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Week in Review: Venture-backed loneliness

Hello everyone and welcome back to Week in Review! Natasha here, subbing in for Lucas while he’s out. This week, we’ll talk about loneliness raising money and how Zoom fatigue is fueling innovation.

For everyone celebrating, happy holidays! Keep on the lookout next week for more festive content, including the launch of our annual TechCrunch Gift Guides.

If you’re reading this on TechCrunch, you can sign up to get this in your inbox.

The big story

Over the last month, I spent time working out of virtual HQs. Dozens of founders are using spatial technology and gamification to create online worlds. Consumers are invited to congregate and create some of the spontaneity of in-person events, such as the work day or weddings. Founders are testing if the metaverse can be brought into the mainstream. After tossing a few succulents around myself, I was impressed (especially as a non-gamer) over how intuitive the platform felt. It feels special to bump into someone in 2020.

You can read more of my story here, which includes a demo video and pictures to give you a feel for the space. For today, though, I want to talk about what I think the rise of virtual HQs is not-so-subtly telling us.

Founders are trying to disrupt loneliness in this chapter of the coronavirus pandemic. There’s a shift in what the technology at its core is trying to fix, and it’s a little dynamic called Zoom fatigue.

For example, in March, we saw startups race to try to bring remote work to the masses. Now, in November, we’re seeing startups race to fix the broken, fatigued world of remote work.

The issue here, I think, is that founders are trying to innovate a solution to a lack of spontaneity and togetherness in our lives. Spontaneity, by definition, cannot be forced. And the community will always feel different in person. These inherent clashes make us, or at least me, question what technology’s constraints are. That said, virtual event platform Hopin and its $2 billion valuation shuts me right up.

Still, as we see startups chase to fix the next big pain point that everyone can agree on, it will be important to track what’s a venture-backable problem, and what’s a more existential one.

The round up

A White House in transition 

It’s been a busy week for a shifting White House and big tech. President Trump fired U.S. cybersecurity official Chris Krebs for debunking false election claims. Meanwhile, two platforms that have fed fires of misinformation, Facebook and Twitter, had yet another testimony in front of Congress. Big tech will likely continue to face backlash when the Biden Administration takes lead, especially when it comes to antitrust regulation. However, it’s not all bad news for tech: President-elect Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan and tech-friendly transition team could help out startups. More here.

The race for a COVID-19 vaccine

This week, Pfizer and BioNTech sought emergency approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its COVID-19 vaccine, which is 95% effective. The news follows Moderna’s report that its vaccine is 94.5% effective. While proposed approval could get vaccines in the hands of high-risk populations, wide-spread vaccines likely won’t be available until 2021. Keep reading here.

Apple’s latest Intel

As my colleague Brian Heater puts it, “every refresh can’t be a revolution” in hardware product updates. That said, Apple’s latest trio of Macs has impressed. We have reviews on the Mac mini, Macbook Air, and MacBook Pro. Notably, the line is powered by Mac’s in-house microchips, pushing an effort that has been in the works since 2008. It’s a win for Apple, and loss for Intel, which had until now been powering Macs. Still, Intel seems to be taking its break-up with Apple alright, since announcing its own white-label laptop.

TC: Sessions Space is approaching fast

NASA and SpaceX successfully launched four astronauts — and a special guest — into space for their first operational Dragon Crew Mission. History has been made – which makes our upcoming event even more exciting and timely. This year, TechCrunch is hosting its first-ever dedicated space event on December 16 and 17. The TC: Sessions Space agenda is packed, and includes fireside chats with the head of the US Space Force, NASA executives and more. Get your tickets now.

Other stories

Thanks for reading,

Natasha

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Week in Review: Snapchat strikes back

Hello hello, and welcome back to Week in Review. Last week, I wrote about the possibility of a pending social media detente, this week I’m talking about a rising threat to Facebook’s biz.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox here, and follow my tweets here. And while I have you, my colleague Megan Rose Dickey officially launched her new TechCrunch newsletter, Human Capital! It covers labor and diversity and inclusion in tech, go subscribe!


