an iOS version of its app, despite many requests for one, because the ‘politics of the App Store is very restrictive’ — making a direct reference to Apple pulling the HKmaps app from its store). Whereas Telegram’s founder, Pavel Durov, is famously resistant to authoritarian state power.

Though, most likely, it’s a result of some powerful tools Telegram provides for managing and moderating channels.

The upshot is Telegram’s messaging platform has enjoyed a surge in downloads in Spain during this month’s regional unrest — as WhatsApp-loving locals flirt with a rival platform also in response to calls from their political channels to get on Telegram for detailed instructions of the next demo.

Per App Annie, Telegram has leapt up the top free downloads charts for Google Play in Spain — rising from eleventh place into the third spot this month. While, for iOS, it’s holding steady in the top free downloads slot.

Also growing in parallel: Unrest on Catalonia’s streets.

Since Monday’s airport protest tensions have certainly escalated. Roads across the region have been blockaded. Street furniture and vehicles torched. DIY missiles thrown at charging police.

By Thursday morning there were reports of police firing teargas and police vehicles being driven at high speed around protesting crowds of youths. Two people were reported run over.

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Anti-riot police officers shoot against protesters after a demonstration called by the local Republic Defence Committees (CDR) in Barcelona on October 17, 2019. – After years of peaceful separatist demonstrations, violence finally exploded on the Catalan streets this week, led by activists frustrated by the political paralysis and infuriated by the Supreme Court’s conviction of nine of its leaders over a failed independence bid. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP) (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

Helicopters have become a routine sound ripping up the urban night sky. While the tally of injury counts continues rising on both sides. And all the while there are countless videos circulating on social media to be sifted through to reinforce your own point of view — screening looping clashes between protestors and baton wielding police. One video doing the rounds last night appeared to show protestors targeting a police helicopter with fireworks. Russian propaganda outlets have of course been quick to seize on and amplify divisive visuals.

The trigger for a return to waves of technology-fuelled civil disobedience — as were also seen across Catalonia around the time of the 2017 referendum — are lengthy prison terms handed down by Spain’s Supreme Court on Monday. Twelve political and civic society leaders involved in the referendum were convicted, nine on charges of sedition and misuse of public funds. None were found guilty of the more serious charge of rebellion — but the sentences were still harsh, ranging from 13 years to nine.

The jailed leaders — dubbed presos polítics (aka political prisoners) by Catalan society, which liberally deploys yellow looped-ribbons as a solidarity symbol in support of the presos — had already spent almost two years in prison without bail.

A report this week in El Diario, citing a source in Tsunami Democràtic, suggests the activist movement was established in response to a growing feeling across the region’s independence movement that a new way of mobilizing and carrying out protests was needed in the wake of the failed 2017 independence bid.

The expected draconian Supreme Court verdict marked a natural start-date for the reboot.

A reboot has been necessary because, with so many of its figureheads in prison — and former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont in exile in Brussels — there has been something of a leadership vacuum for the secessionist cause.

That coupled with a sense of persecution at the hands of a centralized state which suspended Catalonia’s regional autonomy in the wake of the illegal referendum, invoking a ‘nuclear option’ constitutional provision to dismiss the government and call fresh elections, likely explains why the revived independence movement has been taking inspiration from blockchain-style decentralization.

Our source also told us blockchain thinking has informed the design and structure of the app.

Discussing the developers who have pulled the app together they said it’s not only a passionately engaged Catalan techie diaspora, donating their time and expertise to help civic society respond to what’s seen as long-standing political persecution, but — more generally — coders and technologists with an interest in participating in what they hope will be the largest experiment in participatory democracy and peaceful civil disobedience.

The source pointed to research conducted by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, who found non-violent, civil disobedience campaigns to be a far more powerful way of shaping world politics than violence. She also found such campaigns need engage only 3.5% of the population to succeed. And at 300k+ subscribers Tsunami Democràtic’s Telegram channel may have already passed that threshold, given the population of Catalonia is only around 7.6M.

It sounds like some of the developers helping the movement are being enticed by the prospect of applying powerful mobile platform technologies to a strong political cause as a way to stress testing democratic structures — and perhaps play at reconfiguring them. If the tools are successful at capturing intention and sustaining action and so engaging and activating citizens in a long term political campaign.

We’re told the stated intention to open source the app is also a goal in order to make it available for other causes to pick up and use to press for change. Which does start to sound a little bit like regime change as a service…

Stepping back, there is also a question of whether micromanaged civic disobedience is philosophically different to more organic expressions of discontent.

There is an element of non-violent protest being weaponized against an opponent when you’re running it via an app. Because the participants are being remotely controlled and coordinated at a distance, at the same time as ubiquitous location-sensitive mobile technologies mean the way in which the controlling entity speaks to them can be precisely targeted to push their buttons and nudge action.

Yes, it’s true that the right to peaceful assembly and protest is a cornerstone of democracy. Nor is it exactly a new phenomenon that mobile technology has facilitated this democratic expression. In journalist Giles Tremlett’s travelogue book about his adopted country, Ghosts of Spain, he recounts how in the days following the 2004 Madrid train bombings anonymous text messages started to spread via mobile phone — leading to mass, spontaneous street demonstrations.

At the time there were conflicting reports of who was responsible for the bombings, as the government sought to blame the Basque terrorist group ETA for what would turn out to be the work of Islamic terrorists. Right on the eve of an election voters in Spain were faced with a crucial political decision — having just learnt that the police had in fact arrested three Moroccans for the bomb attacks, suggesting the government had been lying.

“A new political phenomenon was born that day — the instant text message demonstration,” Tremlett writes. “Anonymous text messages began to fly from mobile phone to mobile phone. They became known as the pásalo messages, because each ended with an exhortation to ‘Pass it on’. It was like chain mail, but instant.”

More than fifteen years on from those early days of consumer mobile technology and SMS text messaging, instant now means so much more than it did — with almost everyone in a wealthy Western region like Catalonia carrying a powerful, Internet-connected computer and streaming videocamera in their pocket.

Modern mobile technology turns humans into high tech data nodes, capable of receiving and transmitting information. So a protestor now can not only opt in to instructions for a targeted action but respond and receive feedback in a way that makes them feel personally empowered.

From one perspective, what’s emerging from high tech ‘push button’ smartphone-enabled protest movements, like we’re now seeing in Catalonia and Hong Kong, might seem to represent the start of a new model for democratic participation — as the old order of representative democracy fails to keep pace with changing political tastes and desires, just as governments can’t keep up technologically.

But the risk is it’s just a technological elite in the regime-change driving seat. Which sums to governance not by established democratic processes but via the interests of a privileged elite with the wealth and expertise to hack the system and create new ones that can mobilize citizens to act like pawns.

Established democratic processes may indeed be flawed and in need of a degree of reform but they have also been developed and stress-tested over generations. Which means they have layers of accountability checks and balances baked in to try to balance out competing interests.

Throwing all that out in favor of a ‘democracy app’ sounds like the sort of disruption Facebook has turned into an infamous dark art.

For individual protestors, then, who are participating as willing pawns in this platform-enabled protest, you might call it selfie-style self-determination; they get to feel active and present; they experience the spectacle of political action which can be instantly and conveniently snapped for channel sharing with other mobilized friends who then reflect social validation back. But by doing all that they’re also giving up their agency.

Because all this ‘protest’ action is flowing across the surface of an asymmetric platform. The infrastructure natively cloaks any centralized interests and at very least allows opaque forces to push a cause at cheap scale.

“I felt so small,” one young female protestor told us, recounting via WhatsApp audio message, what had gone down during a protest action in Barcelona yesterday evening. Things started out fun and peaceful, with participants encouraged to toss toilet rolls up in the air — because, per the organizer’s messaging, ‘there’s a lot of shit to clean up’ — but events took a different turn later, as protestors moved to another location and some began trying to break into a police building.

A truck arrived from a side street being driven by protestors who used it to blockade the entrance to the building to try to stop police getting out. Police warning shots were fired into the air. Then the Spanish national police turned up, driving towards the crowd at high speed and coming armed with rubber not foam bullets.

Faced with a more aggressive police presence the crowd tried to disperse — creating a frightening crush in which she was caught up. “I was getting crushed all the time. It wasn’t fun,” she told us. “We moved away but there was a huge mass of people being crushed the whole time.”

“What was truly scary weren’t the crowds or the bullets, it was not knowing what was going on,” she added.

Yet, despite the fear and uncertainty, she was back out on the streets to protest again the next night — armed  with a smartphone.

Enric Luján, a PhD student and adjunct professor in political science at the University of Barcelona — and also the guy whose incisive Twitter thread fingers the forces behind the Tsunami Democràtic app as a “technological elite” — argues that the movement has essentially created a “human botnet”. This feels like a questionable capability for a pro-democracy movement when combined with its own paradoxically closed structure.

