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Tech at Work: Amazon caravan protest, Genderify’s algorithmic bias and using ‘BIPOC’

Welcome back to Tech at Work, where we look at labor, diversity and inclusion. Given the amount of activity in this space, we’re going to ramp this up from bi-weekly to weekly.

This week, we’re looking at the latest action from a group of Amazon warehouse workers in the San Francisco Bay Area, how to avoid Genderify’s massive algorithmic bias fail and the rise of the use of BIPOC, which stands for Black, Indigenous and people of color, and how to properly use the term.


Stay woke


Amazon warehouse workers stage sunrise action

Amazon delivery drivers in the San Francisco Bay Area are kicking off the month by protesting the e-commerce giant’s labor practices related to the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of a caravan, workers plan to head to Amazon’s San Leandro warehouse this morning to pressure the company to shut down the facility for a thorough cleaning.

“They are having COVID cases reported and they’re not being truthful about how many, and they’re not being reported right away,” Amazon worker Adrienne Williams told TechCrunch. “We’re seeing this pattern of Amazon finding out and then not telling people for two weeks so they don’t have to pay anyone.”

In a statement to TechCrunch, Amazon said:

Nothing is more important than health and well-being of our employees, and we are doing everything we can to keep them as safe as possible. We’ve invested over $800 million in the first half of this year implementing 150 significant process changes on COVID-19 safety measures by purchasing items like masks, hand sanitizer, thermal cameras, thermometers, sanitizing wipes, gloves, additional handwashing stations, and adding disinfectant spraying in buildings, procuring COVID testing supplies, and additional janitorial teams.

In addition to shutting down the warehouse for sanitizing, workers are asking for better communication.

“The drivers have no idea if there are ever any cases because we don’t have access to the internal warehouse A to Z communications they have,” Williams, who works at the Richmond warehouse, said. “So we never get the alerts if there are COVID cases. We’re not on that internal communication but we go in those warehouses twice a day to get our shifts and packages.”

Because drivers are generally employed by delivery service partners, Amazon says it does not have direct communication with them. However, Amazon says it immediately notifies the delivery service partner who then communicates with the drivers.

By staging the action so early, the hope is to prevent workers from being able to load delivery vehicles, Williams said.

“If the vans are left in the warehouse, Jeff Bezos takes the financial hit,” she said. “Halting deliveries and keeping them in the warehouse means Amazon gets hit with the bill.”

Lesson for startups: Treat all of your workers with dignity and respect.

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Top mobile apps see declines in consumer engagement amid increased competition

Mobile consumers are downloading and using more apps than ever before. According to recent data from App Annie, mobile users now have 93 apps on their phone as of the end of 2019, up from 85 apps at the end of 2015. They also now use around 41 apps per month, up from 35 in 2015. Related to this increase, users are now also spending more hours per day using apps. Worldwide, daily time spent in apps has grown to 3.1 hours per day in 2019, up from 2.1 hours per day in 2015, for instance.

But with that growth has also come increased diversity among the top apps, the report found. That means top apps now make up a smaller proportion of consumers’ total time spent in apps, compared with five years ago.

Image Credits: App Annie

It’s worth noting that this report was commissioned by Facebook, App Annie says, with a goal of offering a more detailed look at the evolving app ecosystem over the past five years. The report aims to determine how growth is playing out in terms of popular app categories, among the top publishers, and how quickly newly successful apps are achieving sizable growth.

Facebook, in the past, had generated this sort of market research data first-hand by way of its Onavo VPN application — now shuttered over privacy concerns — and other similar efforts.

Turning to App Annie’s data team is just a new way for the company to get at the same sort of data.

App Annie’s market analysis, in part, is similarly derived by way of third-party apps. The company acquired Distimo in 2014, and as of 2016 has run the VPN app Phone Guardian under the Distimo brand. It also acquired Mobidia in 2015 and has operated My Data Manager (now on the App Store under Distimo). Both apps disclose their relationship with App Annie and explain that the apps are used for market research purposes, with specific examples of the type of data collected.

The new report’s findings may not be all good news for Facebook and other top app publishers. As the app economy evolved, users now have more places to spend time on mobile.

Image Credits: App Annie

Over the past five years, worldwide downloads continued to grow to reach a record of 120 billion in 2019, with several key countries now driving growth, including India (10% year-over-year growth in 2019), Brazil (9%), Indonesia (8%) and Russia (7%).

Downloads in mature economies also hit record levels in 2019, including the U.S. (12.3 billion), Japan (2.5 billion), U.K. (2.1 billion), South Korea (2 billion), Germany (1.9 billion), and France (1.9 billion).

As users grew their time in app to 3.1 hours per day, they also began to use more of a variety of apps. According to the report, 35 of the top 100 apps were new entrants in 2019, up from 27 in 2016 across categories that included social, photography, video, communications, entertainment and more.

Image Credits: App Annie

This is likely worrisome data for top app publishers, like Facebook, which has for years maintained a suite of top apps, including not only its flagship app, but also Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp . As the competitive pressure increases, these top apps make up a smaller proportion of the time spent on mobile devices as users have grown more comfortable trying out newcomers — particularly across gaming, entertainment and video categories.

The top 30 non-game apps accounted for 69.4% of U.S. users’ total time spent in 2016 among non-games. That dropped to 65.5% in 2019, a nearly 4% decline. Among games, the share fell from 49% to 39%, a 10% drop. (This data was sourced from Google Play in the U.S.)

Image Credits: App Annie

Not only are consumers more open to trying new apps, the report found that new apps can also quickly achieve app store success. In the U.S., for example, more than 60% of apps are able to reach their category’s Top 30 in their first six months.

This is aided by larger initial marketing pushes as well as improvements in terms of consumer’s devices themselves — like more storage and processing power, which encourages more downloads.