Image: TechCrunch

First off, let me tell you how hard it was to resist writing about Quibi this week, but those takes came in very hot the second that news dropped, and I wrote a little bit about it here already. All I will say, is that while Quibi had its own unique mobile problems, unless Apple changes course or dumps a ton of money buying up content to fill its back library, I think TV+ is next on the chopping block.

This week, I’m digging into another once-maligned startup, though this one has activated quite the turnaround in the last two years. Snap, maker of Snapchat, delivered a killer earnings report this week and as a result, investors deemed to send the stock price soaring. Its market cap has nearly doubled since the start of September and it’s clear that Wall Street actually believes that Snap could meaningfully increase its footprint and challenge Facebook.

The company ended the week with a market cap just short of $65 billion, still a far cry from Facebook $811 billion, but looking quite a bit better than it was in early 2019 when it was worth about one-tenth of what it is today. All of a sudden, Snap has a new challenge, living up to high expectations.

The company shared that in Q3, it delivered $679 million in reported revenue, representing 52% year-over-year growth. The company currently has 249 million daily active users, up 4% over last quarter.

Facebook will report its Q3 earnings next week, but they’re still in a different ballpark for the time being, even if their market cap is just around 12 times Snap’s, their quarterly revenue from Q2 was about 28 times higher than what Snap just reported. Meanwhile, Facebook has 1.79 billion daily actives, just about 7 times Snapchat’s numbers.

Snap has spent an awful lot of time proving the worth of features they’ve been pushing for years, but the company’s next challenge might be diversifying their future. The company has been flirting with augmented reality for years, waiting patiently for the right moment to expand its scope, but Snap hasn’t had the luxury of diverting resources away from efforts that don’t send users back to its core product. Some of its biggest launches of 2020 have been embeddable mini apps for things like ordering movie tickets or bite-sized social games that bring even more social opportunities into chat.

Snap’s laser focus here has obviously been a big part of its recovery, but as expectations grow, so will demands that the company moves more boldly into extending its empire. I don’t think Snapchat needs to buy Trader Joe’s or its own ISP quite yet, but working towards finding its next platform will prevent the service from settling for Twitter-sized ambitions and give them a chance at finding a more expansive future.


Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

Trends of the Week

These next few weeks are guaranteed to be dominated by U.S. election news, so enjoy the diversity of news happenings out there while it lasts…

Quibi is dead
Few companies that have raised so much money have appeared quite dead-on-arrival as Jeffrey Katzenberg’s mobile video startup Quibi. This week, the company made the decision to shut down operations and call it quits. More here.

Pakistan unbans TikTok
It appears that the cascading threat of country-by-country TikTok bans has stopped for now. This week, TikTok was unblocked in Pakistan with the government warning the company that it needed to actively monitor content or it would face a permanent ban. Read more here.

Facebook Dating arrives in Europe
Facebook Dating hasn’t done much to unseat Tinder stateside, but the service didn’t even get the chance to test its luck in Europe due to some regulatory issues relating to its privacy practices. Now, it seems Facebook has landed in the tentative good graces of regulatory bodies and has gotten the go ahead to launch the service in a number of European countries. Read more here.

Until next week,

Lucas M.

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The modern mobile app needs a revamp

Hey everybody, welcome back to Week in Review. Last week, I wrote about Apple’s App Store controversy, which I’m kind of revisiting this week through the lens of how Apple’s WWDC announcements tease a change to what apps fundamentally look like in the future.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox here, and follow my tweets here.

The Big Story

Apple’s App Store has had a controversial month with developers demanding changes to how apps are monetized, but as Apple detailed the next versions of its operating systems at WWDC, it’s clear they believe third-party apps themselves have room to be fundamentally revamped.

This week at WWDC, Apple debuted App Clips, a snappy new segment of third party experiences that scales down the idea of an app around just a single feature or two. A user can quickly call up an App Clip via a URL, NFC tag or visual code and download when the right context arises. In a lot of ways it’s just another notification type pinned to more limitations for devs, but the thinking behind it follows Apple’s continued interests to shove third-party integrations deeper inside the operating system itself.

