Cover is bringing its situation-aware lockscreen to more Android users today after its beta test launch six weeks ago. It’s now available in the Google Play store to Android 4.1+ users in the US, Canada, and Europe. Cover’s 100 new improvements include cutting down battery drain and being better at detecting if you’re in your car, at home or at work so it puts the right apps on your lockscreen.
“The big question I had personally was whether users would understand the concept of the lockscreen” Cover founder Todd Jackson tells me about what he’s learned from its thousands of beta testers since October. “Turns out they do. We were specifically focused on building a lockscreen rather than a launcher. They like the flexibility of being able to use Cover with other launchers.”
Steamrolling over a user’s existing customization was sticking point that hurt Facebook Home’s early adoption. By acting as an interaction layer that floats on top of a user’s Android homescreen, Cover has found people more willing to adapt to how it radically alters their lockscreen.Covering The Bases
Check out my launch story on Cover for the full-rundown of how it works.
To recap, though, Cover can recognize when you’re at home, work, or in you car, and shows you the apps that fit that situation. The suggestions are based on crowdsourced data at first, like that people often use Dropbox at work and Netflix at home, but Cover learns what you use in these situations too and adapts its lockscreen shortcuts. Cover’s Peek feature lets you quickly look inside your apps, and its fast-app switching drop-down menu makes it a breeze to bounce back and forth between maps, messaging, or what have you.
You can watch our quick Cover demo and my interview with Jackson in the video player below.
To get people to surrender the most visible part of their phone to Cover, it had to make some improvements. “Cover is a different app than most apps. Most you just forget about” Jackson tells me, noting there’s little risk to one more download. “Cover? You either love it, or you hate it and you uninstall it. When you’re building an app that replaces a core aspact of their phone, the quality bar is really high” says Jackson.
That’s why Cover used the Android’s beta system. Jackson admits it wasn’t perfect, as it created friction to downloading cover on its big launch day. Some users griped about having to use Google+, or never visited their G+ profile so they missed their invitation to download Cover once it was their turn. But the app just wouldn’t have been ready for prime time without the detailed feedback and bug reports the Android beta testers offered.
Cover discovered that the number #1 thing people cared about was battery life. Jackson explains, “The beta helped us learn what are people’s thresholds. For most people, if Cover is responsible for more than 5% of their battery usage, they’ll uninstall it, so we worked really hard to get it under 5%.”
Other improvements include more accurate motion sensing algorithms for detecting you’re in your car, KitKat compatability, more stable app peeking and switch, new tutorials for how to use app switching and operate Cover with pincode security turned on, more customization, and the ability to share your Cover set up to Facebook/Twitter/Google+.
Another frequently requested feature was the recommendations of apps other people use at home, work, in the car, or with their headphones plugged in. That validates a big potential business model for Cover in app discovery. It could potentially charge other developers to have Cover suggest their app. That could create a route for Cover to make good on the $1.7 million it raised from investors including First Round Capital courtesy of Josh Kopelman, Harrison Metal, Capital, Max Levchin, and Keith Rabois.Plenty Of Android Pie To Go Around
Now that it’s publicly available, Cover can test its might versus other lockscreens like Aviate, Facebook Home, Widdit, and more. With time, it might take on a whole additional weightclass of competitors. Jackson says “A lot of users are actually asking us to build a launcher” which would pit Cover against GO Launcher, Nova Launcher, Everything.me, and others.
But Jackson is convinced there will be enough users for everyone. “It will be an interesting space to watch the next few years as Android gets batter and the phones get better, appealing to a higher market. The Android pie itself is growing really huge. People are just starting to realize they can customize their phone. I think a handful of the startups you mention are all going to do really well.”
There’s a swirling sea of apps out there. The next wave of mobile won’t be about adding more, but using context to help us navigate between them.
Download Cover for free from Google Play
Swedish health and fitness app ShapeUp Club has been quietly building its user base over the last couple of years. Indeed, it’s almost as if it has been taking its playbook from that other noted Swedish success story of recent years: Spotify. By concentrating on the local Nordic markets it knows well, the startup has been able to build its product largely outside of a bigger market like the US, just as Spotify did, prior to its US launch. Then again, this is perhaps not unexpected – it’s rapidly amassing a battle group of former Spotify executives, for one. But this week it’s vision is to become more fully realised with a name change to Lifesum and a restated vision to take on the world of ‘wellbeing’ apps which aim to do more than simply help you lose weight.