Image Credits: App Annie

There are also more apps capable of achieving the once milestone metric of 1 million monthly active users (MAUs). In 2019, more than 4,600 apps saw 1 million MAUs, including those outside of social and communications like Netflix, Roku, Disney, CBS, Amazon, Alibaba, Walmart, Target, PayPal, Venmo, Chase, Capital One, Uber, DoorDash, McDonald’s and Starbucks.

Image Credits:App Annie

Image Credits: App Annie

Apps are also achieving the 1 million downloads milestones more quickly, in data analyzed from 2015 to 2018. In the video, finance, communications, social, photo and entertainment categories, 67% of apps achieved the 1 million downloads milestone within their first 12 months, App Annie says.

Because of the increases, there’s now a lot of overlap in between top apps. Today, mobile consumers will often choose and use multiple apps within and across categories to address similar needs, including on social, the report found.

For example, 89% of Snapchat’s users also used YouTube in April 2020 in the U.S., and 75% also used Instagram.

Image Credits: App Annie

TikTok saw the greatest year-over-year increase in cross-app usage of Snapchat, rising from 17% in April 2019 to April 2020 — an indication of how much it has captured the youth demographic.

Meanwhile, video apps and gaming are taking up more of users’ time spent in apps. This broad category of “play”-focused apps accounted for 22% of the growth in time spent in apps in 2019.

Image Credits: App Annie

Plus, top gaming apps are also implementing social features, including Top 50 games like Fortnite, Clash of Clans, Call of Duty: Mobile, Township, Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, New Yahtzee with Buddies, Golf Clash and Slotomania, for example.

More than two-thirds of the Top 50 games have added at least one social feature, whether that’s inviting friend to play, social assists for progressing, guilds or clans or in-app chat. This, in turn, has led to players spending more time in games as they can connect with friends there.

Image Credits: App Annie

Fortnite, as one key example of this trend, rolled out Party Hub based on its acquired Houseparty technology, in September 2019. In the three months after the rollout, time spent in Fortnite grew 130%.

Image Credits: App Annie

Outside of games, TikTok has risen by blending elements of top categories like social, video and entertainment. After merging with Musical.ly, it has rapidly rolled out more video editing features and increased ad spend aggressively to grow its user base and drive engagement. By December 2019, U.S. users were spending 16 hours, 20 minutes in the app per month, on average, up from 5 hours, 4 minutes in August 2018.

Image Credits: App Annie (note above chart only showcases Google Play data)

The full report also delves into country-by-country breakdowns but, overall, found that most countries saw record downloads in 2019 and similar trends in terms of app usage frequency increases and time spent.

One notable point of comparison is that U.S. users have more apps installed than in other markets (97 versus 93), but tend to use fewer apps compared with worldwide trends (36 versus 41). They also spend slightly fewer hours per day in apps, on average, than the worldwide average at 2.7 hours versus 3.1 hours.

“This report shows that the app industry is more competitive today than ever. New companies are succeeding with innovative apps that meet needs people might not even know they have,” said Ime Archibong, head of Facebook’s New Product Experimentation team, an internal team at Facebook looking to find new models for social apps. “All of this choice and competition fuels innovation, and that’s the heart of our work at Facebook,” he added.

App Annie’s report is available upon request here.

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This Week in Apps: A guide to the US antitrust case against Apple, Microsoft in talks to buy TikTok

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

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

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

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

This week, we’re focused on rounding up the news from the U.S. antitrust investigation into Apple, as it pertains to apps, the App Store and developers.

Let’s dive in.

Apps and the Antitrust Hearings

app store icon 2

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Developers’ concern over Apple’s alleged anti-competitive behavior with regard to how it runs the App Store was one of the many topics that came up during this week’s antitrust hearings. Apple CEO Tim Cook defended the company’s App Store commission structure and treatment of developers in his sworn testimony before the House Antitrust Subcommittee.

But the documents the committee had collected indicate that there were times, in fact, when developers had not all been treated equally, nor did they all have the same terms. Though it’s not surprising, or even unusual, to hear that Apple had carved out special deals for larger companies, the company has continued to insist the App Store is an even playing field for all developers, both large and small. That’s not the case, the documents reveal, as larger companies got deals allowing them to pay less in commission or had access to faster app reviews and dedicated personnel for their needs.

In addition, the documents detail how Apple’s control of the App Store allows it to unilaterally make decisions about app pauses and removals. This impacts large companies, like Spotify, as well as small developers, like those detailed in these emails:

Documents from the US antitrust investigation into Apple by TechCrunch on Scribd

Here are key sections that pertain to Apple & the App Store:

  • Apple Cut a Special Deal with Amazon, pp. 34-51; 67-69: Though Apple claims an even playing field for developers, its rules didn’t apply to larger companies. As part of an extensive deal with Amazon over its Prime Video app and Apple device sales on Amazon.com, Amazon agreed to remove “tens of thousands” of unauthorized (not necessarily counterfeit) sellers of Apple products, to give Apple control over its experience on the retail site, among other things. Apple let Amazon pay a 15% commission for in-app sign-ups on Prime Video subscriptions, instead of the 30% apps have to pay during their first year.
  • Apple Cut a Special Deal with Baidu, pp. 52-54: Apple also negotiated with Baidu to make it the default search engine in China, and as part of that agreement, offered it access to an “App Review Fast Track,” where Baidu would be allowed to send Apple a beta app for review to speed up the approval process. Apple also assigned two key contacts to work with Baidu. Again, not surprising that a big company got special treatment, but the party line is that all developers are treated equally. Access to faster app reviews is not something accessible to all developers, under certain conditions, or even publicly documented.
  • Apple Considered a 40% Commission, pp. 107-109: Apple in 2011 debated raising its commission to 40%. “I think we may be leaving money on the table if we just asked for about 30% of the first year of sub,” one exec said. Tim Cook, in the hearing, said Apple wouldn’t raise commissions because it competed for developer interest, too.
  • Requiring Apple’s Apps as the Default, pp. 32-33: Apple, until recently, never allowed iOS users to make a different app from a third-party developer their default app for that task on their device. That means map links open in Apple Maps and Calendar appointments lead to Apple’s Calendar app, and so on. The upcoming iOS 14 release will allow users to change their default browser and email apps, however. The documents indicate Apple was in possession of complaints from users who wanted to be able to personalize their device to their own needs. Today, Apple still has no plans to allow third-party apps to be set as the default for maps, music, voice assistance, messages, reminders, notes and others, which impacts startups and indie developers who make quality products but can’t gain a foothold on iOS/iPadOS.
  • Requiring WebKit for all browsers, pp. 55-56: Apple emails discussed Opera’s 2010 plans to submit a browser it claimed was “up to 6 times faster than Safari,” noting that “it is unlikely that this Opera release is using our webkit, which is required.” Opera, a much smaller company than Apple, was hoping to challenge Apple’s control over the browser experience by taking claims to the press — a tactic often used to demonstrate the limits of developers’ rights to distribute apps on iPhone.
  • Banning Apps for Spam, pp. 1-5: Apple banned a developer for spamming the App Store, despite the developer’s claim that he was only creating separate apps because of issues with discoverability on the App Store. The developer, which published a series of maps/guides apps, said people could search for a city by name and find the standalone maps app for that city. But they weren’t being directed to the consolidated app that Apple demanded replace the individual ones, for those same searches. The developer said he would much rather use one single app, as that would be easier to maintain, but had built separate ones because of discoverability issues. Internal Apple emails indicate that Apple stopped accepting the developer’s submissions, forcing them to migrate to a consolidated app.
  • App Store Fraud, pp. 6-18: The NYT in 2012 reported on issues around fraudulent charges hitting developers’ apps, which had amounted to millions of dollars for at least one developer over the course of a year. Though fraud is a prevalent problem with digital purchases, the developers’ larger complaint was not that fraud occurred — they didn’t blame Apple for that, necessarily — but that Apple was unresponsive to their requests for help. Apple didn’t reply to emails and didn’t offer a dedicated phone line for complaints, they said. Apple’s internal emails indicated the company didn’t believe there was a real issue with fraud. (“We’ve repeatedly answered this question and haven’t yet identified a case where there is an actual issue,” one exec said.) Apple execs also said the issue had to do with developers who had high levels of refunds and the timing of their refunds. The emails indicated that Apple would “intentionally reply with a standard and rather vague response” about how reporting won’t reconcile due to timing differences and noted that “we do not individually investigate each query.” But the company was aware that some developers had issues. “It is unfortunate as the issue is very small as a percentage of our business and impacts a very small percentage of our developers,” Apple said. Of course, at Apple’s scale, anything that happens to a handful of developers will be a “small percentage” of its business. But for developers, it could be their entire business.
  • App Store Search Changes, pg. 21; pg. 28: A November 2015 email indicated that App Store Search changes implemented that month made it harder to find some apps. For example a search for keyword “Twitter” never returned the app “Tweetbot for Twitter,” at all, despite the app’s high ranking and general popularity, evidenced by reviews. Meanwhile, an app that hadn’t been updated since 2008 (Tweeter) would appear in the search results. Phil Schiller forwarded the email to Apple execs with a note “FYI.” (TechCrunch had also reported at the time the changes had impacted the rankings of several iPad apps.) Search issues continued in 2017, as another email indicated that the developer’s app wasn’t being returned for critical App Store keyword search terms in the first 100 results, even for an exact keyword match. While Apple may experience technical problems when it makes changes, developers are left with no resource when those changes effectively “disappear” them from the App Store.
  • Apple Removes Parental Control Apps, pp. 70-76, 80-87: Tim Cook was directly questioned about Apple’s removal of screen time apps, and responded that the removals were related to those apps’ use of privacy-invading MDM technology. The documents indicate even Apple was concerned about its move to ban the apps, given their removal directly followed the launch of Apple’s own Screen Time solution. “This is quite incriminating. Is it true?” one exec asked after The NYT covered the story (four months after TechCrunch broke the news!). The apps that were banned didn’t all use MDM, we reported. In addition, Apple didn’t offer a pathway to compliance with regard to apps’ off-brand use of MDM until June 2019. In Congress’ stash of emails from impacted developers, one said they spent an additional $30K trying to fix the problem, but was specifically told “we no longer support Parental Control Apps” even though the App Store still had several listed. A number of consumers also complained about how the apps they relied on had disappeared.
  • Apple used App Store to Block Large Companies’ Apps, Too, pp. 77-79, 80-98, 97-98, 102-106: Indie developers weren’t the only ones at the mercy of Apple’s control over the App Store. Verizon (Disclosure: TechCrunch’s parent company’s parent), Spotify, T-Mobile, Amazon and Valve (Steam) also had submitted complaints about their apps not being allowed in or being paused, due to terms violations, and being forced to use Apple’s in-app purchases. Spotify, for example, said it had built a special landing page just for compliance with App Store Rules about not directing users to non-App Store purchase mechanisms. But Apple rejected its app updates for sending an email after a trial period to users directing them to upgrade from Spotify’s website. “Apple claimed that Spotify could not communicate with its own customers, inside its own app, about the existence of its own Premium service — even if there was no link, button, or mention of any offer of any kind,” Spotify legal wrote to Apple legal. “Shortly after our meeting in early July, Apple objected to an out-of-app welcome email to free users, claiming that this email violated the App Store Rules because it mentioned the Premium service,” it said. Apple directly competes with Spotify, which has money to pay expensive lawyers. What are indie developers to do when met with similar situations?