We’ve operated an an app paradigm for such a long time, but as Apple thinks about future platforms like AR glasses, it’s kind of clear that grid-based apps aren’t very efficient. The company has learned this pretty slowly with the Apple Watch, but sometimes it’s almost better for third-party experiences to feel like addendums to stock apps rather than operate as dedicated siloed platforms. Complications have been huge for the Apple Watch, but they also highlight how devices with limited screen real estate aren’t great platforms for developers to compete with the device maker.

There’s a lot of room for Apple to transform not only how apps are sold and discovered but how they fundamentally operate. It’s clear that Apple is interested in a more contextually rich third-party experience inside iOS. The creation of an internal app store buried within iMessage in iOS 10 was the most aggressive implementation of this, though follow-up on that initiative has been fairly light. This could be extended to other stock apps to augment offerings with third-party tweaks, but Apple would have to move past their reluctance to ship experiences that aren’t good enough their own.

The idea of grid-based applications on a home screen isn’t always efficient for users, and while the App Store has delivered huge revenues to the company, it’s clear that Apple is still thinking about how to streamline that experience. Widgets and App Clips focus users on an app’s actual utility, and I’m curious whether that’s actually a good thing for developers. I’d imagine the more time users spend using these bite-sized experiences, the less time they’ll actually click on those apps, dampening those developers’ opportunities to build sustainable platforms.

These miniature experiences Apple is pushing developers toward piggyback off a trend that’s long reigned supreme in China. WeChat’s mini-program network is unlike anything that exists in the US. WeChat has long dominated and intrigued Western companies, and while there have been efforts for years to rethink the format of third-party integrations on mobile, few have had success in replacing core functionality that exists in apps downloaded from app stores.

It’s unclear whether Apple has any sizable threats who could take this path. Facebook has scaled back their developer platform ambitions significantly in the aftermath of Cambridge Analytica and its developers have been burned enough that Facebook seem ill-positioned to make a play here anytime soon. An exception might be Messenger though its team will have to move past its failed chatbot efforts of several years ago. Earlier this month, Snap announced that it would be integrating lightweight apps into the chat section of Snapchat. The feature launched with just a handful of third party experiences and was integrated into the same section that Snapchat serves up its launcher for mini games.

App Clips, Widgets, Siri Suggestions and a host of more minute features paint a vision of more aggressive efforts to bring app experiences closer to the silicon, pulling them outside of the app grid and getting to the gist of their utility. As Apple identifies opportunities to put context at the forefront of how third-party integrations are accessed, how much can they drive developers to their vision of the future without also alienating them?

Trending

Amazon buys Zoox
Amazon is the latest tech giant to buy its way into the self-driving car industry. The company announced Friday that it would acquire the autonomous car startup Zoox. The company raised around $1 billion and the Financial Times reports that Amazon is getting its hands on the company for $1.2 billion. Read more here.

Microsoft kills Mixer
The race to take down Amazon’s Twitch got a lot more interesting this week when Microsoft shared it was bowing out of the game-streaming race and shutting down its Twitch competitor, Mixer. The service had started with a long road ahead of it which Microsoft aimed to shorten by acquiring exclusive streaming rights to some of the world’s top gaming personalities. Apparently, that wasn’t enough. Read more about it here.

Facebook kills Oculus Go
This week, I wrote about how Facebook was killing off the cheapest VR device it sells, the $149 Oculus Go headset. The device has already been sold out for weeks, but Facebook’s discontinuation of the two-year-old device comes as a surprise given previous company statements that insinuated it would receive updates down the line. Read more here.

Extra Crunch

Investors and entrepreneurs are shifting their chats to Zoom, so we’re taking note and hosting live Q&A discussions for our Extra Crunch subscribers with some of tech’s most visible figures. We’ll be hosting these Extra Crunch live chats over the next several weeks.

  • Later this month, we’ll be talking with Hans Tung and Jeff Richards of GGV Capital
    Tuesday, June 30 at 12:30pm PT / 3:30pm ET

Hans Tung and Jeff Richards are managing partners at GGV Capital, a global VC firm that invests in startups from seed through growth-stage. The firm has invested in well-known companies like Slack, Square, Peloton, Zendesk, Hashicorp, ByteDance, and Airbnb. During our conversation we’ll examine how the duo’s investment appetite has changed in recent months, what it means to be a globally-focused investor amidst a pandemic, and how their mom-and-pop shop investment thesis is working out.