Divendres, dia de vaga general, una petita elit política i tecnològica ja haurà adquirit la capacitat operativa per paralitzar tot el país llançant convocatòries descentralitzades i en temps real des de la més extrema opacitat.

Han aconseguit crear una botnet humana.

— Enric Luján (@imGeheimen) October 15, 2019

“The intention appears to be to group a mass movement under a label which, paradoxically, is opaque, which carries the real risk of a lack of internal democracy,” Luján tells TechCrunch. “There is a basic paradox in Tsunami Democràtic. That it’s a pro-democracy movement where: 1) the ‘core’ that decides actions is not accessible to other supporters; 2) it has the word ‘Democràtic’ in its name but its protocols as an organization are extremely vertical and are in the hands of an elite that decides the objectives and defines the timing of mobilization; 3) it’s ‘deterritorialized’ with respect to the local reality (unlike the CDRs): opacity and verticality would allow them to lead the entire effort from outside the country.”

Luján believes the movement is essentially a continuation of the same organizing forces which drove support for pro-independence political parties around the 2017 referendum — such as the Catalan cultural organization Òmnium — now coming back together after a period of “strategic readjustment”.

“Shortly after the conclusion of the referendum, through the arrest of its political leaders, the independence movement was ‘decapitated’ and there were months of political paralysis,” he says, arguing that this explains the focus on applying mobile technology in a way that allows for completely anonymous orchestration of protests, as a strategy to protect itself from further arrests.

“This strategic option, of course, entails lack of public scrutiny of the debates and decisions, which is a problem and involves treating people as ‘pawns’ or ‘human botnets’ acting under your direction,” he adds.

He is also critical of the group not having opened the app’s code which has made it difficult to understand exactly how user data is being handled by the app and whether or not there are any security flaws. Essentially, there is no simple way for outsiders to validate trustworthiness.

His analysis of the app’s APK raises further questions. Luján says he believes it also requests microphone permissions in addition to location and camera access (the latter for reading the QR code).

Our source told us that as far as they are aware the app does not access the microphone by default. Though screenshots of requested permissions which have circulated on social media show a toggle where microphone access seems as if it can be enabled.

Qualsevol empresa ho pot fer amb apps q passen el filtre Google Play.
I d moment, sense haver denegat cap permís, de forma predeterminada només estan activats la ubicació (amb un motiu q ja has explicat) i la càmera (per escanejar el QR, amb la qual cosa ja podría descativar-lo). pic.twitter.com/TMgQcN402q

— Albert (@Albertet1981) October 16, 2019

And, as Luján points out, the prospect of a powerful and opaque entity with access to the real-time location of thousands of people plus the ability to remotely activate smartphone cameras and microphones to surveil people’s surroundings does sound pretty close to the plot of a Black Mirror episode…

Les similituds amb un capítol de Black Mirror són, evidentment, esfereïdores: Una entitat de la que no sabem res (excepte el seu alt nivell de sofisticació tecnològica) és a punt de guanyar el control efectiu de tot un territori, operant des de la més absoluta foscor.

— Enric Luján (@imGeheimen) October 15, 2019

Asked whether he believes we’re seeing an emergent model for a more participatory, grassroots form of democracy enabled by modern mobile technologies or a powerful techie elite playing at reconfiguring existing power structures by building and distributing systems that keep them shielded from democratic view where they can nudge others to spread their message, he says he leans towards the latter.

“It’s a movement with an elite leadership that seems to have had a clear timetable for months. It remains to be seen what they’ll be able to do. But it is clearly not spontaneous (the domain of the website was registered in July) and the application needed months to develop,” he notes. “I am not clear that it can be or was ‘crowdsourced’ — as far as I know, there was no campaign to finance Tsunami or their technological solutions.”

“Release the code,” he adds. “I don’t understand why they haven’t released it. Promising it is easy and is what you expect if you want to present yourself with a minimum of transparency, but there is no defined deadline to do so. For now we have to work with the APK, which is more cumbersome to understand how the app works and how it uses and moves user data.”

“I imagine it is so the police cannot investigate thoroughly, but it also means others lose the possibility of better understanding how a product that’s been designed by people who rely on anonymity works, and have to rely that the elite technologists in charge of developing the app have not committed any security breach.”

So, here too, more questions and more uncertainty.

Catalan separatists have tooled up with a decentralized app for civil disobedience

Is our age of ubiquitous smartphones and social media turning into an era of mass civil unrest? Two years after holding an independence referendum and unilaterally declaring independence in defiance of the Spanish state — then failing to gain recognition for la república and being forced to watch political leaders jailed or exiled — Catalonia’s secessionist movement has resurfaced with a major splash.

One of the first protest actions programmed by a new online activist group, calling itself Tsunami Democràtic, saw thousands of protestors coalescing on Barcelona airport Monday, in an attempt to shut it down. The protest didn’t quite do that but it did lead to major disruption, with roads blocked by human traffic as protestors walked down the highway and the cancelation of more than 100 flights, plus hours of delays for travellers arriving into El Prat.

For months leading up to a major Supreme Court verdict on the fate of imprisoned Catalan political leaders a ‘technical elite‘ — as one local political science academic described them this week — has been preparing to reboot Catalonia’s independence movement by developing bespoke, decentralized high-tech protest tools.

A source with knowledge of Tsunami Democràtic, speaking to TechCrunch on condition of anonymity, told us that “high level developers” located all around the world are involved in the effort, divvying up coding tasks as per any large scale IT project and leveraging open source resources (such as the RetroShare node-based networking platform) to channel grassroots support for independence into a resilient campaign network that can’t be stopped by the arrest of a few leaders.

Demonstrators at the airport on Monday were responding directly to a call to blockade the main terminal posted to the group’s Telegram channel.

Additional waves of protest are being planned and programmed via a bespoke Tsunami Democràtic app that was also released this week for Android smartphones — as a sideload, not yet a Google Play download.

The app is intended to supplement mainstream social network platform broadcasts by mobilizing smaller, localized groups of supporters to carry out peaceful acts of civil disobedience all over Catalonia.

Our source walked us through the app, which requires location permission to function in order that administrators can map available human resources to co-ordinate protests. We’re told a user’s precise location is not shared but rather that an obfuscated, more fuzzy location marker gets sent. However the app’s source code has not yet been open sourced so users have to take such claims on trust (open sourcing is said to be the plan — but only once the app has been scrubbed of any identifying traces, per the source).

The app requires a QR code to be activated. This is a security measure intended to manage activation in stages, via trusted circles of acquaintances, to limit the risk of infiltration by state authorities. Though it feels a bit like a viral gamification tactic to encourage people to spread the word and generate publicity organically by asking their friends if they have a code or not.

new 04

Whatever it’s really for the chatter seems to be working. During our meeting over coffee we overheard a group of people sitting at another table talking about the app. And at the time of writing Tsunami Democràtic has announced 15,000 successful QR code activations so far. Though it’s not clear how successful the intended flashmob civil disobedience game-plan will be at this nascent stage.

Once activated, app users are asked to specify their availability (i.e. days and times of day) for carrying out civil disobedience actions. And to specify if they own certain mobility resources which could be utilized as part of a protest (e.g. car, scooter, bike, tractor).

Examples of potential actions described to us by our source were go-slows to bring traffic grinding to a halt and faux shopping sprees targeting supermarkets where activists could spend a few hours piling carts high with goods before leaving them abandoned in the store for someone else to clean up.

One actual early action carried out by activists from the group last month targeted a branch of the local CaixaBank with a masked protestor sit-in.

Our source said the intention is to include a pop-up in the app as a sort of contract of conscience which asks users to confirm participation in the organized chaos will be entirely peaceful. Here’s an example of what the comprometo looks like:

TD-app

Users are also asked to confirm both their intention to participate in a forthcoming action (meaning the app will capture attendance numbers for protests ahead of time) and to check in when they get there so its administrators can track actual participation in real-time.

The app doesn’t ask for any personal data during onboarding — there’s no account creation etc — although users are agreeing to their location being pervasively tracked.

And it’s at least possible that other personal data could be passed via, for example, a comment submission field that lets people send feedback on actions. Or if the app ends up recording other data via access to smartphone sensors.

The other key point is that users only see actions related to their stated availability and tracked location. So, from a protestor’s point of view, they see only a tiny piece of the Tsunami Democràtic protest program. The user view is decentralized and information is distributed strictly piecemeal, on a need to know basis.

Behind the scenes — where unknown administrators are accessing its data and devising and managing protest actions to distribute via the app — there may be an entirely centralized view of available human protest resources. But it’s not clear what the other side of the platform looks like. Our source was unable to show it to us or articulate what it looks like.

Certainly, administrators are in a position to cancel planned actions if, for example, there’s not enough participation — meaning they can invisibly manage external optics around engagement with the cause. Not enough foot soldiers for a planned protest? Just call it off quietly via the app.

Also not at all clear: Who the driving forces are behind the Tsunami Democràtic protest mask?