Founded under the name ShapeUp Club in 2008, the health app and platform has achieved over 4.8 million registered downloads and 500,000 monthly active users in Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.
As Tove Westlund and Martin Wählby, founders of Lifesum, said in an email to users: “Earlier this summer we felt that we needed a fresh name to reflect our ambition – to support and encourage you in every aspect of your wellbeing – being so much more than just a weight-loss app. Also, as more users across Europe join in using the app, we wanted there to be no confusion about what it does.”
They say current active members are shedding an average of 13lbs (6 kilograms) in 3 months. And the startup has also been on a hiring spree.
Susanne Stage, previously lead product designer at Spotify, has joined as lead designer; Björn Fant, marketing director, joins from Videoplaza; Phillipe Casorla Sagot becomes lead iOS developer from Saborstudio in Costa Rica; Tome Cvitan is now senior software engineer.
In May 2013 Henrik Torstensson, former Head of Premium Sales with Spotify, and Marcus Gners, former Vice President of Business Development at Stardoll, joined as CEO and Deputy CEO respectively.
What we have here then is a fast growing startup that has gone from 5 to 19 people in a year without external financing, which suggests that their paid-for business model – where pay to access premium features of the app – may well be working.
No More Private Foursquare Check-ins? No Problem. Pins For iPhone Lets You Save & Share Your Favorite Places
Foursquare did away with private check-ins this week, finally ending support for what had been, for a long time, one of the service’s most-neglected features: the ability to privately track places you’ve visited for personal use. Today, a new iOS app simply called Pins is offering an alternative with the debut of a service that lets you collect, organize and optionally share lists of places you want to remember.
This is not the first time something like this has been tried, which means even for a small app like Pins, it faces a lot of competition. Everplaces, PinDrop, Drawer, and even to some extent Pinterest, with its new “Place” pins, have been working to make collections of places easy to create, track and share.
But Pins has a few features that make it stand out. For starters, when you build your collections of places in its app – like, “favorite sushi spots,” “best art galleries,” “date night go-to’s,” “restaurants to try,” etc. – you can hashtag each pin, which allows you to add the venue to multiple lists on the fly. For instance, a great Italian place might get an “Italian” hashtag, while it’s also added to another list of favorite downtown restaurants.
Your friends can then follow these color-coded hashtags, unless you’ve made your pins private. In addition, you can allow anyone to follow your lists by making your pins public, instead of just friends-only.
The app also offers a nifty trick with Pins’ support for “picture pins.” This process makes it easier to create pins, by importing photos from your iPhone’s Camera Roll. Another option pulls in your check-ins from Facebook. You can now view a venue’s Yelp page, check-in on Facebook from a pin, and soon, check-in on Foursquare, too.
The app has a clever interface which is easy to understand and use, but we did encounter some bugs in testing – it would crash upon loading up large contact lists, for example, so you may not want to switch on the friend matching function just yet. (For what it’s worth, LinkedIn’s Contacts app has never been able to process my contacts list, either. I should probably clean it up.) The syncing process involving Pins’ Facebook integration was slow as well. And until all these background functions complete you can’t jump into using Pins, which is a problem.
In other words, your mileage may vary here.
Pins was created by fellow ShopKeep employees. CEO Jonathan Bensamoun has since left the POS maker, while Pins’ CTO is, um, still there.
Though the app is live on the iOS App Store, they’re staging the rollout to help them manage server load. TechCrunch readers can use the link http://pinsapp.co/techcrunch to move the head of the line.
Wow, Yahoo just can’t catch a break. Yahoo’s photo-sharing service Flickr went down this morning, in a brief outage that appears to have started around 11 AM ET, lasting for over an hour. The first report of the site’s issues were posted to Twitter around 11 AM ET, but the velocity of tweets kicked in just after noon, which indicates the site may not have been fully down for everyone.