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Week in Review: Facebook hardware finds pandemic market fit

Hey everybody, welcome back to Week in Review. The world of COVID-19 is our new reality, so I’ll continue to include links to some positive updates on research, but I’ll be shifting back the focus to covering tech’s movers and shakers of the week.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox here, and follow my tweets here.


The big story

One thing that’s been interesting to see over the past few weeks is how our relationship with screen time has changed. For many, screen time is now all the time and while we haven’t stopped using too many gadgets, there are some we’ve taken out of drawers and closets and added to our repertoire.

For some, it’s been cooking gadgets. While I’ve yet to open up the sous vide gadget I received over the holidays, I was very tempted by my editor’s review of the Ooni gas-fired outdoor pizza oven this week. For me, I’ve strangely seemed to spend a lot more time with the two gadgets I own that are made by Facebook. The currently sold-out Oculus Quest and Facebook Portal are the twin pillars of Facebook’s hardware strategy, but it’s been a bit interesting to see how much more that strategy seems to thrive when we’re all stuck at home.

In a lot of ways, Facebook’s hardware feels built for a quarantine.

The Quest spent a lot of time in my closet when I was out in the world pre-quarantine, but now that I’m in my house most of the day, it spends a good amount of time strapped to my face. When VR was a more hyped technology, there was a broader conversation of whether it encouraged isolation, something promoters of the tech pushed aside, noting that it enables rich shared experiences over the web. As we all host Zoom birthday parties and visit each other’s Animal Crossing islands, it’s becoming clear that with the absence of available physical connections, we can turn a lot of things into rich shared experiences.

In a lot of ways, the Quest is a reminder of what I’m missing out on. The walls of my SF apartment feel less containing when I can hop into a VR workout or jump between games. For the first time, the technology has felt transportive in the way that the ads sold it, but it’s not that the experiences have gotten better, the world has just gotten much worse.

In the same way that VR allows us to re-skin isolation, the Portal allows us to commiserate in it.

My Portal usage has spiked in the past weeks as well. Before stay-at-home orders, coordinating a call with multiple family members was a logistical nightmare and FaceTime calls made it more likely we’d get in touch with each other, but none of my siblings are wandering far from their Portals these days.

We are all still on our phones, but for those of us working from home, mobile we are not. It’s always been fascinating that a tech company which has wildly succeeded at capturing the nuances of mobile computing has been so devoted to selling hardware meant to move us around the internet while staying in place at home. Now, that we are all at home, we are all always there and the Portal really lives up to its name.

Facebook has designed gadgets explicitly built for home use, and more than that, they’re designed devices built around session-based use cases. While Amazon Echos and Google Homes have fit into a persistent IoT platform that are always there for us, Facebook’s gadgets are more high-maintenance, designed for people to fully commit to. For a company that’s focused on the universal nature of its software, its hardware has been built for almost no one’s needs, instead designed to pull people into a future Facebook imagines.

For now, I put the Quest on my face and sometime I tell the Portal to call my sisters, but will these quarantine oddities form tech habits I hold onto after this is all behind us? In these historic times, we are at home and we are craving connections, and, for the time being, the Facebook future feels good.

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • Bezos wants to test all Amazon employees for COVID-19
    As Amazon bares the brunt of America’s online shopping needs, CEO Jeff Bezos wrote in a shareholder letter this week about some of the strategies the company has to ensure its workforce stays on the job. One possibility seems to be “regular testing of all Amazonians, including those showing no symptoms,” Bezos says. Read more here.
  • Google is building a smart debit card
    Just as every startup is getting into lending or banking, every tech giant wants to have a piece of plastic (or metal) in your wallet. This week, TechCrunch broke news that Google is building a smart debit card that could rival the Apple Card. Read more about it here.
  • Apple launches a new iPhone SE
    The iPhone SE has grown to become one of the more fascinating devices Apple sells, cramming speedy components into a form factor that’s fallen out of vogue for their customer obsessed with the latest designs. The latest SE adopt the body of the iPhone 8 with souped-up internals that rival more recent flagships on performance. Read more about the new hardware here.