“There is no thinking brain, there are many brains,” a spokesman for the movement told the El Diario newspaper this week. But that does raise pretty major questions about democratic legitimacy. Because, well, if you’re claiming to be fighting for democracy by mobilizing popular support, and you’re doing it from inside a Western democracy, can you really claim that while your organization remains in the shadows?

Even if your aim is non-violent political protest, and your hierarchy is genuinely decentralized, which is the suggestive claim here, unless you’re offering transparency of structure so as to make your movement’s composition and administration visible to outside scrutiny (so that your claims of democratic legitimacy can be independently verified) then individual protestors (the app’s end users) just have to take your word for it.

End users who are being crowdsourced and coopted to act out via app instruction as if they’re pawns on a high tech chess board. They are also being asked (implicitly) to shoulder direct personal risk in order that a faceless movement generates bottom up political pressure.

So there’s a troubling contradiction here for a movement that has chosen to include the word ‘democractic’ in its name. (The brand is a reference to a phase used by jailed Catalan cultural leader, Jordi Cuixart.) Who or what is powering this wave?

Tsunami Democratic

We also now know all too well how the double-sided nature of platforms means these fast-flowing technosocial channels can easily be misappropriated by motivated interest groups to gamify and manipulate opinion (and even action) en masse. This has been made amply clear in recent years with political disinformation campaigns mushrooming into view all over the online place.

So while emoji-strewn political protest messages calling for people to mobilize at a particular street corner might seem a bit of harmless ‘Pokemon Go’-style urban fun, the upshot can — and this week has — been far less predictable and riskier than its gamified packaging might suggest.

Plenty of protests have gone off peacefully, certainly. Others — often those going on after dusk and late into the night — have devolved into ugly scenes and destructive clashes.

There is clearly a huge challenge for decentralized movements (and indeed technologies) when it comes to creating legitimate governance structures that don’t simply repeat the hierarchies of the existing (centralized) authorities and systems they’re seeking to challenge.

The anarchy-loving crypto community’s inability to coalesce around a way to progress with blockchain technology looks like its own self-defeating irony. A faceless movement fighting for ‘democracy’ from behind an app mask that allows its elite string-pullers and data crunchers to remain out of sight risks looking like another.

None of the protestors we’ve spoken to could say for sure who’s behind Tsunami Democràtic. One suggested it’s just “citizens” or else the same people who helped organize the 2017 Catalan independence referendum — managing the movement of ballot papers into and out of an unofficial network of polling stations so that votes could be collected and counted despite Spanish authorities’ best efforts to seize and destroy them.

There was also a sophisticated technology support effort at the time to support the vote and ensure information about polling stations remained available in the face of website takedowns by the Spanish state.

Our source was equally vague when asked who is behind the Tsunami Democràtic app. Which, if the decentralizing philosophy does indeed run right through the network — as a resilience strategy to protect its members from being ratted out to the police — is what you’d expected.

Any single node wouldn’t know or want to know much of other nodes. But that just leaves a vacuum at the core of the thing which looks alien to democratic enquiry.

One thing Tsunami Democràtic has been at pains to make plain in all (visible) communications to its supporters is that protests must be peaceful. But, again, while technology tools are great enablers it’s not always clear exactly what fire you’re lighting once momentum is pooled and channeled. And protests which started peacefully this week have devolved into running battles with police with missiles being thrown, fires lit and rubber bullets fired.

Some reports have suggested overly aggressive police response to crowds gathering has triggered and flipped otherwise calm protestors. What’s certain is there are injuries on both sides. Today almost 100 people were reported to have been hurt across three nights of protest action. A general strike and the biggest manifestation yet is planned for Friday in Barcelona. So the city is braced for more trouble as smartphone screens blink with fresh protest instructions.

image1 3

Social media is of course a conduit for very many things. At its most corporate and anodyne its stated mission can be expressed flavorlessly — as with Facebook’s claimed purpose of ‘connecting people’. (Though distracting and/or outraging is often closer to the mark.)

In practice, thanks to human nature — so that means political agendas, financial interests and all the rest of our various and frequently conflicting desires — all sorts of sparks can fly. None more visibly than during mass mobilizations where groups with a shared agenda rapidly come together to amplify a cause and agitate for change.

Even movements that start with the best intentions — and put their organizers and administration right out in the open for all to see and query — can lose control of outcomes.

Not least because malicious outsiders often seize the opportunity to blend in and act out, using the cover of an organized protest to create a violent disturbance. (And there have been some reports filtering across Catalan social media claiming right wing thugs have been causing trouble and that secret police are intentionally stirring things up to smear the movement.)

GettyImages 1181713368

BARCELONA, SPAIN – OCTOBER 17: Protesters take to the streets to demonstrate after the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced nine Catalan separatist leaders to between 9 and 13 years in prison for their role of the 2017 failed Catalan referendum on October 17, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

So if a highly charged political campaign is being masterminded and micromanaged remotely, by unknown entities shielded behind screens, there are many more questions we need to be asking about where the balance of risk and power lies, as well as whether a badge of ‘pro-democracy’ can really be justified.

For Tsunami Democràtic and Catalonia’s independence movement generally this week’s protests look to be just the start of a dug-in, tech-fuelled guerrilla campaign of civil disobedience — to try to force a change of political weather. Spain also has yet another general election looming so the timing offers the whiff of opportunity.

The El Prat blockade that kicked off the latest round of Catalan unrest seemed intended to be a flashy opening drama. To mirror and reference the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong — which made the international airport there a focal point for its own protests, occupying the terminal building and disrupting flights in an attempt to draw the world’s attention to their plight.

In a further parallel with protests in Hong Kong a crowdsourced map similar to HKmaps.live — the app that dynamically maps street closures and police presence by overlaying emoji onto a city view — is also being prepared for Catalonia by those involved in the pro-independence movement.

At the time of writing a handful of emoji helicopters, road blocks and vans are visible on a map of Barcelona. Tapping on an emoji brings up dated details such as what a police van was doing and whether it had a camera. A verified status suggests multiple reports will be required before an icon is displayed. We understand people will be able to report street activity for live-mapping via a Telegram bot.

Catmap

Screenshot of Catalan live map for crowdsourcing street intel

Our source suggested police presence on the map might be depicted by chick emojis. Aka Piolín: The Spanish name for the Loony Tunes cartoon character Tweety Pie — a reference to a colorfully decorated cruise ship used to house scores of Spanish national police in Barcelona harbor during the 2017 referendum, providing instant meme material. Though the test version we’ve seen seems to be using a mixture of dogs and chicks.

Along with the Tsunami Democràtic app the live map means there will soon be two bespoke tools supporting a campaign of civil disobedience whose unknown organizers clearly hope will go the distance.

As we’ve said, the identities of the people coordinating the rebooted movement remain unclear. It’s also unclear who if anyone is financing it.

Our source suggested technical resources to run and maintain the apps are being crowdsourced by volunteers. But some commentators argue that a source of funding would be needed to support everything that’s being delivered, technically and logistically. The app certainly seems far more sophisticated than a weekend project job.

There has been some high level public expressions of support for Tsunami Democràtic — such as from former Barcelona football club trainer, Pep Guardiola, who this week put out a video badged with the Tsunami D logo in which he defends the democratic right to assembly and protest, warning that free speech is being threatened and claiming “Spain is experiencing a drift towards authoritarianism”. So wealthy backers of Catalan independence aren’t exactly hard to find.

A message to the world from Pep Guardiola 👇👇pic.twitter.com/WdUKEyLyjO

— Jordi Pu1gnerO (@jordiPuignero) October 14, 2019

Whoever is involved behind the scenes — whether with financing or just technical and organization support — it’s clear that ‘free’ protest energy is being liberally donated to the cause by a highly engaged population of pro-independence supporters.

Grassroots support for Catalan independence is both plentiful, highly engaged, geographically dispersed and cuts across generations — sometimes in surprising ways. One mother we spoke to who said she was too ill to go to Monday’s airport protest recounted her disappointment when her teenage kids told her they weren’t going because they wanted to finish their homework.

Very many protestors did go though, answering calls to action in their messaging apps or via the printable posters made available online by Tsunami Democràtic which some street protestors have been pictured holding.

Thousands of demonstrators occupied the main Barcelona airport terminal building, sat and sang protest songs, daubed quasi apologetic messages on the windows in English (saying a lack of democracy is worse than missing a flight), and faced off to lines of police in riot gear — including units of Spanish national police discharging rubber bullets. One protestor was later reported by local press to have lost an eye.

‘It’s time to make our voice heard in the world,’ runs Tsunami Democràtic’s message on Telegram calling for a blockade of the airport. It then sets out the objective (an airport shut down) and instructs supporters that all forms of transport are “valid” to further the mission of disrupting business as usual. ‘Share and see you all at T1!’ it ends. Around 240,000 people saw the instruction, per Telegram’s ephemeral view counts.

