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Facebook is shutting down Lasso, its TikTok clone

Facebook is no longer betting on Lasso, an app it launched a year and a half ago, to take on TikTok . The social juggernaut’s TikTok clone is shutting down on July 10, Lasso alerted users on Wednesday.

Launched in late 2018, Lasso was seen as Facebook’s answer to TikTok that’s gained ground with young users, both in China and in the West. Lasso allowed users shoot up to 15-second long videos and overlay popular songs. The app centered around an algorithmic feed of recommended videos, but also allowed users to tap through hashtags or a Browse page of themed collections.

As of February, Lasso was available in Colombia, Mexico, the U.S., Argentina, Chile, Peru, Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ecuador, and Uruguay, research firm Sensor Tower told TechCrunch. Earlier this year, Facebook added support for Hindi language in Lasso, suggesting that it may have had plans to bring Lasso to India, its biggest market by users account.

Lasso’s demise comes ahead of the launch of Instagram Reels — the new horse Facebook is counting on to steal TikTok’s lunch, said Josh Constine, who first spotted Lasso’s announcement.

It’s unclear why Facebook never expanded Lasso to more markets. But what is clear is that Lasso’s journey was troubled from the beginning. Brady Voss, who led the development of this app, left Facebook days after the launch of Lasso.

We have reached out to Facebook for comment.

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Facebook shuts down Hobbi, its experimental app for documenting personal projects

Facebook’s recently launched app, Hobbi, an experiment in short-form content creation around personal projects, hobbies, and other Pinterest-y content, is already shutting down. The app first arrived on iOS in February as one of now several launches from Facebook’s internal R&D group, the NPE Team.

Hobbi users have now been notified by way of push notification that the app is shutting down on July 10, 2020. The app allows users to export their data from its settings.

In the few months it’s been live on the U.S. App Store, Hobbi only gained 7,000 downloads, according to estimates from Sensor Tower. Apptopia also reported the app had under 10K downloads and saw minimal gains during May and June.

Though Hobbi clearly took cues from Pinterest, it was not designed to be a pinboard of inspirational ideas. Instead, Hobbi users would organize photos of their projects — like gardening, cooking, arts & crafts, décor, and more — in a visual diary of sorts. The goal was to photograph the project’s progress over time, adding text to describe the steps, as needed.

The end result would be a highlight reel of all those steps that could be published externally when the project was completed.

But Hobbi was a fairly bare bones app. There was nothing else to do but document your own projects. You couldn’t browse and watch projects other users had created, beyond a few samples, nor could you follow top users across the service. And even the tools for documentation were underdeveloped. Beyond a special “Notes” field for writing down a project’s steps, the app experience felt like a watered-down version of Stories.

Image Credits: Hobbi

Facebook wasn’t alone in pursuing the potential of short-form creative content. Google’s internal R&D group, Area 120, also published its own experiment in this area with the video app Tangi. And Pinterest was recently spotted testing a new version of Story Pins, that would allow users to showcase DIY and creative content in a similar way.

It’s not surprising to see Hobbi wind down so quickly, given its lack of traction. Facebook already said its NPE Team experiments would involve apps that changed very rapidly and would shut down if consumers didn’t find them useful.

In addition to Hobbi, the NPE Team has launched a number of apps since last summer, including meme creator Whale, conversational app Bump, music app Aux, couples app Tuned, Apple Watch app Kit, audio calling app CatchUp, collaborative music app Collab, live event companion Venue, and predictions app Forecast. Before Hobbi, the only one to have shut down was Bump. (Some are not live in the U.S., either.)

Of course, Facebook may not intend to use these experiments to create a set of entirely new social apps built from the ground-up. Instead, it’s likely looking to collect data about what features resonate with users and how different creation tools are used. This is data that can inform Facebook’s development of features for its main set of apps, like Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram.

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment but one had not been provided at the time of publication.

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India bans TikTok, dozens of other Chinese apps

The Indian government on Monday evening said it was banning 59 apps developed by Chinese firms over concerns that these apps were “engaged in activities which is prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, and security of state and public order” in what is the latest standoff between the two most populated nations in the world.

ByteDance’s TikTok, which counts India as its biggest market, Community and Video Call apps from Xiaomi, which is the top smartphone vendor in India, UC Browser, UC News, Shareit, CM Browser, Club Factory (India’s third-largest e-commerce firm), ES File Explorer are among the 59 apps that India’s Ministry of Electronics and IT have ordered to ban.

“The Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN) has also received many representations from citizens regarding security of data and breach of privacy impacting upon public order issues,” the Indian government agency said.