It seems that Flickr.com had been failing to load for users. The message that was returned was “inactivity timeout.” The text on the site read: “Description: Too much time has passed without sending any data for document.”
Other users are reporting seeing a cuter error message with a picture of a Panda on a leash. One “flickr down” report came in just a few minutes ago (12:52 PM ET), sharing this photo, so it’s unclear if the outage is only partially resolved. And another showed up at 1:11 PM ET.
(Didn’t Yahoo acqui-hire a bunch of engineers to fix things like this?)
The site has come back up, at least for some, but it’s unknown what caused the problem, how widespread it was, or whether it’s been fully resolved for all affected users.
This has been a bad week for Yahoo. Yesterday we reported on Yahoo Mail’s ongoing outages, and its overwhelmed customer service staff dealing with the numerous requests to reactivate websites that small business owners never wanted shut down. Yahoo’s public response has been minimal. No big mea culpa from Yahoo, and finally after press reports detailing the issues, a few basic tweets and posts which acknowledged the issue and that fixes were in the works.
“Some users may still have trouble accessing their accounts but we are working through the night on this and will post again in the morning Pacific Time with the latest updates.”
As for what’s going on with Flickr, we’ve reached out to Yahoo for more information. Though notably, the company declined to respond to our inquires from yesterday, only posting tweets and posts for us to interpret instead.
Teaching api handling with Flickr api while Flicker is down is not a lot of fun
— ntlk.gif (@ntlk) December 12, 2013
The social drink finding and collection app Elixr gets a fresh redesign for iOS 7 today, launches and Android version and adds a bunch of features to an already very fun app. The app and service also score an investment from Tumblr founder David Karp.
I’ve been an Elixr user for some time and find it enjoyable and engaging. It’s essentially a mashup of Foursquare and Instagram, with a focus on detailed images and impressions of alcoholic drinks and beers at a given location. You’re encouraged to snap a photo and then rate your drink and give some details about the establishment. When I originally spoke to Jeff Rock and Marc LaFountain of Mobelux about the app earlier this year, they said that the guiding question behind the app’s creation was ‘why can’t I just open an app that tells me where to get a good drink?’
Today’s release marks the first major redesign of the app, with a full on iOS 7 look, and a bunch of new features. The new design is fresh and crisp, with a very nice little image editor blended into the capture process, along with the standard filter set.
The overall interface of the app has now been massaged to make Elixr a much more social affair, with interlinking sections like a list of drink ‘to-do’s’ that you can add by simply tapping a button as you scroll through your timeline. You’ve also now got a section to enter the bartender that made your drink, as well as rating the quality and enjoyment of the drink. Elixr now pairs the fun of sharing an image of a drink — and getting the associated ‘likes’ and comments — with a truly useful network for those that like to enjoy a good tipple.
Even if you don’t follow anyone, the search feature of the app will now pinpoint great drinks and venues for you based on the checkins of others. This is what I found so interesting about Foursquare’s ‘pivot’ of sorts earlier this year when it refocused on becoming a discovery network instead of a check-in game. With this update, Elixr becomes a good resource for drink fans, not just a place to tip others off to what you’re enjoying.
Other new features include private check-ins — something Foursquare itself is pulling back from, but still allows via its API — member notifications and a better nearby view that will show you watering holes where you are.
Jeff Rock of Mobelux says that focusing on discovery, search and utility in this release was part of their primary goal of helping people find stuff at local venues.
“It’s much easier to find the best venues nearby fast, including what they’re good at. We analyze the drink menus of those bars and restaurants that were created by user check-ins and give them a rating of ‘good’ or great’,” Rock told us. “That way if you love beer and your friend likes wine you could find a place that’s “good for wine, great for beer” in the Nearby tab. There was also a lot of work in making Elixr all-around more useful with a built-in to-do list, better chronological check-in history and an easier to use interface.”
The app also launches on Android today, as well as the refreshed iOS 7 update, so you can get your cross-platform sip on. As a part of this launch, Elixr is also firing up the Discovery Series, which talks to drink makers in various towns about their menus and techniques. One more way to build out the sense of community in the app.
I spoke to LaFountain, who was previously VP of support at Tumblr, about how the Karp investment came about and he gave us the backstory.