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Demonstrators during a protest against the jailing of Catalan separatists at El Prat airport in Barcelona, Spain, on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. (Photo by Iranzu Larrasoana Oneca/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Later the same evening the channel sent another message instructing protestors to call it a night. ‘Today we have been a tsunami,’ it reads in Catalan. ‘We will make every victory a mobilization. We have started a cycle of non-violent, civil disobedience.’ At the time of writing that follow-on missive has registered 300k+ views.

While Tsunami Democràtic is just one of multiple pro-independence groups arranging and mobilizing regional protests — such as the CDRs, aka Comites de Defensa de la Republica, which have been blocking highways in Catalonia for the past two years — it’s quickly garnered majority momentum since quietly uncloaking this summer.

Its Telegram channel — which was only created in August — has piled on followers in recent weeks. Other pro-independence groups are also sharing news and distributing plans over Telegram’s platform and, more widely, on social media outlets such as twitter. Though none has amassed such a big following, nor indeed with such viral speed.

Even Anonymous Catalonia’s Telegram channel, which has been putting out a steady stream of unfiltered crowdsourced protest content this week — replete with videos of burning bins, siren blaring police vans and scattering crowds, interspersed with photos of empty roads (successful blockades) and the odd rubber bullet wound — only has a ‘mere’ 100k+ subscribers.

And while Facebook-owned WhatsApp was a major first source of protest messaging around the 2017 Catalan referendum, with Telegram just coming on stream as an alternative for trying to communicate out of sight of the Spanish state, the protest mobilization baton appears to have been passed more fully to Telegram now.

Perhaps that’s partly due to an element of mistrust around mainstream platforms controlled by tech giants who might be leant on by states to block content (Tsunami Democràtic has said it doesn’t yet have an iOS version of its app, despite many requests for one, because the ‘politics of the App Store is very restrictive’ — making a direct reference to Apple pulling the HKmaps app from its store). Whereas Telegram’s founder, Pavel Durov, is famously resistant to authoritarian state power.

Though, most likely, it’s a result of some powerful tools Telegram provides for managing and moderating channels.

The upshot is Telegram’s messaging platform has enjoyed a surge in downloads in Spain during this month’s regional unrest — as WhatsApp-loving locals flirt with a rival platform also in response to calls from their political channels to get on Telegram for detailed instructions of the next demo.

Per App Annie, Telegram has leapt up the top free downloads charts for Google Play in Spain — rising from eleventh place into the third spot this month. While, for iOS, it’s holding steady in the top free downloads slot.

Also growing in parallel: Unrest on Catalonia’s streets.

Since Monday’s airport protest tensions have certainly escalated. Roads across the region have been blockaded. Street furniture and vehicles torched. DIY missiles thrown at charging police.

By Thursday morning there were reports of police firing teargas and police vehicles being driven at high speed around protesting crowds of youths. Two people were reported run over.

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Anti-riot police officers shoot against protesters after a demonstration called by the local Republic Defence Committees (CDR) in Barcelona on October 17, 2019. – After years of peaceful separatist demonstrations, violence finally exploded on the Catalan streets this week, led by activists frustrated by the political paralysis and infuriated by the Supreme Court’s conviction of nine of its leaders over a failed independence bid. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP) (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

Helicopters have become a routine sound ripping up the urban night sky. While the tally of injury counts continues rising on both sides. And all the while there are countless videos circulating on social media to be sifted through to reinforce your own point of view — screening looping clashes between protestors and baton wielding police. One video doing the rounds last night appeared to show protestors targeting a police helicopter with fireworks. Russian propaganda outlets have of course been quick to seize on and amplify divisive visuals.

The trigger for a return to waves of technology-fuelled civil disobedience — as were also seen across Catalonia around the time of the 2017 referendum — are lengthy prison terms handed down by Spain’s Supreme Court on Monday. Twelve political and civic society leaders involved in the referendum were convicted, nine on charges of sedition and misuse of public funds. None were found guilty of the more serious charge of rebellion — but the sentences were still harsh, ranging from 13 years to nine.

The jailed leaders — dubbed presos polítics (aka political prisoners) by Catalan society, which liberally deploys yellow looped-ribbons as a solidarity symbol in support of the presos — had already spent almost two years in prison without bail.

A report this week in El Diario, citing a source in Tsunami Democràtic, suggests the activist movement was established in response to a growing feeling across the region’s independence movement that a new way of mobilizing and carrying out protests was needed in the wake of the failed 2017 independence bid.

The expected draconian Supreme Court verdict marked a natural start-date for the reboot.

A reboot has been necessary because, with so many of its figureheads in prison — and former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont in exile in Brussels — there has been something of a leadership vacuum for the secessionist cause.

That coupled with a sense of persecution at the hands of a centralized state which suspended Catalonia’s regional autonomy in the wake of the illegal referendum, invoking a ‘nuclear option’ constitutional provision to dismiss the government and call fresh elections, likely explains why the revived independence movement has been taking inspiration from blockchain-style decentralization.

Our source also told us blockchain thinking has informed the design and structure of the app.

Discussing the developers who have pulled the app together they said it’s not only a passionately engaged Catalan techie diaspora, donating their time and expertise to help civic society respond to what’s seen as long-standing political persecution, but — more generally — coders and technologists with an interest in participating in what they hope will be the largest experiment in participatory democracy and peaceful civil disobedience.

The source pointed to research conducted by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, who found non-violent, civil disobedience campaigns to be a far more powerful way of shaping world politics than violence. She also found such campaigns need engage only 3.5% of the population to succeed. And at 300k+ subscribers Tsunami Democràtic’s Telegram channel may have already passed that threshold, given the population of Catalonia is only around 7.6M.

It sounds like some of the developers helping the movement are being enticed by the prospect of applying powerful mobile platform technologies to a strong political cause as a way to stress testing democratic structures — and perhaps play at reconfiguring them. If the tools are successful at capturing intention and sustaining action and so engaging and activating citizens in a long term political campaign.

We’re told the stated intention to open source the app is also a goal in order to make it available for other causes to pick up and use to press for change. Which does start to sound a little bit like regime change as a service…

Stepping back, there is also a question of whether micromanaged civic disobedience is philosophically different to more organic expressions of discontent.

There is an element of non-violent protest being weaponized against an opponent when you’re running it via an app. Because the participants are being remotely controlled and coordinated at a distance, at the same time as ubiquitous location-sensitive mobile technologies mean the way in which the controlling entity speaks to them can be precisely targeted to push their buttons and nudge action.

Yes, it’s true that the right to peaceful assembly and protest is a cornerstone of democracy. Nor is it exactly a new phenomenon that mobile technology has facilitated this democratic expression. In journalist Giles Tremlett’s travelogue book about his adopted country, Ghosts of Spain, he recounts how in the days following the 2004 Madrid train bombings anonymous text messages started to spread via mobile phone — leading to mass, spontaneous street demonstrations.

At the time there were conflicting reports of who was responsible for the bombings, as the government sought to blame the Basque terrorist group ETA for what would turn out to be the work of Islamic terrorists. Right on the eve of an election voters in Spain were faced with a crucial political decision — having just learnt that the police had in fact arrested three Moroccans for the bomb attacks, suggesting the government had been lying.

“A new political phenomenon was born that day — the instant text message demonstration,” Tremlett writes. “Anonymous text messages began to fly from mobile phone to mobile phone. They became known as the pásalo messages, because each ended with an exhortation to ‘Pass it on’. It was like chain mail, but instant.”

More than fifteen years on from those early days of consumer mobile technology and SMS text messaging, instant now means so much more than it did — with almost everyone in a wealthy Western region like Catalonia carrying a powerful, Internet-connected computer and streaming videocamera in their pocket.

Modern mobile technology turns humans into high tech data nodes, capable of receiving and transmitting information. So a protestor now can not only opt in to instructions for a targeted action but respond and receive feedback in a way that makes them feel personally empowered.

From one perspective, what’s emerging from high tech ‘push button’ smartphone-enabled protest movements, like we’re now seeing in Catalonia and Hong Kong, might seem to represent the start of a new model for democratic participation — as the old order of representative democracy fails to keep pace with changing political tastes and desires, just as governments can’t keep up technologically.

But the risk is it’s just a technological elite in the regime-change driving seat. Which sums to governance not by established democratic processes but via the interests of a privileged elite with the wealth and expertise to hack the system and create new ones that can mobilize citizens to act like pawns.

Established democratic processes may indeed be flawed and in need of a degree of reform but they have also been developed and stress-tested over generations. Which means they have layers of accountability checks and balances baked in to try to balance out competing interests.

Throwing all that out in favor of a ‘democracy app’ sounds like the sort of disruption Facebook has turned into an infamous dark art.

For individual protestors, then, who are participating as willing pawns in this platform-enabled protest, you might call it selfie-style self-determination; they get to feel active and present; they experience the spectacle of political action which can be instantly and conveniently snapped for channel sharing with other mobilized friends who then reflect social validation back. But by doing all that they’re also giving up their agency.