Breaking News

Trump administration to order China-based ByteDance to sell TikTok’s U.S. Operations

Image Credit: Costfoto / Barcroft Media (Photo credit should read Costfoto / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The Trump administration said on Friday it will sign an order directing ByteDance to divest its ownership of the U.S. app, TikTok, if it wants to continue to operate in the U.S., Bloomberg reported. The app’s associations with China have been under increased scrutiny in the U.S., along with other Chinese tech firms. Most recently, the app has been undergoing a national security review for potential risks. After the initial news, reports bubbled up that Microsoft is in talks to buy the Chinese social network

TikTok has become one of the largest apps in the world and is valued at $50 billion, Reuters reported. The company has been looking for alternative options, including a proposal from some investors, like Sequoia and General Atlantic, to transfer majority control to them. TikTok also fielded acquisition offers from other companies and investment firms, the report had said.

In the meantime, TikTok has recently promised to open its algorithm and fund U.S. creators. It also made another key U.S. hire, with Sandie Hawkins, former VP and head of Americas for Adobe’s Advertising Cloud, now GM of global business solutions for both TikTok and its parent ByteDance.

Hoping to capitalize on the chaos, Triller sued TikTok over patent infringement.

Other Headlines

GettyImages 688189016

Image credit: Carl Court/Getty Images

Funding and M&A

  • YC alum Paragon snags $2.5 million seed for low-code app integration platform. Investors include Y Combinator, Village Global, Global Founders Capital, Soma Capital and FundersClub.
  • Revolut extends Series D round to $580 million with $80 million in new funding. The fintech startup had raised $500 million led by TCV at a $5.5 billion valuation in February.
  • Huuuge Games acquired games studio Double Star, Apptopia reported, citing Gamesindustry.biz. The studio’s top title is the game Bow Land, which has generated $3.7k via in-app purchases this year, the firm said.
  • Toppr raises $46 million to scale its online learning platform in India. Toppr is one of the largest online learning startups in India and offers apps for iOS, Android and web.
  • Delightree raises $3 million to help franchise business owners simplify their operations. The startup aims to move much of what currently happens through pen-and-paper over to smartphones.

Downloads

Google One 

Image Credits: Google

Google introduced a mobile utility for its cloud storage service Google One. The app will automatically back up your phone’s contents, like photos, videos, contacts and calendar events, using the 15 GB of free storage that comes with a Google account.

Facetune Video

Image Credits: TechCrunch

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

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Tandem snags $5.7M for its language buddy app amid COVID-19’s e-learning boom

The Berlin-based startup behind Tandem, an app for practicing a second language, has closed a £4.5 million (~$5.7 million) Series A round of financing to capitalize on growth opportunities it’s seeing as the coronavirus crisis continues to accelerate the switch to digital and online learning.

With many higher education institutions going remote as a result of concerns over virus exposure risks of students mixing on physical campuses, there’s a growing need for technology that helps language students find people to practice with, as Tandem tells it. And while language learning apps make for a very crowded space, with giants like Duolingo and Babbel, Tandem focuses on a different niche: native speaker practice.

As the name suggests, its app does pair matching — connecting users with others who’re trying to learn their own language for mutual practice, by (their choice of) text, phone chat or video call.

The platform also incorporates a more formal learning component by providing access to tutors. But the main thrust is to help learners get better by practicing chatting to a native speaker via the app.

Because of the pandemic push to socially distant learners, that’s a growing digital need, according to Tandem co-founder and CEO Arnd Aschentrup. He says the coronavirus crisis spurred a 200% increase in new users — highlighting a “clear appetite” among consumers for digital language learning.

The team has taken another tranche of funding now so it can scale to meeting this growing global opportunity.

The Series A is led by European VC firm Brighteye Ventures, with Trind Ventures, Rubylight Limited and GPS Ventures also participating. It brings the startup’s total raised to date to £6.8 million.

“Given the accelerated user-uptake and clear market opportunity, we felt that 2020 was the right time to partner with the team at Brighteye to bring Tandem into the mainstream,” says Aschentrup, adding: “We anticipate significant growth opportunities for online learning and social learning in the wake of coronavirus.”

He says two “key trends” have emerged over the past few months: “Firstly, schools and universities providing language courses have either temporarily shut down, or moved almost entirely to remote lessons. Students are therefore relying on additional platforms to learn and practice languages, which is precisely what Tandem offers.

“Secondly, we know that lockdown has enormously limited people’s ability to socialise. Friendships have been harder to maintain, and new connections more difficult to spark. We’re excited about Tandem’s ability to connect people all across the globe despite lockdown. Since coronavirus began, engagement on Tandem’s video chat feature has increased three-fold, and new user signups have increased 200%.”

Tandem had been growing usage prior to COVID-19 — increasing membership from around a million back in 2017 (when we last spoke), to more than 10 million members now, spread across 180 countries.

Aschentrup couches the underlying growth as “strong organic demand,” noting the platform has been profitable since 2019 (hence not taking in more outside funding ’til now). But, with the pandemic curve ball accelerating the switch to remote learning, it’s expecting usage of its platform to keep stepping up.

“We’ve successfully increased our community numbers ten-fold in recent years, profitably and organically,” he tells TechCrunch. “More people than ever value digital learning solutions combined with human connection, and so the time is ripe to introduce Tandem to language learners more widely around the globe. With the team at Brighteye on our side we’re excited to further develop Tandem’s reach and voice over the coming period.”

“We expect increased interest in online learning to sustain well after lockdown lifts. In China — where lockdown sanctions were implemented and lifted earlier — user engagement has remained buoyant.”

“Once people experience the value of learning as part of a like-minded global community, it often becomes a lasting part of their lifestyle,” he adds.

Tandem’s best markets for language learners are China (10%), the U.S. (9%) and Japan (9%) — which combined make up close to a third (27%) of its user base.