“It was my first visit with the Tumblr crew since I left Tumblr in October of 2012. It was great to see everyone. The first night of my visit, I met David and his girlfriend Rachel for dinner at a restaurant near their home.”
The restaurant was Auroroa, which LaFountain recommends. This was just as Karp was coming out of the Yahoo acquisition of Tumblr news cycle, but he still showed interest in what the pair’s plans were for Elixr. He quizzed LaFountain about the app and offered some insights, and then volunteered an offer to invest.
“David explained that he wanted to use his good fortune with Tumblr to help some of the people that he knows achieve their dreams,” LaFountain says. “That’s so David! A group of us then went on the roof of his apartment building to fly a remote-controlled drone around Williamsburg and the East River. It was my first drone experience and it was pretty fascinating to watch.”
Karp ended up keeping his word and making the investment and has offered product input. LaFountain says that it’s nice to continue to ‘work with him in a way.’
The messaging wars are in full swing, and Waterloo-based Kik is still seeing tremendous positive growth despite trailing its rival WhatsApp in terms of total userbase size. The company revealed today that it has just passed 100 million registered users, having added 70 million of those since this time last year. The startup also launched Cards, its HTML5-based in-app content sharing system this time last year, and engagement on those apps-within-an-app has been promising, too, according to Kik founder and CEO Ted Livingston.
“For us, growth gets a really big bump over Thanksgiving, which is a combination of new devices and people being in a new social sphere and sharing their passion for Kik,” he explained, pointing to factors that have helped them reach this milestone. “It’s hard to know what exactly is prompting growth. I wouldn’t say there’s anyone coming to Kik just for Cards and not for the messaging platform, but what it does do is provide a way for people to look at it and say ‘Look at all the fun things I can do with Kik that I can’t do with any other messaging apps.”
As for Cards, they’ve seen around 145 million installs on peoples’ devices, and over 85 percent of those come from shares, meaning that people are installing Cards because they’ve received them from friends and found them interesting. One Card, called Costume Party, managed to reach 1 million users in just 22 hours, so you start to see how this could become a platform for message-based networking in the same way that Facebook evolved over time as a development target.
Cards are a strong component of Kik’s continued success, but there are still a lot of challenges on the horizon. For instance, Twitter appears to be doing more with Direct Messages on its platform, and now allows people to send photos using it. It seems like it could be only a matter of time before they make their own cards available via their private messaging network, too, which would end up being remarkably similar to Kik’s Cards. Kik’s implementation is much more like full-fledged apps, however, and Livingston says the most surprising thing about it has been that people often note how seamless the Cards are, and how they feel like native experiences, instead of web apps.
WhatsApp has 350 million monthly users, as of October, so Kik still has a long way to go to catch up. But with Cards, it’s investing heavily in its platform play, and that appears to be paying dividends.
Highlight Raises $4 Million From DFJ, Releases Version 2.0 Of Its Location-Based Social Networking App
Location-based social startup Highlight has just released a new version of its app, aimed at being smarter about the connections it shows, while also giving users more context about what those connections have been up to. The company also has raised $4 million in new funding led by Draper Fisher Jurvetson.
Highlight was founded around the time of the social-local-mobile (SoLoMo) boom of early 2012. Along with startups like Sonar and Glancee, the company promised to “highlight” interesting people nearby, thanks to a combination of GPS location data, and persistent identity through Facebook connect, and the ability to know a whole lot about your interests and relationships you share on social networks.
That boom went bust, and Highlight is more or less the last player standing in what used to be a pretty crowded market. Not only is it still around, but the company is growing thanks to a new $4 million Series A Round led by DFJ, with participation from existing investors Benchmark and Crunchfund, along with new investors such as Greycroft, Semil Shah, and Dave Morin.
As part of the funding, new DFJ managing director Bubba Murarka will join Highlight’s board. It’s notable in part because this is the first investment for Murarka, who was head of Facebook’s Android team and led the development of Facebook Home. So he knows a thing or two about mobile.Highight 2.0
Anyway, along with the funding, Highlight is also releasing version 2.0 of its app. The really big news is that Highlight has a new icon, one that’s not as likely to blind you if you happen to glance at it the wrong way. Beyond that, though, it’s also done a lot of work to make the app more visually appealing, and a lot more powerful under the hood.