Because all this ‘protest’ action is flowing across the surface of an asymmetric platform. The infrastructure natively cloaks any centralized interests and at very least allows opaque forces to push a cause at cheap scale.

“I felt so small,” one young female protestor told us, recounting via WhatsApp audio message, what had gone down during a protest action in Barcelona yesterday evening. Things started out fun and peaceful, with participants encouraged to toss toilet rolls up in the air — because, per the organizer’s messaging, ‘there’s a lot of shit to clean up’ — but events took a different turn later, as protestors moved to another location and some began trying to break into a police building.

A truck arrived from a side street being driven by protestors who used it to blockade the entrance to the building to try to stop police getting out. Police warning shots were fired into the air. Then the Spanish national police turned up, driving towards the crowd at high speed and coming armed with rubber not foam bullets.

Faced with a more aggressive police presence the crowd tried to disperse — creating a frightening crush in which she was caught up. “I was getting crushed all the time. It wasn’t fun,” she told us. “We moved away but there was a huge mass of people being crushed the whole time.”

“What was truly scary weren’t the crowds or the bullets, it was not knowing what was going on,” she added.

Yet, despite the fear and uncertainty, she was back out on the streets to protest again the next night — armed  with a smartphone.

Enric Luján, a PhD student and adjunct professor in political science at the University of Barcelona — and also the guy whose incisive Twitter thread fingers the forces behind the Tsunami Democràtic app as a “technological elite” — argues that the movement has essentially created a “human botnet”. This feels like a questionable capability for a pro-democracy movement when combined with its own paradoxically closed structure.

Divendres, dia de vaga general, una petita elit política i tecnològica ja haurà adquirit la capacitat operativa per paralitzar tot el país llançant convocatòries descentralitzades i en temps real des de la més extrema opacitat.

Han aconseguit crear una botnet humana.

— Enric Luján (@imGeheimen) October 15, 2019

“The intention appears to be to group a mass movement under a label which, paradoxically, is opaque, which carries the real risk of a lack of internal democracy,” Luján tells TechCrunch. “There is a basic paradox in Tsunami Democràtic. That it’s a pro-democracy movement where: 1) the ‘core’ that decides actions is not accessible to other supporters; 2) it has the word ‘Democràtic’ in its name but its protocols as an organization are extremely vertical and are in the hands of an elite that decides the objectives and defines the timing of mobilization; 3) it’s ‘deterritorialized’ with respect to the local reality (unlike the CDRs): opacity and verticality would allow them to lead the entire effort from outside the country.”

Luján believes the movement is essentially a continuation of the same organizing forces which drove support for pro-independence political parties around the 2017 referendum — such as the Catalan cultural organization Òmnium — now coming back together after a period of “strategic readjustment”.

“Shortly after the conclusion of the referendum, through the arrest of its political leaders, the independence movement was ‘decapitated’ and there were months of political paralysis,” he says, arguing that this explains the focus on applying mobile technology in a way that allows for completely anonymous orchestration of protests, as a strategy to protect itself from further arrests.

“This strategic option, of course, entails lack of public scrutiny of the debates and decisions, which is a problem and involves treating people as ‘pawns’ or ‘human botnets’ acting under your direction,” he adds.

He is also critical of the group not having opened the app’s code which has made it difficult to understand exactly how user data is being handled by the app and whether or not there are any security flaws. Essentially, there is no simple way for outsiders to validate trustworthiness.

His analysis of the app’s APK raises further questions. Luján says he believes it also requests microphone permissions in addition to location and camera access (the latter for reading the QR code).

Our source told us that as far as they are aware the app does not access the microphone by default. Though screenshots of requested permissions which have circulated on social media show a toggle where microphone access seems as if it can be enabled.

Qualsevol empresa ho pot fer amb apps q passen el filtre Google Play.
I d moment, sense haver denegat cap permís, de forma predeterminada només estan activats la ubicació (amb un motiu q ja has explicat) i la càmera (per escanejar el QR, amb la qual cosa ja podría descativar-lo). pic.twitter.com/TMgQcN402q

— Albert (@Albertet1981) October 16, 2019

And, as Luján points out, the prospect of a powerful and opaque entity with access to the real-time location of thousands of people plus the ability to remotely activate smartphone cameras and microphones to surveil people’s surroundings does sound pretty close to the plot of a Black Mirror episode…

Les similituds amb un capítol de Black Mirror són, evidentment, esfereïdores: Una entitat de la que no sabem res (excepte el seu alt nivell de sofisticació tecnològica) és a punt de guanyar el control efectiu de tot un territori, operant des de la més absoluta foscor.

— Enric Luján (@imGeheimen) October 15, 2019

Asked whether he believes we’re seeing an emergent model for a more participatory, grassroots form of democracy enabled by modern mobile technologies or a powerful techie elite playing at reconfiguring existing power structures by building and distributing systems that keep them shielded from democratic view where they can nudge others to spread their message, he says he leans towards the latter.

“It’s a movement with an elite leadership that seems to have had a clear timetable for months. It remains to be seen what they’ll be able to do. But it is clearly not spontaneous (the domain of the website was registered in July) and the application needed months to develop,” he notes. “I am not clear that it can be or was ‘crowdsourced’ — as far as I know, there was no campaign to finance Tsunami or their technological solutions.”

“Release the code,” he adds. “I don’t understand why they haven’t released it. Promising it is easy and is what you expect if you want to present yourself with a minimum of transparency, but there is no defined deadline to do so. For now we have to work with the APK, which is more cumbersome to understand how the app works and how it uses and moves user data.”

“I imagine it is so the police cannot investigate thoroughly, but it also means others lose the possibility of better understanding how a product that’s been designed by people who rely on anonymity works, and have to rely that the elite technologists in charge of developing the app have not committed any security breach.”

So, here too, more questions and more uncertainty.

WeChat restricts controversial video face-swapping app Zao, citing “security risks”

Zao went viral in China this weekend for its realistic face-swapping videos, but after controversy about its policies, WeChat restricted access to the app on its messaging platform.

Developed by a unit of Momo, one of China’s most popular dating apps, Zao creates videos that replace the faces of celebrities in scenes from popular movies, shows and music videos with a selfie uploaded by the user.

The app, currently available only in China, went viral as users shared their videos through WeChat and other social media platforms in China. But concerns about the potential misuse of deepfake technology coupled with a clause (now deleted) in Zao’s terms of use that gave it full ownership and copyright to content uploaded or created on it, in addition to “completely free, irrevocable, perpetual, transferrable, and re-licensable rights,” caused controversy.

In case you haven’t heard, #ZAO is a Chinese app which completely blew up since Friday. Best application of ‘Deepfake’-style AI facial replacement I’ve ever seen.

Here’s an example of me as DiCaprio (generated in under 8 secs from that one photo in the thumbnail) 🤯pic.twitter.com/1RpnJJ3wgT

— Allan Xia (@AllanXia) September 1, 2019

By going viral quickly and being very easy to use (Zao’s videos can be generated from a single selfie, though it suggests that users upload photos from several angles for better results), the app has also focused more attention on deepfake technology and how it can potentially be used to spread misinformation or harass people.

Users can still upload videos they created with Zao to WeChat, but if they try to download the app or send an invite link to another WeChat user, a message is displayed that says “this web page has been reported multiple times and contains security risks. To maintain a safe online environment, access to this page has been blocked.”23011567479434 .pic

Zao was released last Friday and quickly became the top free iOS app in China, according to App Annie. A statement posted on Sept. 1 to Zao’s Weibo account says “we completely understand everybody’s concerns about the privacy issue. We are aware of the issue and we are thinking about how to fix the problems, we need a little time.” Its terms and conditions now say user-generated content will only be used by the company to improve the app and that all deleted content will be removed from its servers.

TechCrunch has contacted Zao for comment.

RedDoorz raises $70M to expand its budget hotel network in Southeast Asia

Singapore-based budget hotel booking startup RedDoorz is tiny in comparison to fast-growing giant Oyo. But it is holding its ground and winning the trust of an ever growing number of investors.

On Monday, the four-year-old startup announced it has raised $70 million in Series C financing round, less than five months after it closed its $45 million Series B. The new round, which is ongoing, was led by Asia Partners and saw participation from new investors Rakuten Capital and Mirae Asset-Naver Asia Growth Fund.

The startup, which has raised $140 million to date, has been seeing “tremendous interest from investors, so it is decided to do a back-to-back rounds,” said Amit Saberwal, founder and CEO of RedDoorz, in an interview with TechCrunch.

Regardless, the new funds will help RedDoorz fight SoftBank-backed Oyo, which is already aggressively expanding to new markets. Oyo currently operates in more than 80 nations.

Saberwal isn’t necessarily threatened by Oyo, on the contrary, he sees Oyo’s success as a testament that there is room for more players to be in the space. He is confident that RedDoorz is “on the right track to create the next tech unicorn in Southeast Asia,” and trade in public exchange in the next two to three years.