The apps India is banning

All of the aforementioned apps are currently live on Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store in India.  We have reached out to Google, Apple, ByteDance and several others for comment.

New Delhi said it had received “many complaints from various sources including several reports about misuse of some mobile apps available on Android and iOS platforms for stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside India.”

Monday evening’s announcement is the latest standoff between the two neighboring nations following a deadly border earlier this month that stoked historical tensions between them.

Jayanth Kolla, an analyst at research firm Convergence Catalyst, told TechCrunch the move was surprising and will have huge impact on Chinese firms, many of which count India as their biggest market. He said banning these apps would also hurt livelihood of several people who count on the aforementioned apps for their businesses.

More to follow…

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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.

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This Week in Apps: WWDC20 highlights, App Store antitrust issues, tech giants clone TikTok

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, we’re looking at the highlights from Apple’s first-ever virtual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) and what its announcements mean for app developers. Plus, there’s news of the U.S. antitrust investigation into Apple’s business, a revamp of the App Store review process, and more. In other app news, both Instagram and YouTube are responding to the TikTok threat, while Snapchat is adding new free tools to its SDK to woo app developers. Amazon also this week entered the no-code app development space with Honeycode.

WWDC20 Wrap-Up

Image Credits: Apple

Apple held its WWDC developer event online for the first time due to the pandemic. The format, in some ways, worked better — the keynote presentations ran smoother, packed in more content, and you could take in the information without the distractions of applause and cheers. (If you were missing the music, there was a playlist.)

Of course, the virtual event lacked the real-world networking and learning opportunities of the in-person conference. Better online forums and virtual labs didn’t solve that problem. In fact, given there aren’t time constraints on a virtual event, some might argue it would make sense to do hands-on labs in week two instead of alongside all the sessions and keynotes. This could give developers more time to process the info and write some code.

Among the bigger takeaways from WWDC20 — besides the obvious changes to the Mac and the introduction of “Apple silicon” — there was the introduction of the refreshed UI in iOS 14 that adds widgets, an App Library and more Siri smarts; plus the debut of Apple’s own mini-apps, in the form of App Clips; and the ability to run iOS apps on Apple Silicon Macs — in fact, iOS apps will run there by default unless developers uncheck a box.

Let’s dig in.

  • The iPad’s influence over Mac. There are plenty of iOS apps that would work on Mac, but making the choice an opt-out instead of an opt-in experience could lead to poor experiences for end users. Developers should think carefully about whether they want to make the leap to the Mac ecosystem and design accordingly. There’s also a broader sense that the iPad and the Mac are starting to look very similar. The iPad already gained support for a proper trackpad and mouse, while the Mac with Big Sur sees the influence of design elements like its new iPad-esque notifications, Control Center, window nav bars and rounded rectangular icons. Are the two OS’s going to merge? Apple’s answer, thankfully, is still “NO.”

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Indian edtech giant Byju’s in talks to acquire Doubtnut for more than $125M

Byju’s is in advanced stages of talks to acquire Doubtnut, a two-year-old education learning app, as the Indian edtech giant looks to expand its reach in smaller cities and towns in the world’s second largest internet market.

Three sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that the acquisition offer from nine-year-old Byju’s values the younger startup between $125 million to $150 million. The talks haven’t finalized yet and its terms could change or the deal could fall apart, the sources said.

A separate source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that Facebook-backed Unacademy also held preliminary talks with Doubtnut but they are no longer engaging while some investors have suggested the startup to remain independent.

Byju’s and Unacademy declined to comment. One of Doubtnut’s founders did not respond to a text message sent to them Friday afternoon. Sequoia Capital India, one of the investors in Doubutnut, also declined to comment.

The sudden interest in Doubtnut comes as the two-year-old New Delhi-based startup’s app has attracted millions of new users in recent months, most of whom live in smaller cities and towns across India.

Byju’s, which has over 55 million registered users, has a better hold on urban Indian cities. The startup sees Doubtnut as a way to expand its reach in tier 2 and tier 3 Indian markets and tackle the online learning opportunities in a more comprehensive way.

Doubtnut, which has raised $18.5 million to date including $15 million in its Series A financing round earlier this year, allows students from sixth grade to high-school solve and understand math and science problems in local languages. Doubtnut app enables students to take a picture of the problem, and uses machine learning and image recognition to deliver the answers through short-videos.

A student can take a picture of the problem, and share it with Doubtnut through its app, website, or WhatsApp and get a short video that shows the answer and walks them through the procedure to tackle it.

In late January, Doubtnut said it had amassed over 13 million monthly active users across its website, app, YouTube, and WhatsApp channels. More than 85% of its users at the time came from outside of the top 10 cities in India, the startup said in a statement then.