What’s most notable when you open up Highlight is that it has a new, two-column layout with staggered images to showcase the people who happen to be nearby. That’s a big departure from the text-heavy Highlight from days of yore.
The app also has been re-architected to be smarter about the connections that it shows or notifies you about. CEO Paul Davison admits that the early app needed to reduce the number of connections it highlighted, in part because mutual connections wandering by happens far more often than most people expect.
Now, based on the location information that it has about users, it can pinpoint interesting connections that you’re unlikely to know about. For instance, when traveling, it’ll let you know when a friend happens to be in the same city. Or, it can alert users when a couple of friends are hanging out together nearby on a Saturday.
Understanding that some connections are stronger than others, and that different times of day and different places matter, is just part of how Highlight is doing a better job of filtering out weak signals that people don’t really care about.
The app has also gotten smarter about knowing what you’re doing and where you are. It knows, for instance, if users are walking, biking, or traveling in a car, based on how fast they’re moving. One of the cool — if a little bit creepy — features that it added this time around is a map which plots connections nearby and allows you to even see your connections moving, and which direction they’re going.
Another creepy but cool thing it can show you is what music your connections are listening to on their headphones, either through iTunes or Facebook-connected services like Spotify or Rdio.
With the latest update to the app, Highlight has also enabled users to see updates from those that they haven’t connected with in a while. Those updates are brought in from moments shared in Highlight, as well as those that users have posted on other networks, like Twitter and Instagram.
That will allow you to catch up on what people have been up to, before you catch up with them in person. According to Davison, this could give users something to talk about or catch up on. Updates appear over a users profile image, and can be clicked directly into from the home screen.
The other big area of focus was battery life, something which Highlight has been slammed on in the past. To deal with this, the company has worked hard to optimize the amount of drain the app causes when it’s not actively being used.
According to the company, the new app is five times more energy efficient than the earlier version. On average, it uses less than 1 percent of battery life per hour when a phone is in standby mode.The Future Is Now?
Will that ultimately lead to more adoption?
If nothing else, Davison has been steadfast in his belief that all of the location and personal information that our phones know about us will one day lead to some sort of egalitarian utopia where they’ll let us know when there’s someone to have an interesting conversation with nearby.
From the moment I met him almost two years ago until now, he’s maintained faith that the future is coming and that Highlight is just the earliest implementation of what that future will be like.
In fact, given the wide array of new sensors and gadgets that have popped up since then — including a growing number of quantified self devices and smarter technology like Apple’s M7 chip in existing devices — Davison imagines a world where apps like Highlight will have even more data to draw on.
In other words, the future is here. It might just take us some time to catch up to it.
IFTTT Launches iOS Location Channel With Integrations For Foursquare, Twitter, Instagram And Facebook
Today, IFTTT announces the addition of an iOS Location channel to its ‘Internet glue’ service. The channel will allow users to specify an ‘area’ that will allow them to trigger actions and recipes based on when they enter or leave that area.
Think, for instance, of setting up an IFTTT recipe that allows you to send a DM automatically to your loved one when you arrive at at a travel destination. Or one that allows you to zip a circle around your neighborhood and alert you when one of your friends checks in on Foursquare nearby.
I spoke with IFTTT CEO Linden Tibbets and Director of Mobile Devin Foley about the updates to the app. Foley mentions that he set up a ‘dance party’ recipe to trigger his Phillips Hue lights to color cycle when he gets close to his house, a fun way to let his son know that dad is home. Tibbets notes a recent wedding that he attended where he set up an area alert that pulled in all public Instagram photos shot during the event and dropped them into his Dropbox — creating a photographic archive of the event that he could then share with the group.
The new location channel can be built on directly, or can be accessed via the Instagram, Facebook, Foursquare or Twitter channels. These are the initial offerings, but location will be built into more channels as time goes on. You can create an area of interest with a clever zoom-able interface that improves on Apple’s geo-fencing tool in my opinion. You can then choose to make the recipe trigger on entrance, on exit or both from that area.