RedDoorz operates a marketplace of “two-star, three-star and below” budget hotels, selling access to rooms to people. Currently it has 1,400 hotels on its network, said Saberwal. By the end of the year, the startup aims to grow this number to 2,000.

The startup operates in 80 cities across Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam, and plans to use the new capital to expand its network in its existing markets, said Saberwal. At least for the next one year, RedDoorz has no plans to expand beyond the four markets where it currently operates, he said.

“Anything in the accommodation is our playground. We have all kinds of properties. We have three-star hotels, some hostels, so we will continue to go deeper and wider moving forward,” Saberwal, a former top executive at India’s travel giant MakeMyTrip, said.

It’s a great combination: Making the ubiquity of typically unorganized local guesthouse-style rooms with the more organized and efficient — but pricier — hotel option.

Some of the new capital will also go into broadening RedDoorz’s tech infrastructure, building a second engineering hub in Vietnam. (RedDoorz’s current regional tech hub is based in India.)

India reportedly wants to build its own WhatsApp for government communications

India may have plans to follow France’s footsteps in building a chat app and requiring government employees to use it for official communications.

The New Delhi government is said to be pondering about the need to have homegrown email and chat apps, local news outlet Economic Times reported on Thursday.

The rationale behind the move is to cut reliance on foreign entities, the report said, a concern that has somehow manifested amid U.S.’s ongoing tussle with Huawei and China.

“We need to make our communication insular,” an unnamed top government official was quoted as saying by the paper. The person suggested that by putting Chinese giant Huawei on the entity list, the U.S. has “set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi.”

India has its own ongoing trade tension with the U.S. Donald Trump earlier this month removed the South Asian nation from a special trade program after India did not assure him that it will “provide equitable and reasonable access to its markets.” India called the move “unfortunate”, and weeks later, increased tariffs on some U.S. exports.

The move to step away from foreign communication apps, if it comes to fruition, won’t be the first time a nation has attempted to cautiously restrict usage of popular messaging apps run by foreign players in government offices.

France launched an encrypted chat app — called Tchap — for use in government offices earlier this year. Only those employed by the French government offices can sign up to use the service, though the nation has open sourced the app’s code for the world to see and audit.

Of course, a security flaw in Tchap came into light within the first 24 hours of its release. Security is a real challenge that the government would have to tackle and it might not have the best resources — talent, budget, and expertise — to deal with it.

China, which has restricted many foreign companies from operating in the nation, also maintains customized versions of popular operating systems for use in government offices. So does North Korea.

It won’t be an unprecedented step for India, either. The nation has been trying to build and scale its own Linux-based desktop operating system called BOSS for several years with little success as most government agencies continue to use Microsoft’s Windows operating system.

Even as India has emerged as the third-largest startup hub in the world, the country has failed to build local alternatives for many popular services. Facebook’s WhatsApp has become ubiquitous for communication in India, while Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows power most smartphones and computers in the nation.

India’s largest video streaming service, owned by Disney, breaks Safari compatibility to fix security flaw

Hotstar, India’s largest video streaming service with more than 300 million users, disabled support for Apple’s Safari web browser on Friday to mitigate a security flaw that allowed unauthorized usage of its platform, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The incident comes at a time when the streaming service — operated by Star India, part of 20th Century Fox that Disney acquired — enjoys peak attention as millions of people watch the ongoing ICC World Cup cricket tournament on its platform.

As users began to complain about not being able to use Hotstar on Safari, the company’s official support account asserted that “technical limitations” on Apple’s part were the bottleneck. “These limitations have been from Safari; there is very little we can do on this,” the account tweeted Friday evening.

Sources at Hotstar told TechCrunch that this was not an accurate description of the event. Instead, company’s engineers had identified a security hole that was being exploited by unauthorized users to access Hotstar’s content, they said.

Hotstar intends to work on patching the flaw soon and then reinstate support for Safari, the sources said.

The security flaw can only be exploited through Safari’s desktop and mobile browsers. On its website, the company recommends users to try Chrome and Firefox, or its mobile apps, to access the service. Hotstar did not respond to requests for comment.

Hotstar, which rivals Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in India, maintains a strong lead in the local video streaming market (based on number of users and engagement). Last month, it claimed to set a new global record by drawing more than 18 million viewers to a live cricket match.

India’s largest video streaming service, owned by Disney, breaks Safari compatibility to fix security flaw

Hotstar, India’s largest video streaming service with more than 300 million users, disabled support for Apple’s Safari web browser on Friday to mitigate a security flaw that allowed unauthorized usage of its platform, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The incident comes at a time when the streaming service — operated by Star India, part of 20th Century Fox that Disney acquired — enjoys peak attention as millions of people watch the ongoing ICC World Cup cricket tournament on its platform.

As users began to complain about not being able to use Hotstar on Safari, the company’s official support account asserted that “technical limitations” on Apple’s part were the bottleneck. “These limitations have been from Safari; there is very little we can do on this,” the account tweeted Friday evening.

Sources at Hotstar told TechCrunch that this was not an accurate description of the event. Instead, company’s engineers had identified a security hole that was being exploited by unauthorized users to access Hotstar’s content, they said.

Hotstar intends to work on patching the flaw soon and then reinstate support for Safari, the sources said.

The security flaw can only be exploited through Safari’s desktop and mobile browsers. On its website, the company recommends users to try Chrome and Firefox, or its mobile apps, to access the service. Hotstar did not respond to requests for comment.

Hotstar, which rivals Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in India, maintains a strong lead in the local video streaming market (based on number of users and engagement). Last month, it claimed to set a new global record by drawing more than 18 million viewers to a live cricket match.

Apple announces its 2019 Design Award winners

Apple doled out its 2019 Design Awards at its Worldwide Developer Conference this afternoon, highlighting a range of apps that work as beautifully as they look, the company said. This year, half the award winners were mobile games, which may speak to where much design innovation is today taking place. Other creativity focused and health care apps filled out the rest of the winners’ list.

To take home a prize, the apps’ had to excel across three areas: visual design, technology, and innovation. Specifically, Apple looks for apps that take full advantage of its latest devices and technologies.

The award winners don’t just get to take home a (newly redesigned) trophy. They also get an envious Apple prize pack that includes a 512GB iPhone 10S, AirPods, a 512GB 12.9 inch iPad Pro, Apple Pencil 2, a 64GB Apple TV 4K, an Apple Watch Series 4, a top of the line MacBook Pro, and a fully loaded iMac Pro. The apps will also be featured in the iOS App Store, gaining them more exposure.

The winning apps this year included:

Ordia: a one-finger action game where you play as a new life form taking its first leaps into a strange and hazardous world. Apple said this game offered a great balance between difficulty and satisfaction. It also focused on accessibility features, with a colorblind mode, for example. The game, from Loju LTD, was developed for two years and launched only a month ago, catching Apple’s eye.

Flow by Moleskin: Creative app for sketching, writing and drawing, Flow, was chosen for its attention to detail and overall design. It also showcased Apple technologies like Apple Pencil, gestures, iOS drawing APIs, and Metal.

The Gardens Between: A a single-player adventure-puzzle game about time, memory and friendship from The Voxel Agents won for its cinematic moments and immersive experience. Apple also really liked its gameplay mechanic which lets you stop time, which allows you to play without feeling rushed.

Asphalt 9 Legends: Gameloft’s latest iteration on the car racing game features cars from Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini, and W Motors. What makes it worthy of the award are its incredible effects and graphics, as well as its custom engine and Metal 2 integration. 

Pixelmator Photo: This photo editing app specifically won for its iPad version, which makes photo editing easy for everyone. But what Apple really liked was its use of Metal, CoreML and how it leveraged machine learning technologies to suggest changes to photos.

ELOH: Another game winner, this one described as a “chilled out puzzler.” The game helps you relax and decompress, said Apple, but its key component is its sound effects soundtrack, which complements its beautiful graphics and the animations. There are no time constraints on this one, so you can relax and enjoy playing.

Butterfly IQ – Ultrasound: This app was a standout from the group for focusing on a real healthcare need, not gaming or the creative arts. The app connects with a separate device to give mobile ultrasounds. The app won based largely on that innovation alone. As Apple noted, the idea with this app is that you can move ultrasound to a microchip and move the computer to an iOS device, instead of the big, expensive machines required today.

Thumper: Pocket Edition: This winning music rhythm game was unique and did a great job introducing new game mechanics involving swipes and taps. But it also has a psychedelic soundtrack to complement the action that sounds great when played loud.

Homecourt: The Basketball App:  This basketball training app uses a proprietary mobile AI technology to track, record, and provide deep analysis of all your shots and workouts using your iPhone’s camera.

 

 

TikTok owner ByteDance’s long-awaited chat app is here

In WeChat -dominated China, there’s no shortage of challengers out there claiming to create an alternative social experience. The latest creation comes from ByteDance, the world’s most valuable startup and the operator behind TikTok, the video app that has consistently topped the iOS App Store over the last few quarters.