Byju’s currently leads the online edtech market in India. The startup announced on Friday that it had raised additional capital from Mary Meeker’s Bond. The new deal valued Byju’s at $10.5 billion, TechCrunch reported earlier today.

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Google finally brings group calling to the Nest Hub Max

Video chat has long been one of the chief selling points of smart screens like the Amazon Echo Show and Google’s Nest Hub Max (the regular Hub is still lacking a camera, mind). But until today, the latter only offered users the option for one-on-one calls. That’s all well and good for the most part, but as so many of us have found ourselves cut off from our friends and families, group chat has become something of a lifeline.

That’s meant big business for conferencing apps like Zoom. Once almost exclusively the domain of business meetings, these sorts of services have become increasingly popular for casual chats. Google has, no doubt, spotted potential, and today announced that it’s finally bringing group chats to the Hub Max through Duo.

[embedded content]

The new feature allows for chats of up to 32 and utilizes the smart screen’s auto-framing capabilities (similar to those found in Facebook’s competing displays) to keep the subject in the picture. It also will be arriving on a number of third-party Google-ready smart screens, including those by LG, JBL and Lenovo. The feature requires the user to create a group on Duo through a connected mobile app. Once that’s done, it can be triggered via voice.

There’s a more professionally focused element to this as well. These companies have long explored the potential of smart screens in the workplace, but now that home is the office for so many, it makes sense to offer business meetings on these products. Those enrolled in the G Suite with Google Assistant beta program will be able to join business meetings through Google Meet.

That feature is rolling out in coming weeks.

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Apple Maps to tell you to refine location by scanning the skyline

With iOS 14, Apple is going to update Apple Maps with some important new features, such as cycling directions, electric vehicle routing and curated guides. But the app is also going to learn one neat trick.

In dense areas where you can’t get a precise location, Apple Maps will prompt you to raise your phone and scan buildings across the street to refine your location.

As you may have guessed, this feature is based on Look Around, a Google Street View-inspired feature that lets you … look around as if you were walking down the street. It’s a bit more refined than Street View as everything is in 3D so you can notice the foreground and the background.

Look Around is only available in a handful of U.S. cities for now, such as San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, and Las Vegas. But the company is still expanding it with Seattle coming on Monday and major Japanese cities this fall. Some areas that are only accessible on foot will also be available in the future.

When you scan the skyline to refine your location, Apple doesn’t send any data to its servers. Matching is done on your device.

When it comes to guides, Apple has partnered with AllTrails, Lonely Planet, The Infatuation, Washington Post, Louis Vuitton and others to add curated lists of places to Apple Maps. When you tap on the search bar and scroll down on the search card, you can see guides of nearby places.

When you open a guide, you can see all the places on the map or you can browse the guide itself to see those places in a list view. You can share places and save them in a user-made guide — Apple calls it a collection in the current version of Apple Maps.

You can also save a curated guide altogether if you want to check it out regularly. Places get automatically updated.

Image Credits: Apple

As for EV routing, Apple Maps will let add your car, name it and choose a charger type — Apple has partnered with BMW and Ford for now. When you’re planning a route, you can now select the car you’re going to be using. If you select your electric car, Apple Maps will add charging spots on the way. You can tap on spots to see if they are free or paid and the connector type.

Waze users will also be happy to learn that Apple Maps will be able to warn you if you’re exceeding the speed limit. You can also view speed and red light cameras on the map.

In some cities with congestion zones and license plate access, you’ll be able to add your license plate. The information is kept on the device. It’ll refine directions for those cities.

Image Credits: Apple

Finally, my favorite new feature is cycling directions. It’s only going to be available in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Shanghai and Beijing at first. Apple ticks all the right boxes, such as taking into consideration cycling paths and elevation. Turn-by-turn directions look slightly different from driving directions with a different framing and a more vertical view.

Google Maps also features cycling directions, but they suck. I can’t wait to try it out to see whether cycling directions actually make sense in Apple Maps. The new version of Apple Maps will ship with iOS 14 this fall.

Image Credits: Apple

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Slice raises $6M to help young Indians pay digitally and build credit score

The streets of Koramangala, one of the largest neighborhoods in Bangalore, are plastered with hoardings and banners of digital payment services. Every few steps, you find a bank, and offices of fintech startups.

But when Mohammed Nayeem wanted to get a credit card, he realized his options were limited. He applied for a credit card at RBL Bank, a Mumbai-headquartered bank that has been around for more than 70 years. In the days that followed, he answered many of their questions over phone calls and provided them with a number of documents.

The calls kept coming, but the card never did.