While the most popular language pairs (in ranked order of popularity) are:

  1. English – Spanish
  2. Spanish – Portuguese
  3. English – Chinese
  4. English – French
  5. Chinese – Japanese

While the vast majority (94%) of Tandem’s user base is making use of the freemium offering, it monetizes via a subscription product, called Tandem Pro, which it introduced in 2018 to cater to members who “preferred taking a community approach to language learning,” as Aschentrup puts it.

“For $9.99 per month, members can access key features such as: translating unlimited messages, finding Tandem partners nearby or in specific locations — for example ahead of international travels or studying abroad — and having enhanced visibility in the community as a featured Pro member,” he explains.

Aschentrup describes the “community aspect” of Tandem as a key differentiator versus other language learning apps — saying it helps users “develop and maintain cross-cultural friendships.”

“Members are often on opposite sides of the world to each other, yet able to enjoy a window into another culture entirely. Now more than ever, we’re pleased to be facilitating members’ healthy curiosity about other languages, countries and styles of living.”

The new funding will go on developing additional features for the app, and expanding the team across marketing and engineering, per Aschentrup. Currently Tandem has 24 full-time employees — it’s planning to double that to a 50-member team globally, post-Series A.

Commenting in a statement, Alex Spiro, managing partner at Brighteye Ventures, lauded the team’s “innovative and effective strategy” in building a community platform that tackles the language gap by connecting learners with fluent speakers.

“The product has not only proven resilient in this global crisis but has seen impressive growth during the period, and the team is now very well equipped to come out of it stronger and to continue to support loyal language learners that now number in the millions and will number many more in the coming years,” he added.

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What brands need to do if they want to break up with Facebook

With more than 90 major advertisers and counting announcing plans to dump Facebook, a significant question lingers: Where will brands go next for their digital marketing needs?

The case for the breakup is clear: Brands want to distance themselves from third-party business practices that do not align with their values. Specifically, they are disenchanted by what even some members of Congress are calling Facebook’s “lackadaisical” approach to enforcing community standards, allowing an epidemic of paid political misinformation and hate speech to persist on the user-driven platform.

However, with Google, Facebook and Amazon representing just under 70% of global digital ad revenue, a clean break from the tech giants is easier said than done. Advertisers, like anyone facing a breakup, must look within. After all, they don’t want to make the same mistakes and they cannot just throw newly freed up advertising dollars at a new social network ad platform, where similar conflicts could easily follow.

With introspection, advertisers will see that this is more than just a war on disinformation and hate speech. A data war is brewing, pressuring businesses to diversify data sources. As brands compete to understand the needs and preferences of today’s consumers, consumers are concurrently responding with more guarded protection of their online data.

To win this war, brands must reclaim data autonomy and infuse their digital media strategy with more diversified data. But they cannot do it alone and they cannot do it within the current system.

Time to brandish holistic data

Whether Facebook adjusts its community standards to appease dismayed advertisers has yet to be seen. But in the interim, as advertisers walk out the door, it’s worth noting that Facebook’s reliance on online data may soon be obsolete anyway.

One of the key differentiators for Facebook’s ad platform has been its ability to help level the playing field for smaller brands by cost-effectively captivating the right audiences. But the platform primarily draws insights from audiences’ behaviors online. The next wave of data-based marketing must employ tools that blend first-party data and qualified third-party data to offer a holistic view of customer behaviors, both online and offline.

Offline data sets, which include location intelligence, interactions, purchase history, contact information and demographics are lynchpins in the next digital media wave because they allow brands to develop a more human view of consumer data and create meaningful marketing moments. For example, location intelligence, an extremely potent tool that is currently helping brands pivot during COVID-19 disruptions and is even protecting public health, can drive personalized, alluring marketing campaigns with massive ROI opportunities.

The leading integrated data providers are managing extremely rich datasets, which increase in value daily as consistent tracking yields higher quality data. Such powerful and enriched data stacks offers brands visitor insights based on a specific location after an ad is interacted with on any device — requiring no guesswork for the marketing team. Brands are able to pinpoint exactly which messages resonate with which segments of their audience at which time. This precision ultimately helps them craft the right message for the target consumer — and deliver it at the exact right moment.

Marching orders for combat

Brands want to cut Facebook loose but where do they go next? How do they achieve data autonomy and make omnichannel strides in digital marketing? If the boycott movement is to succeed, revolutionary changes to the digital marketplace are needed.

A newly imagined system must be organized outside the proprietary grasp of any one single tech conglomerate. Otherwise, advertisers will lack ownership of the data they need to reach new audiences. Or they’ll once again get mixed up with similar paid political disinformation and hate speech across user-generated platforms, sending them straight back into the arms of Facebook.

Rather than rely on a single centralized social media platform, transparent media partners and publishers must come together on a shared central system that takes an omnichannel approach to building lookalike (LAL) audiences. A LAL puts advertisers in front of new audiences by finding users that, while they may be unfamiliar with their brand, are very similar to the buyer personas of their current customers. The LAL for each advertiser would be constantly tested and refined to keep pace with the rapidly changing marketplace.

Facebook currently operates on a LAL model but it is almost exclusively generated by online data from their users. The next step is expanding on this model and infusing offline and third-party data with a company’s first-party data, putting them in front of a LAL across a range of media partners and platforms. This will help build a core conversion audience, while constantly scaling new LALs for each brand.

Such a system would require collaboration, enlisting many players in a co-op style undertaking. For example, to get it off the ground, it would be helpful if about 20 of the large brands boycotting Facebook invest some of their newly freed advertising dollars to establish the data and publisher sharing co-op network.

Once the advertiser framework is set, the co-op would need to identify media outlet partners such as news websites, blogs, apps, podcasts and social media outlets. The co-op would negotiate a performance-based publisher relationship for every player, effectively increasing content monetization for publishers’ content channels.