This initial location release is all about these definable ‘areas’, rather than pinpoint locations, though that could come in the future.
Obviously, location is one of the big pillars of iOS signals. Along with the previously announced Photos, Contacts and Reminders channels, you can now trigger and complete recipes based on many core iOS services. IFTTT is essentially an easy to use programming guide that lets you do things with your phone that Apple will likely never enable, or that companies with a vested interest in protecting their graph will never allow.
There are a few other updates in this release of IFTTT as well. You can now tap the heart icon on any Recipe page to add it to your favorites. Other users will be able to see this list of favorites to see which recipes you like. You can set up your profile in the app as well as on the web and share recipes on mobile too. These updates are designed, says Tibbets, to foster a sense of community inside IFTTT, and to encourage people to create and share recipes. If you’re seeing feedback from other users that are getting value out of your recipes, you’re more likely to want to create more.
IFTTT has also launched a new search feature that allows you to find Channels by name, which is good because the list is getting pretty extensive and it’s getting tougher to find just the one you need in a big scrollable list.
In other good news, IFTTT is also finally ready to talk about an Android version of its app. Basically, just to say that work on it is officially underway. They’re not giving any ETAs but at least we know it’s on its way now.
One other thing that IFTTT is working on, but not ready to announce is the platform that we talked about when Twitter triggers came back to the service in August. This will allow apps and services to construct their own channels, instead of IFTTT making them all themselves. It’s a super smart idea, because it lets outsiders build the building blocks that are then in turn used to build recipes. So we’ll keep our eyes peeled for that to arrive as well.
IFTTT also tells us that it’s got someone dedicated to building out its hardware channels, which have multiplied to encompass the Jawbone Up, a bunch of Wemo hardware and, of course, the Phillips Hue. The way in which IFTTT could serve as the glue to connect things like Hue, Lockitron, Nest, Wemo and other personal choices into a true connected home is intriguing. Tibbets notes that people tend to purchase these kinds of devices by taste, rather than by holistic system — so making a way to connect and control them all seems like a good thing.
IFTTT is a service that allows users to define a trigger (a new RSS feed item, a new Instagram photo) and an action (tweet it for me, put it in my Dropbox) to form a recipe that can be used and shared. Tibbets says that they’re “building a general tool that you get value out of when you use it with, other services,” and I think that’s an apt description. Being a neutral third party places IFTTT in an interesting and potentially very powerful position that could let it be a communication layer that sits between the various siloes of data and services hoarded by the major Internet companies.
LinkedIn Refreshes Its Inbox With Message Previews And A Simpler Interface To Keep Users Around Longer
LinkedIn, the social network for the professional world, has been going through a overhaul of every aspect of its platform. Today, it’s the turn of the inbox, which is refreshing its inbox with better navigation and more instant information. In a way, it’s LinkedIn’s personal contribution to this week’s trend among social platforms like Twitter and Instagram to revisit their messaging services.
LinkedIn says the new inbox is getting rolled out globally starting today.
Most importantly, the new inbox will give users previews — both of messages themselves and of the people who are sending them: when you hover over someone’s name in a list, their basic details pop up, along with an option to connect if you are not already in a common network. That string of information is carried through to when you open a message: you get more biographical context now about who is reaching out to you — especially important if it’s a “cold email” from someone who is not in your network already.
The other very key difference is that the inbox navigation and tabs have been pared down by quite a bit: you now get a condensed list on the left side of the panel with messages, invitations, sent, archive and trash folders (in the past, messages and invitations were split with tabs at the top of the column, meaning you had two sets of navigation buttons at the X- and Y- axes). The right side and top banner, as with other LinkedIn pages, are reserved for advertisements. LinkedIn tells me that it has no plans to expand those ads for the moment.
Here’s what the page looked like before today’s changes:
As with many of the updates that LinkedIn has made to its homepage, mobile app and other services, the changes to the inbox are well overdue, and in some regards table stakes for LinkedIn specifically.
They come at a time when all social networks are zeroing in on better capabilities for people to speak directly to each other, and not just on wide-open platforms. LinkedIn was built with direct messaging from the start; and in a way, you could argue that its focus on professional users and specific requests (for example, around jobs and work) means that channel is even more necessary than it is in a consumer network.