Nayeem works as a freelance interior designer and earns an average of $580 each month, he told TechCrunch in an interview last year. Though this is more than enough for most banks in the nation to issue him a credit card, the fact that he does not have a traditional kind of job was off-putting to all of them.

Tens of millions of people like Nayeem in India today can’t get a credit card. They have lived much of their lives on debit cards and with little to no credit score. There are close to 1 billion debit cards in use in India today, but only about 50 million credit cards in circulation. Even as scores of startups today are trying to bridge this gap, very few are serving the young demographic.

Eventually, Nayeem came across a startup called Slice, which provided him with a Slice Card that for all intents and purposes, serves as a credit card. For more than a year now, he has been using Slice’s offering and his experience has been “wonderful,” he told TechCrunch.

Slice offers a prepaid card that comes with a pre-approved credit line, Rajan Bajaj, co-founder and CEO of the four-year-old startup, told TechCrunch in an interview. The Koramangala-headquartered startup focuses on people like Nayeem — young demography comprising mostly of students, freelancers, startup employees and blue-collar workers.

Bajaj said more than 250,000 customers use Slice’s card today. In the course of a month, an average user performs about 10 transactions to digital services such as Swiggy and music apps and spends about Rs 10,000 ($132). As users spend more, Slice increases their monthly limit to up to Rs 100,000 ($1,320).

Employees at Slice, a Bangalore-based fintech startup

But giving these users a card is only part of the value proposition. The biggest attraction perhaps for users is that they are able to build credit scores, which would eventually make them eligible for better credit cards from other firms and banks, and enable them to secure loans for various purposes. In about six months with Slice, most users have a credit score of more than 700, said Bajaj.

The startup also offers users the ability to secure small sachet of loan products and pay them at zero-cost interest and track their expenses.

On Thursday, Slice announced it had raised $6 million in a pre-Series B financing round. The round was led by Japan-based Gunosy, while the U.S.-headquartered EMVC, Kunal Shah of CRED, Better Capital, and existing investor Singapore-headquartered Das Capital participated in it. It also counts Blume Ventures, Traxcn Labs, and China’s Finup among its investors.

Bajaj said Slice plans to deploy the fresh capital to expand its reach. It plans to reach 500,000 young customers in the next one year.

Raising capital at the height of a global pandemic is a testament to Slice’s technology to determine the creditworthiness of customers and its underwriting methodology, he said. But Bajaj cautioned that he expects to see slightly more number of defaults in the coming months due to local conditions and new rules.

But for Slice, formerly known as SlicePay, that figure would still remain below 5%, and the startup, which has been profitable since last year, is well positioned to navigate it.

“We believe slice has a sustainable advantage as it has decoded young credit users’ demands and has built a deep understanding of credit risk and low-cost distribution using technology,” said Yuki Maniwa, Director of Gunosy, in a statement.

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Apple will soon let developers challenge App Store rules

Apple has announced an upcoming change to App Store rules that could mark a major shift in how the marketplace operates. Developers will soon be able to challenge not just the rejection of an app, but the rule that prompted that rejection. Bug fixes will also no longer be held up by rule violations.

In a blog post about changes for apps and developers, Apple noted these major additions with remarkably little fanfare:

First, developers will not only be able to appeal decisions about whether an app violates a given guideline of the App Store Review Guidelines, but will also have a mechanism to challenge the guideline itself. Second, for apps that are already on the App Store, bug fixes will no longer be delayed over guideline violations except for those related to legal issues.

App Store rules have been in the headlines this week due to a fracas over monetization that saw the new email service Hey rejected from the platform over a reluctance to share its subscription revenue with Apple.

While the issue is hardly new and it seems unlikely that a high-profile play like Hey (from Basecamp co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson) was unaware that this would happen, this isn’t the first criticism of Apple’s one-size-fits-all business model for apps.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Apple’s Phil Schiller said the company was not considering any changes to the rules that would allow Hey — and other apps with similar models — to operate on the App Store without surrendering a significant cut of its income.

But while Apple may not be considering changing the rules immediately, it seems from today’s announcement that the rules may change eventually. Exactly how feedback from developers would be solicited, processed, and weighed is not addressed, but we can probably expect to hear more during this week’s many developer sessions (and during which suggestions will no doubt begin to be submitted).

The second change takes a bit of the pressure off app developers that may find themselves, as Hey did, blocked from providing security updates because of business concerns. Separating the two seems only right, since Apple doesn’t want its users at risk because negotiations haven’t concluded. It shrinks the size of the stick that Apple wields against recalcitrant developers, but ultimately results in less risk for everyone involved.

The changes to App Store rules will be arriving this summer, and more details will surely be forthcoming before then.

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