Photo by Andrew Theodorakis/Getty Images

COVID-19 Research

Here are some of the stories this week chronicling the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Extra Crunch

Investors and entrepreneurs are shifting their chats to Zoom, so we’re taking note and hosting live Q&A discussions for our Extra Crunch subscribers with some of tech’s most visible figures. We’ll be hosting these Extra Crunch live chats over the next several weeks.

  • This upcoming week, we’ll be talking to Aileen Lee & Ted Wang of Cowboy Ventures.
    Monday, April 20 at 10:30am PT / 1:30pm ET

We’ll be chatting with Aileen Lee (former KPCB partner, founder and managing director at Cowboy.vc and coiner of the term “Unicorn”) and Ted Wang (Cowboy.vc partner, former partner at Fenwick & West, and former outside counsel to Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, Square and more) about how they’re advising their portfolio companies, if there are new and innovative ways for early-stage startups to secure capital beyond the traditional VC route and whether startups should hunker down or lean in during these uncertain times.

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Week in Review: Selling out in the Instagram age

Hey everyone, happy 2020. Welcome back to Week in Review where I dive deep into a bit of news from the week or just share some thoughts and go over some of the more interesting stories of the week.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox here, and follow my tweets here.


The big story

Dip a toe into the world of influencers and as you click through Instagram stories, and you’ll see that peddling endorsements for bizarre products is an essential part of the new influencer economy. What’s interesting isn’t that these (often) self-made influencers looking to leverage their fame to and monetize themselves with sponsorship deals, it’s how low the expectations are of their followers and fans when it comes to advertising suspect products.

The age of fanbases considering a celebrity a sellout after hocking junk in commercial appearances is far, far gone. Follower exploitation isn’t even questioned, something that grows less funny when you realize how young most of the fans are of some of these figures.

As you click through actual online influencers with 10 million+ followers advertising weight-loss supplements, juice cleanses and knockoff AirPods, you might be wondering where the bar is and whether it can go any lower. Followers don’t really seem to care for a lot of reasons, but one intriguing thought is that as social media platforms have made fame seem more accessible, user empathy for internet stars has increased and people understand that these figures are just looking for their payday.

Ultimately, high art and capitalism have also never been closer and when you look at the relationship between brand endorsements and some of the top visual artists and musicians, it’s not surprising that those that occupy lesser rungs on the fame ladder don’t mind hocking lesser products. This great piece in The Atlantic by Taylor Lorenz from 2018 reported on how teens were acting like they were selling ads as a way to lend themselves credibility. The “coolness” of advertising has only seemed to accelerate.

It’s clear that the influencer economy has shaped popular culture in ways that make a backlash to influencers “selling out” seem nearly impossible at this point in time. After all, if sticking your name on products that literally contain poison doesn’t dampen your charm, what will?

Evan Spiegel SnapDSC04084

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • Snap buys up an AI startup
    This week, TechCrunch reported that Snapchat had bought up a Ukrainian AI startup to build its latest Cameo feature. The $166 million acquisition is a significant purchase for the social media company which spent the bulk of 2019 getting back to basics.
  • Former HBO boss joins up with Apple
    Former HBO exec Richard Plepler has signed an exclusive deal with Apple for his new production company, a move that’s sure to make waves in the entertainment space but could also shift how Apple spends its behemoth original content budgets.

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription business had another great week of content. My colleague Josh Constine started a series with advice for getting your startup press coverage.

Pitch the wrong reporter or publication, and your story won’t see the light of day.

Before you start seeking press, you’ll need to look for reporters who have reach, respect and expertise when you choose who to talk to. You’ll also need to be prepared to accept the truth about your business, even if it hurts. It’s critical that you find a writer who’s a good fit for the business you’re building and the audience you’re seeking…”

Sign up for more newsletters, including my colleague Darrell Etherington’s new space-focused newsletter Max Q, here.

Source: TechCrunch