Reinventing the digital media landscape

This would be a transformational movement, galvanizing brands with data autonomy and increasing customer engagement across an entire network of media platforms — not just one platform. Each advertiser’s first-party data, which they’ve already given to Facebook, would be analyzed to isolate data overlaps within the co-op. This would essentially lay the foundation for building a core conversation audience, helping each advertiser tap new LALs.

Brands advertising with the co-op would gain access to more enriched, robust insights on consumers than Facebook could ever offer, leading to a higher return on investment for the $336 billion spend on digital advertising annually.

Most importantly, it would help brands future-proof their digital marketing efforts and grant them greater freedom in choosing where their advertising dollars are being spent.

That is how the war is won.

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Vicariously mimics another person’s Twitter feed using lists, but it violates Twitter rules

That Vicariously app you might have seen pop up in your Twitter feed via a little viral growth hacking has run aground on Twitter’s automation rules. We reached out about it after it started spamming my feed with “so and so has added you to a list” notifications, and Twitter says that the app is not in compliance.

Updates below.

To be fair, they did also say they “love” it — but that it will have to find a different way to do what it does.

“We love that Vicariously uses Lists to help people find new accounts to follow and get new perspectives. However, the way the app is currently doing this is in violation of Twitter’s automation rules,” Twitter said in a statement. “We’ve reached out to them to find a way to bring the app into compliance with our rules.”

The app was made by Jake Harding, an entrepreneur who built it as a side project.

Image Credits: Vicariously

The app, which you can find here, enumerates the followers of a target account and builds a list out of the accounts that it follows. This enables you to create lists that are snapshots of the exact (minus algorithmic tweak) feed that any given user sees when they open their app. Intriguing, right?

Well, it turns out Twitter has done this themselves twice before. Once in 2011 and originally waaaay back in 2009. The product had a built-in feature that allowed you to just click through and view someone’s follower graph as a feed with a tap.

I was there in 2009 when it was a thing, and I can tell you that it was just flat-out cool to see someone else’s graph going by. In the early growing days it was very interesting to see who was following who or what. It sort of taught you how to “do” Twitter when everyone was learning it together. I can see why Harding wanted a duplicate of this in order to re-create this feeling of “snapshotting” someone else’s info apparatus.

Unfortunately, one of the big side effects of the way that Vicariously duplicates this feature using an automated “list builder” is that it spams every person it adds to the list, given that Twitter always notifies you when someone adds you to a list and there is no current way to alter that behavior.

So you see a lot of “added to their list” tweets and notis.

There are also other issues with the way that Vicariously works to build public lists of people’s follower graphs. There is potential for abuse here in that it could be used to target the people that a targeted account follows. One of the major reasons Twitter killed this feature twice is that the whole thing feels hyper personal. Your Twitter follower graph is something that you, theoretically, curate. Though a lot of people have become more performative with follows and instead, ironically, add the people they want to “follow” to lists.

Having your graph public is something that felt exciting and connective at one point in Twitter’s life. But the world may be too big and too nasty now for something like this to feel really comfortable if it ever spreads beyond the technorati/Twitter power user crowd. We’ll see, I guess.

Oh, and Twitter, it is about time you built in a “can not be added to lists” feature. Otherwise, as someone reminded me via DM, you run the risk of making all of the same mistakes as Facebook.

Update July 27th 7:50 PM PT. Harding posted some tweets from the official Vicariously account noting that he is adding some privacy controls to the app. He also notes that he’s hoping to work with the Twitter developer relations team to build out the product in a way that prevents abuse.

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Startups Weekly: Qualtrics IPO to be even more exciting this time around

Editor’s note: Get this free weekly recap of TechCrunch news that any startup can use by email every Saturday morning (7am PT). Subscribe here.

German software giant SAP bought experience management platform Qualtrics for $8 billion days before the unicorn’s IPO, back in November of 2018. But last weekend it decided to spin out the experience management provider to finally go public on its own. The analysts Ron Miller talked to speculated about strategic issues on the SAP side, and concluded this was more of an internal reset combined with the financial gain from a promising offering.

Qualtrics, meanwhile, already put the Utah startup scene on the map for people around the world. Having grown strongly post-acquisition, it is now set up to be the largest IPO in state history. Here’s Alex Wilhelm with more analysis in Extra Crunch:

According to metrics from the Bessemer Cloud Index, cloud companies with growth rates of 35.5% and gross margins of 71.3% are worth around 17.3x in enterprise value compared to their annualized revenue.

Given how close Qualtrics is to that averaged set of metrics (slightly slower growth, slightly better gross margins), the 17.3x number is probably not far from what the company can achieve when it does go public. Doing the sums, $800 million times 17.3 is $13.8 billion, far more than what SAP paid for Qualtrics. (For you wonks out there, it’s doubtful that Qualtrics has much debt, though it will have lots of cash post-IPO; expect the company’s enterprise value to be a little under its future market cap.)

So, the markets are valuing cloud companies so highly today that even after SAP had to pay a huge premium to buy Qualtrics ahead of its public offering, the company is still sharply more valuable today after just two years of growth.

Back to the era of nation-states

The tech industry is getting broken down and reformed by national governments in ways that many of its leaders do not seem to have planned for as part of scaling to the world, whether you consider TikTok’s ever-shrinking global footprint or leading tech CEOs getting called out by Congress. When you skim through the numerous headlines on these topics this week, you’ll see a very clear message in the subtext: Every startup has to think more carefully about its place in the world these days, as a matter of survival.