The end result of improving the inbox experience are two-fold. The first is that it will mean that users potentially use it more, and potentially for more than just short follow ups but deeper conversations. (That’s a parallel ambition shared by other social networks like Facebook, with its own messaging platform.) You can see how, if people did use it more, then LinkedIn could start to potentially charge for certain aspects of its messaging service — similar to how it does for other parts of LinkedIn.
The other potential benefit is that more time spent in the inbox will contribute to the bigger effort that LinkedIn is making to boost engagement — time spent on the site is a crucial aspect of how it will be able to grow its ad revenues. (Remember that there are ads in the inbox, and in messages you open while you are there.)
Instagram didn’t invent photo sharing, video sharing, or the photo messaging it launched today. With 150 million users, it doesn’t have to be first. It just wants to be the best, making new experiences accessible to as many people as possible, but with style. You might say Instagram steals these ideas, but that would put it good company. It’s what people say about Apple.
Instagram was never really original. From the days when it was Burbn, it’s been a mashup of other apps with an extra coat of gloss.
Back then it was Foursquare meets Hipstamatic. Checkins and photo filters. It dropped most of the Foursquare part, and added a Twitter-style unfiltered feed. Twitter felt real-time, and Instagram did too, but by showing images in-line, it was more visually appealing.
Eventually Instagram was acquired by Facebook and incorporated its new parent company’s photo tagging system. It would then jump on the video bandwagon where SocialCam had come and gone, and Vine was just taking off. Instagram jacked Vine’s tap-and-hold-to-record-multiple-clips interface, but polished it with filters and cover images.
And today, Instagram’s launch event was practically an homage to other apps. Instagram Direct, its new private messaging feature, is all about communication through photos and videos, like Snapchat. Except with Instagram, you can filter and refine your media before you send it.
Its messaging permission system is a hybrid of Twitter’s DMs where you can get messages from people you follow, and Facebook’s Other Inbox that collects messages from people you might not know. This gives you the best of both worlds, where you’re protected from spam but don’t have to get an explicit two-way friendship confirmation and won’t miss messages from new people you meet.
The look of Instagram Direct seems lifted straight from competitors. When you add recipients, you tap little bubbles next to their name just like Snapchat, and a counter appears along a bar at the bottom. The comparison screenshots above show how similar they look. And when friends like your Instagram Directs, their little heart bubbles appear in a row beneath the photo like on Path.
The thing is, most of Instagram’s 150 million monthly and 75 million daily users have never used Snapchat, which has “over 30 million users”, or Path, which has around 20 million registered users. People sometimes say “it doesn’t matter until Facebook/Google/Apple does it” about copying features, and in the photo world, you might be able to add Instagram to that list.
Founders of Instagram’s competitors might feel flattered today, but they should probably be worried too. Because this “follow with finesse” strategy worked wonders for Apple. There were gangly, awkward music players before, but the iPod made listening elegant. PC laptops were clunky and ugly, and the MacBook made them sleek and modern…for a price. Confusing PDAs and tablets were bested by the friendly iPad. Each time, Apple disrupted an industry by bringing rough, niche, but functional ideas to a mainstream audience that values form.
Next we might see Apple take what others have done with TVs or watches and make them feel like a more natural extension of ourselves.
How does Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom feel about being called a cunning copycat? We asked him after today’s event about the inspiration for Instagram Direct, to which he replied, “It’s not a fast follow. It felt like the wrong thing to not have that in there. The two things we wanted to work on were messaging and video. By laying the groundwork we’re making sure interesting community stuff can happen. We’re focused on creating new behaviors vs. copying. I don’t wake up thinking what can I replace, I end up thinking what new behaviors can I create.”
That’s a diplomatic answer, and while it might not be his intention, some might say Instagram is running short on innovation now. But nothing’s changed about its approach.
That doesn’t mean it will succeed like Apple. Messaging is a crowded market, and Instagram is a very late-comer. All its design flourishes can sometimes weigh it down, making it seem slower than raw but nimble competitors. It will take time to see how the visual communication market on mobile shakes out.