The new offer is called Feiliao (飞聊), or Flipchat in English, a hybrid of an instant messenger plus interest-based forums, and it’s currently available for both iOS and Android. It arrived only four months after Bytedance unveiled its video-focused chatting app Duoshan at a buzzy press event.

Screenshots of Feiliao / Image source: Feiliao

Some are already calling Feiliao a WeChat challenger, but a closer look shows it’s targeting a more niche need. WeChat, in its own right, is the go-to place for daily communication in addition to facilitating payments, car-hailing, food delivery and other forms of convenience.

Feiliao, which literally translates to ‘fly chat’, encourages users to create forums and chat groups centered around their penchants and hobbies. As its app description writes:

Feiliao is an interest-based social app. Here you will find the familiar [features of] chats and video calls. In addition, you will discover new friends and share what’s fun; as well as share your daily life on your feed and interact with close friends.

Feiliao “is an open social product,” said ByteDance in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “We hope Feiliao will connect people of the same interests, making people’s life more diverse and interesting.”

It’s unclear what Feiliao means by claiming to be ‘open’, but one door is already shut. As expected, there’s no direct way to transfer people’s WeChat profiles and friend connections to Feiliao, and there’s no option to log in via the Tencent app. As of Monday morning, links to Feiliao can’t be opened on WeChat, which recently crossed 1.1 billion monthly active users.

On the other side, Alibaba, Tencent’s long-time nemesis, is enabling Feiliao’s payments function through the Alipay digital wallet. Alibaba has also partnered with Bytedance elsewhere, most notably on TikTok’s Chinese version Douyin where certain users can sell goods via Taobao stores.

In all, Flipchat is more reminiscent of another blossoming social app — Tencent-backed Jike — than WeChat. Jike (pronounced ‘gee-keh’) lets people discover content and connect with each other based on various topics, making it one of the closest counterparts to Reddit in China.

Jike’s CEO Wa Nen has taken noticed of Feiliao, commenting with the 👌 emoji on his Jike feed, saying no more.

Screenshot of Jike CEO Wa Ren commenting on Feiliao

“I think [Feiliao] is a product anchored in ‘communities’, such as groups for hobbies, key opinion leaders/celebrities, people from the same city, and alumni,” a product manager for a Chinese enterprise software startup told TechCrunch after trying out the app.

Though Feiliao isn’t a direct take on WeChat, there’s little doubt that the fight between Bytedance and Tencent has heated up tremendously as the former’s army of apps captures more user attention.

According to a new report published by research firm Questmobile, ByteDance accounted for 11.3 percent of Chinese users’ total time spent on ‘giant apps’ — those that surpassed 100 million MAUs — in March, compared to 8.2 percent a year earlier. The percentage controlled by Tencent was 43.8 percent in March, down from 47.5 percent, while the remaining share, divided between Alibaba, Baidu and others, grew only slightly from 44.3 percent to 44.9 percent over the past year.

Chat app Line is adding Snap-style disappearing stories

Facebook cloning Snap to death may be old news, but others are only just following suit. Line, the Japanese messaging app that’s popular in Asia, just became the latest to clone Snap’s ephemeral story concept.

The company announced today that it is adding stories that disappear after 24-hours to its timeline feature, a social network like feed that sits in its app, and user profiles. The update is rolling out to users now and the concept is very much identical to Snap, Instagram and others that have embraced time-limited content.

“As posts vanish after 24 hours, there is no need to worry about overposting or having posts remain in the feed,” Line, which is listed in the U.S. and Japan, wrote in an update. “Stories allows friends to discover real-time information on Timeline that is available only for that moment.”

Snap pioneered self-destructed content in its app, and the concept has now become present across most of the most popular internet services in the world.

In particular, Facebook added stories to across the board: to its core app, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp, the world’s most popular chat app with over 1.5 billion monthly users. Indeed, Facebook claims that WhatsApp stories are used by 500 million people, while the company has built Instagram into a service that has long had more users than Snap — currently over one billion.

The approach doesn’t always work, though — Facebook is shuttering its most brazen Snap copy, a camera app built around Instagram direct messages.

China’s top chat app WeChat added its own version earlier this year, and while it said in its earnings this week that users upload “hundreds of millions of videos each day” to its social platforms, it didn’t give numbers on its Snap-inspired feature.

Line doesn’t have anything like the reach of Facebook’s constellation of social apps or WeChat, but it is Japan’s dominant messaging platform and is popular in Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia.

The Japanese company doesn’t give out global user numbers but it reported 164 million monthly users in its four key markets as of Q1 2019, that’s down one million year-on-year. Japan accounts for 80 million of that figure, ahead of Thailand (44 million), Taiwan (21 million) and Indonesia (19 million.)

While user growth has stagnated, Line has been able to extract increase revenue. In addition to a foray into services — in Japan its range covers ride-hailing, food delivery, music streaming and payments — it has increased advertising in the app’s timeline tab, and that is likely a big reason for the release of stories. The new feature may help timeline get more eyeballs, while the company could follow the lead of Snap and Instagram to monetize stories by allowing businesses in.

In Line’s case, that could work reasonably well — for advertising — since users can opt to follow business accounts already. It would make sense, then, to let companies push stories to users that opted in follow their account. But that’s a long way in the future and it will depend on how the new feature is received by users.

Match Group records solid first-quarter revenue thanks to an increase in Tinder subscribers

Match Group’s revenue saw solid growth in the first quarter thanks to an increase in Tinder subscribers. The company, whose portfolio of dating apps also includes Match.com, PlentyOfFish, OkCupid and Hinge, among others, said in its earnings report today that total quarterly revenue grew 14% year over year to $465 million. If the effects of foreign exchange aren’t included, growth would have been 18%.

Net earnings attributable to shareholders grew 23% to $123 million, or 42 cents per share, from $99.7 million, or 33 cents in the same period a year ago. Operating income increased 6% to $119 million from $112 million. During the first quarter of 2019 and 2018, Match Group recorded an income tax benefit of $28 million and $12 million, respectively, related to the exercise of vesting of stock-based awards.

During the first quarter, Tinder average subscribers were 4.7 million, up from 384,000 in the previous quarter and 1.3 million year over year. In total, Match Group’s average subscribers increased 16% to 8.6 million, up from 7.4 million a year ago. Match Group said the growth in subscribers and increase in average revenue per user (ARPU) at Tinder boosted its revenue, but it was partially offset by foreign exchange effects. ARPU was flat year-over-year, but without foreign exchange effects, it would have increased by 4% to 60 cents.

The company said its adjusted EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization) growth was impacted by the higher cost of generating revenue, specifically in-app purchase fees because revenue increasingly comes through mobile app stores, and higher legal costs, but offset by lower selling and marketing expenses. Adjusted EBITDA grew 13% to $155 million from $138 million.

During the first quarter, Match Group restructured its executive team, appointing three new general managers to oversee regions in Asia in order to gain more users there and focus on international growth. Its first-quarter earnings presentation highlighted opportunities in India, where Tinder is the highest-grossing Android app according to App Annie; Japan, where Match Group now owns two of the top five dating apps (Pairs is number one in Japan, while Tinder is ranks at fourth); and Southeast Asia, where Tinder is now within the top 10 grossing apps in six countries.

The company did not break down earnings by country, but during the first quarter, it had a total of 8,613,000 million average subscribers, with 4,361,000 in North America and 4,252,000 internationally. Total ARPU was 58 cents: 60 cents in North America and 56 cents internationally. Total revenue was $ $464.6 million, and of that $454 million was direct revenue, split between $237.8 million from North America and $216.2 million from international (indirect revenue is revenue that does not come directly from Match Group’s end users, and most of that is advertising revenue.

VSCO sues PicsArt over photo filters that were allegedly reverse engineered

Photo-editing app-maker VSCO has filed a lawsuit against competitor PicsArt.

The suit focuses on 19 PicsArt filters that were supposedly “reverse engineered from VSCO’s filters,” with VSCO alleging it has become a legal issue involving false advertising and violations of the app’s terms of service.

“VSCO has invested significant time and resources in developing its presets [a.k.a. filters], which represent valuable intellectual property of VSCO,” the company writes.

In a statement, PicsArt denied the suit’s claims:

VSCO is not a direct competitor, but they clearly feel threatened by PicsArt. VSCO’s claims are meritless. It’s disappointing that they have made these false claims against us. PicsArt will vigorously defend itself against these baseless claims and all options are under consideration.

Specifically, VSCO says that at least 17 PicsArt employees created VSCO accounts — probably not an uncommon competitive practice, but the suit claims they used those accounts to reverse engineer the filters, thus violating the terms in which users “agree not to sell, license, rent, modify, distribute, copy, reproduce, transmit, publicly display, publicly perform, publish, adapt, edit or create derivative works from any VSCO Content.”

In addition, the suit accuses PicsArt of engaging in false advertising by describing the filters in its PicsArt Gold subscription as “exclusive” and “only for [PicsArt] Gold users.”