Big tech crushes Q2 earnings expectations

Lawmakers argue that big tech stands to benefit from the pandemic and must be regulated

Secret documents from US antitrust probe reveal big tech’s plot to control or crush the competition

Apple’s App Store commission structure called into question in antitrust hearing

Zuckerberg unconvincingly feigns ignorance of data-sucking VPN scandal

In antitrust hearing, Zuckerberg admits Facebook has copied its competition

Before buying Instagram, Zuckerberg warned employees of ‘battle’ to ‘dislodge’ competitor

Apple CEO Tim Cook questioned over App Store’s removal of rival screen time apps in antitrust hearing

Google’s Sundar Pichai grilled over ‘destroying anonymity on the internet’

Bezos ‘can’t guarantee’ no anti-competitive activity as Congress catches him flat-footed

Amazon’s hardware business doesn’t escape Congressional scrutiny

Time for TikTok:

India bans 47 apps cloning restricted Chinese services

After India and US, Japan looks to ban TikTok and other Chinese apps

Report: Microsoft in talks to buy TikTok’s US business from China’s ByteDance

The leading arguments for a Microsoft-TikTok tie-up 😉

And last but not least ominously, for large platforms…

Australia now has a template for forcing Facebook and Google to pay for news

The team at remote-first enterprise startup Seeq put together this montage of some of its remote offices.

Remote work still getting big investment

This loosely defined subsector of SaaS went from being a somewhat mainstream idea within the startup world last year to being fully mainstream with the wider world due to the pandemic this year. But publicly traded companies have been some of the biggest beneficiaries (see previous item), and the action around earlier-stage startups has been less clear. Lucas Matney and Alex caught up with six investors who have been focused on various parts of the space to get the latest for Extra Crunch. Here’s a pithy description of fundraising trends that companies are experiencing, from Elliott Robinson, a growth-stage investor at Bessemer:

How competitive are remote-work tooling venture rounds now?

Incredibly competitive. I think one dynamic I’ve seen play out is that the basket of remote-work companies that are really high-performing right now are setting lofty price expectations well ahead of the raise. Many of these companies didn’t plan on raising in Q2/Q3, but with COVID tailwinds, they are choosing to raise at some often sight-unseen-level valuation multiples.

Are prices out of control?

I think it depends on your definition of out of control. The reality is that many of these companies are raising money off cycle from their natural fundraising date for two reasons: One, they are seeing once in a lifetime digital transformation and adoption of remote-work tooling solutions. And, two, so many investors have raised sizable funds during the last nine months that they are leaning into investing in these companies — one of the few segments that will likely continue to see tailwinds as COVID cases continue to rise again in the U.S. Other traditional software value props may face significant headwinds in a uncertain COVID world. Thus, growth equity investors are paying high multiples to get a shot at the category-defining RW app companies.

Haptics in a pandemic-stricken world

Haptics are a great sort of gee-whiz technology, but the practical future of touch-based communication is all over the place — VR devices are suddenly more interesting, touchpads less so. Devon Powers and David Parisi are academics and authors who focus on the space, and they wrote a big guest post for TechCrunch this week that sketched out some of the ups and downs of the decades-old concept. Here’s a key excerpt:

Getting haptics right remains challenging despite more than 30 years’ worth of dedicated research in the field. There is no evidence that COVID is accelerating the development of projects already in the pipeline. The fantasy of virtual touch remains seductive, but striking the golden mean between fidelity, ergonomics and cost will continue to be a challenge that can only be met through a protracted process of marketplace trial-and-error. And while haptics retains immense potential, it isn’t a magic bullet for mending the psychological effects of physical distancing.

Curiously, one promising exception is in the replacement of touchscreens using a combination of hand-tracking and midair haptic holograms, which function as button replacements. This product from Bristol-based company Ultraleap uses an array of speakers to project tangible soundwaves into the air, which provide resistance when pressed on, effectively replicating the feeling of clicking a button.

Ultraleap recently announced that it would partner with the cinema advertising company CEN to equip lobby advertising displays found in movie theaters around the U.S. with touchless haptics aimed at allowing interaction with the screen without the risks of touching one. These displays, according to Ultraleap, “will limit the spread of germs and provide safe and natural interaction with content.”

A recent study carried out by the company found that more than 80% of respondents expressed concerns over touchscreen hygiene, prompting Ultraleap to speculate that we are reaching “the end of the [public] touchscreen era.” Rather than initiate a technological change, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to push ahead on the deployment of existing technology. Touchscreens are no longer sites of naturalistic, creative interaction, but are now spaces of contagion to be avoided. Ultraleap’s version of the future would have us touching air instead of contaminated glass.

Finding the best investors for you: The TC List and Europe surveys

Speaking of investors, TechCrunch has been busy with a few other projects to you find the right ones faster.

First, Danny Crichton has pushed a third update to The TechCrunch List, due to the ongoing flood of recommendations. In his words: “Now using more than 2,600 founder recommendations — more than double our original dataset — we have underscored a number of the existing investors on our list as well as added 116 new investors who have been endorsed by founders as investors willing to cut against the grain and write those critical first checks and lead venture rounds.”

Check it out and filter by location, category and stage to narrow down your pitch list. If you are a founder and haven’t submitted your recommendation yet, please fill out our very brief survey. If you have questions, we put together a Frequently Asked Questions page that describes the qualifications and logistics, some of the logic behind the List and how to get in touch with us.

Second, our editor-at-large Mike Butcher is embarking on a virtual investor survey of European countries, to help Extra Crunch provide a clearer view about what’s happening in the Continent’s startup hubs in the middle of the world going crazy:

TechCrunch is embarking on a major new project to survey the venture capital investors of Europe. Over the next few weeks, we will be “zeroing-in” on Europe’s major cities, from A-Z, Amsterdam to Zurich — and many points in-between. It’s part of a broader series of surveys we’re doing to help founders find the right investors. For example, here is the recent survey of London.