Why is VSCO so sure that the PicsArt filters were based on its own? The suit says:

VSCO’s color scientists have determined that at least nineteen presets published by PicsArt are effectively identical to VSCO presets that are only available through a VSCO account. Specifically, VSCO determined that those PicsArt filters have a Mean Color Difference (“MCD”) of less than two CIEDE2000 units (in some cases, far less than two units) compared to their VSCO counterparts. An MCD of less than two CIEDE2000 units between filters is imperceptible to the human eye and cannot have been achieved by coincidence or visual or manual approximation. On information and belief, PicsArt could have only achieved this degree of similarity between its filters and those of VSCO by using its employees’ VSCO user accounts to access the VSCO app and reverse engineer VSCO’s presets.

The suit goes on to claim that VSCO’s lawyers sent PicsArt a letter in February demanding that the company identify and remove any filters that were reverse engineered or copied from VSCO. The letter also demanded “an accounting of all profits and revenues generated from such filters” and that PicsArt identify any employees who had created VSCO accounts.

In VSCO’s telling, PicsArt then responded that it was “in the process of replacing certain underperforming filters and modifying others,” including the 19 filters in question, but it only removed 17 — and supposedly two of the new filters “were similarly reverse engineered from VSCO’s proprietary presets.” The suit also says PicsArt has failed to provide the information that VSCO demanded.

VSCO does not appear to be suing for a specific monetary value, but the suit asks for “disgorgement of any proceeds obtained from PicsArt’s use of VSCO filters,” as well as injunctive relief, compensatory damages and “the costs of corrective advertising.”

You can read the full complaint below.

VSCO Complaint by on Scribd

Apple TV+ makes Facebook Watch look like a joke

Apple flexed its wallet today in a way Facebook has been scared to do. Tech giants make money by the billions, not the millions, which should give them an easy way to break into premium video distribution: buy some must-see content. That’s the strategy I’ve been advocating for Facebook but that Apple actually took to heart. Tim Cook wrote lines of zeros on some checks, and suddenly Steven Spielberg, JJ Abrams, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, and Oprah became the well-known faces of Apple TV+.

Facebook Watch has…MTV’s The Real World? The other Olsen sister? Re-runs of Buffy The Vampire Slayer? Actually, Facebook Watch is dominated by the kind of low-quality viral video memes the social network announced it would kick out of its News Feed for wasting people’s time.

And so while Apple TV+ at least has a solid base camp from which to make the uphill climb to compete with Netflix, Facebook Watch feels like it’s tripping over its own feet.

Today, Apple gave a preview of its new video subscription service that will launch in fall offering unlimited access to old favorites and new exclusives for a monthly fee. Yet even without any screenshots or pricing info, Apple still got people excited by dangling its big-name content.

Spielberg is making short films out of the Amazing Stories anthology that inspired him as a child. Abrams is spinning a tale of a musician’s rise called Little Voice Witherspoon and Aniston star in The Morning Show about anchoring a news program. Oprah is bringing documentaries about workplace harassment and mental health. Apple even has the Seasame Street gang teaching kids how to code.

This tentpole tactic will see Apple try to draw users into a free trial of Apple TV+ with this must-see content and then convince them to stay. And a compelling, exclusive reason to watch is exactly what’s been missing from…Facebook Watch. Instead, it chose to fund a wide array of often unscripted reality and documentary shorts that never felt special or any better than what else was openly available on the Internet, let alone what you could get from a subscription. It now claims to have 75 million people Watching at least one minute per day, but it’s failed to spawn a zeitgeist moment. Even as Facebook has scrambled to add syndicated TV cult favorites like Firefly or soccer matches to free, ad-supported video service, it’s failed to sign on anything truly newsworthy.

That’s just not going to fly anymore. Tech has evolved past the days when media products could win just based on their design, theoretical virality, or the massive audiences they’re cross-promoted to. We’re anything but starved for things to watch or listen to. And if you want us to frequent one more app or sign up for one more subscription, you’ll need A-List talent that makes us take notice. Netflix has Stranger Things. HBO has Game Of Thrones. Amazon has the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Disney+ has…Marvel, Star Wars, and the princesses. And now Apple has the world’s top directors and actresses.

Video has become a battle of the rich. Apple didn’t pull any punches. Facebook will need to buy some new fighters if Watch is ever going to deserve a place in the ring.

PicsArt hits 130 million MAUs as Chinese flock to its photo editing app

If you’re like me, who isn’t big on social media, you’d think that the image filters that come inside most apps will do the job. But for many others, especially the younger crowd, making their photos stand out is a huge deal.

The demand is big enough that PicsArt, a rival to filtering companies VSCO and Snapseed, recently hit 130 million monthly active users worldwide, roughly a year after it amassed 100 million MAUs. Like VSCO, PicsArt now offers video overlays though images are still its focus.

Nearly 80 percent of PicsArt’s users are under the age of 35 and those under 18 are driving most of its growth. The “Gen Z” (the generation after millennials) users aren’t obsessed with the next big, big thing. Rather, they pride themselves on having niche interests, be it K-pop, celebrities, anime, sci-fi or space science, topics that come in the form of filters, effects, stickers and GIFs in PicsArt’s content library.

“PicsArt is helping to drive a trend I call visual storytelling. There’s a generation of young people who communicate through memes, short-form videos, images and stickers, and they rarely use words,” Tammy Nam, who joined PicsArt as its chief operating officer in July, told TechCrunch in an interview.

PicsArt has so far raised $45 million, according to data collected by Crunchbase. It picked up $20 million from a Series B round in 2016 to grow its Asia focus and told TechCrunch that it’s “actively considering fundraising to fuel [its] rapid growth even more.”

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PicsArt wants to help users stand out on social media, for instance, by virtually applying this rainbow makeup look on them. / Image: PicsArt via Weibo

The app doubles as a social platform, although the use case is much smaller compared to the size of Instagram, Facebook and other mainstream social media products. About 40 percent of PicsArt’s users post on the app, putting it in a unique position where it competes with the social media juggernauts on one hand, and serving as a platform-agnostic app to facilitate content creation for its rivals on the other.

What separates PicsArt from the giants, according to Nam, is that people who do share there tend to be content creators rather than passive consumers.

“On TikTok and Instagram, the majority of the people there are consumers. Almost 100 percent of the people on PicsArt are creating or editing something. For many users, coming on PicsArt is a built-in habit. They come in every week, and find the editing process Zen-like and peaceful.”

Trending in China

Most of PicsArt’s users live in the United States, but the app owes much of its recent success to China, its fastest growing market with more than 15 million MAUs. The regional growth, which has been 10-30 percent month-over-month recently, appears more remarkable when factoring in PicsArt’s zero user acquisition expense in a crowded market where pay-to-play is a norm for emerging startups.

“Many larger companies [in China] are spending a lot of money on advertising to gain market share. PicsArt has done zero paid marketing in China,” noted Nam.

Screenshot: TikTok-related stickers from PicsArt’s library

When people catch sight of an impressive image filtering effect online, many will inquire about the toolset behind it. Chinese users find out about the Armenian startup from photos and videos hashtagged #PicsArt, not different from how VSCO gets discovered from #vscocam on Instagram. It’s through such word of mouth that PicsArt broke into China, where users flocked to its Avengers-inspired disappearing superhero effect last May when the film was screening. China is now the company’s second largest market by revenue after the U.S.

Screenshot: PicsArts lets users easily apply the Avengers dispersion effect to their own photos

A hurdle that all media apps see in China is the country’s opaque guidelines on digital content. Companies in the business of disseminating information, from WeChat to TikTok, hire armies of content moderators to root out what the government deems inappropriate or illegal. PicsArt says it uses artificial intelligence to sterilize content and keeps a global moderator team that also keeps an eye on its China content.

Despite being headquartered in Silicon Valley, PicsArt has placed its research and development center in Armenia, home to founder Hovhannes Avoyan. This gives the startup access to much cheaper engineering talents in the country and neighboring Russia compared to what it can hire in the U.S. To date, 70 percent of the company’s 360 employees are working in engineering and product development (50 percent of whom are female), an investment it believes helps keep its creative tools up to date.

Most of PicsArt’s features are free to use, but the firm has also looked into getting paid. It rolled out a premium program last March that gives users more sophisticated functions and exclusive content. This segment has already leapfrogged advertising to be PicsArt’s largest revenue source, although in China, its budding market, paid subscriptions have been slow to come.

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PicsArt lets users do all sorts of creative work, including virtually posing with their idol. / Image: PicsArt via Weibo

“In China, people don’t want to pay because they don’t believe in the products. But if they understand your value, they are willing to pay, for example, they pay a lot for mobile games,” said Jennifer Liu, PicsArt China’s country manager.

And Nam is positive that Chinese users will come to appreciate the app’s value. “In order for this new generation to create really differentiated content, become influencers, or be more relevant on social media, they have to do edit their content. It’s just a natural way for them to do that.”