Our survey will capture how each European startup hub is faring, and what changes are being wrought amongst investors by the coronavirus pandemic. We’d like to know how your city’s startup scene is evolving, how the tech sector is being impacted by COVID-19 and, generally, how your thinking will evolve from here. Our survey will only be about investors, and only the contributions of VC investors will be included. The shortlist of questions will require only brief responses, but the more you want to add, the better.

The deadline for entries is the end of next week, August 7th and you can fill it out here.

He also wanted me to let you know that he’ll resume his in-person trips as soon as allowed. (I actually made that up, but he has said as much.)

Around TechCrunch

Submit your pitch deck to Disrupt 2020’s Pitch Deck Teardown

Announcing the Disrupt 2020 agenda

Talking virtual events and Disrupt with Hopin founder Johnny Boufarhat

The TechCrunch Exchange: What’s an IPO to a SPAC?— In case you haven’t checked out Alex’s new weekly email newsletter yet.

Across the week

TechCrunch

Connected audio was a bad choice

Stanford students are short-circuiting VC firms by investing in their peers

Bitcoin bulls are running, as prices spike above $11K

Recruiting for diversity in VC

Build products that improve the lives of inmates

Extra Crunch

Six things venture capitalists are looking for in your pitch

VCs and startups consider HaaS model for consumer devices

Teespring’s comeback story

Cannabis VC Karan Wadhera on why the industry, which took a hit last year, is now quietly blazing

Jesus, SaaS and digital tithing

#EquityPod

From Alex:

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast (now on Twitter!), where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

We had the full team this week: MyselfDanny and Natasha on the mics, with Chris running skipper as always.

Sadly this week we had to kick off with a correction as I am 1) dumb, and, 2) see point one. But after we got past SPAC nuances (shout-out to David Ethridge), we had a full show of good stuff, including:

And that’s Equity for this week. We are back Monday morning early, so make sure you are keeping tabs on our socials. Hugs, talk soon!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Facetune maker Lightricks brings its popular selfie retouching features to video

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Lightricks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Lightricks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gillmor Gang: 3 Weeks Ago

The Gillmor Gang — Frank Radice, Michael Markman, Keith Teare, Denis Pombriant, Brent Leary, and Steve Gillmor . Recorded live Saturday, July 11, 2020. For more, subscribe free to the Gillmor Gang Newsletter.

Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor

@fradice, @mickeleh, @denispombriant, @kteare, @brentleary, @stevegillmor, @gillmorgang
The Gillmor Gang on Facebook

The latest G3:

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Microsoft’s new Family Safety app offers parental controls across phones, PCs and Xbox

Microsoft’s new screen time and parental controls app, Microsoft Family Safety, is today launching publicly on iOS and Android, following a preview of the experience which had arrived earlier this spring. The app is designed to help parents better understand children’s use of screen time, set limits and create screen time schedules, configure boundaries around web access and track family members’ location, among other things.

The app competes with other parental control technologies, including those built into iOS and Android — the latter of which is also available as a standalone app, called Family Link. Like its competitors, Microsoft Family Safety will work best for those who have already bought into the company’s own ecosystem of products and services. In Microsoft’s case, that includes Windows 10 PCs and Xbox devices, for example.

Also like many screen time apps, Family Safety displays an activity log of how screen time is being used by kids. It can track the hours spent on devices, including Windows computers, phones and Xbox, as well as across websites and apps. It can also show the terms kids are searching for online.

Image Credits: Microsoft

A weekly report is emailed to parents and kids, with the hopes of encouraging discussions around healthy use of screen time. This was already a complicated subject before the pandemic. But now, with kids attending school at home and filling summer downtime with hours in games while parents still try to work without childcare, it has grown to be even more complicated.

Initially, parents may have just given up on screen time altogether, grateful for anything that gave them moments of peace. But with staying at home becoming a new normal, many families are now reconsidering what amount of screen time is healthy and how much is too much.

With the new app, parents can set screen time limits that apply across devices — including Xbox. These limits can be narrowly configured to allow for access to educational apps that facilitate online learning, while limiting other types of screen time — like gaming, for instance. When kids run out of time, they can ask for more and parents can choose whether or not to grant it.

Meanwhile, the web filtering aspects of the new app take advantage of Microsoft’s newer browser, Microsoft Edge, across Windows, Xbox and Android. The app will allow parents to set search filters and block mature content. Other content controls will notify parents if the child tries to download a mature game or app from the Microsoft Store, as well.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Parents also can control purchases by granting approval to kids’ requests, so there won’t be surprise bills later.

Plus, the app’s built-in location sharing means families can skip downloading additional family locator apps, like Life360, for access to basic location-tracking features — like those that show family members on a map, and lets you save favorite locations, like “Home.”

Image Credits: Microsoft

Since its preview period, Microsoft has expanded the app’s capabilities to include a handful of new features, including one that lets you block and unblock specific apps, a location clustering feature and an expanded set of options for granting more screen time (e.g. 15 or 30 minutes, 1, 2 or 3 hours, etc.). Accessibility options were also updated and improved, including improved visual contrast for low-vision users and additional context for screen readers.

You’ll note, however, that some of Family Safety’s experiences don’t fully extend to iOS and Android, like purchase controls and web filtering. On iOS, the app can’t even track screen time usage, as Apple makes no API available for this, even after launching its own screen time service and shutting down competing apps.

That’s due to how other platforms have their own operating systems and ecosystems locked down to encourage customers to only buy and use their devices. Unfortunately, that means families that have devices from a variety of vendors — like iPhone users who also game on Xbox, or Android users whose computer is a Mac, for instance — don’t have simple tools that let them manage everything from one place.

Microsoft says it will soon roll out two new features to Family Safety following its launch. These include location alerts and driver safety (e.g. aimed at teen drivers), and will be a part of a paid Microsoft 365 Family Subscription.

The new Family Safety app is rolling out now for iOS and Android as a free download. You may not be able to immediately access the app due to its phased rollout, but should sometime this week.