And Instagram has time. Thanks to Facebook’s resources, even if monetization is slow to start up as CEO Kevin Systrom said today, it has all the money for development and expansion that it needs. Instagram can afford to play the long game, and it stands to get some fresh legs.
As Systrom noted, there are 4 billion feature phones in the world and just 1 billion smartphones, but the shift is happening. The developing world will deliver a landslide of new photographers. When they arrive, Instagram doesn’t care who it’s compared to, as long as it works and feels like the camera of your dreams.
It’s not every day you get to see a machine designed to mint money. KnCMiner is a Stockholm-based hardware company that has single-handedly changed the face of Bitcoin mining. Their products sell out almost instantly – the $5,000 Jupiter is already gone – and, amazingly, the company actually ships. In a world of charlatans, broken promises, and outright lies, it’s refreshing to find a company like this one.
I spoke with Alexander Lawn, the public face of KnCMiner, on his way through New York. He brought one of his rigs for my perusal and I can report that it looks great, works, and is a real, shipping product. Alex joined the company after critiquing it online in Bitcoin forums, an interesting way to get noticed. He has worked with the team, including Andreas Kennemar and Marcus Erlandsson.
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When these machines boot up, the market notices. This is the second edition of the Jupiter miner and the hardware already moved markets… and is already discontinued. Owners will be able to easily upgrade their hardware over time and update the ASICs as necessary. Where is KnCMiner heading next? Neptune. Their latest miner is the fastest in the world to date and sold $8 million in orders in a single day. Pre-order pricing is $12,995 and the company plans on selling a mere 2,400 units.
The Jupiter is truly bespoke hardware. The chips are designed in Stockholm and the entire system was built in Sweden. They are as rare as Fabergé eggs at this point and the demand is only increasing. Lawn described one encounter with a Russian customer who called up asking if he could bring a bag full of cash to buy a miner. Alex calmly explained that there was a waiting list and that they were sold out. The Russian grunted and said: “I’ll bring more cash.”
During this morning’s press event unveiling Instagram Direct for private photo-sharing, co-founder Kevin Systrom offered some thoughts about monetizing (or not monetizing) Instagram and its new feature.
Systrom suggested that Instagram will have an ad-related announcement coming soon, but for now he was willing to say, “We’re taking it very slowly.”
He added that the early results have been “really encouraging so far,” and that it’s important for Instagram ads (like the one pictured to the left) to feel like organic, high-quality content — in fact, he said there’s a “thorough” content review process “that actually goes through me.”
Asked whether he’s going to bring ads into the just-announced feature, Systrom replied, “I think it’s way too early to talk about advertising and Instagram Direct.” He didn’t rule out doing something in the future, but he said Instagram is currently focusing its ad efforts on the broader campaigns. A more interesting use case, he suggested, is for brand contests with user-submitted photos, with Instagram Direct as the photo collection mechanism.
That was a bit surprising, considering the fact that the event was held in New York City — when a tech company headquartered in Silicon Valley holds press conferences here, it’s often because they’re hopign to get the attention of media and advertisers. So during the question-and-answer session, I asked Systrom, “Why New York?”
“We love Silicon Valley; it’s been very good to us,” he said, but this was meant to “reiterate how global Instagram is.”
Twitter’s recent acquisition of MoPub has fired up a native advertising business that will launch with in-stream ads on the Tango messaging platform and with other partners. The product is obviously taking some cues from Twitter’s own ad products, which take the form of promoted tweets and trends.
The new ads will launch on Tango — among other partners — with in-stream posts that look like other Tango updates, but feature a small ‘sponsored’ mark in the upper corner. Native ads are fairly hot at the moment, with most social networks looking to fuse them with their core timelines or feeds in some manner. Because they’re less jarring and easier to pass off as ‘content’, they’re being treated as the next big thing for focused mobile experiences like those found in apps like Instagram. These in-stream ads will be presented by the apps themselves, templated to match their surroundings, but served up by MoPub.
This move is also the first large payoff of Twitter’s MoPub acquisition, and another way in which Twitter will add revenue to its ad bottom line. The company has made most of its money so far off of promoted tweets, with 65 percent of ad revenue coming from mobile devices.
As far as we understand, these ads won’t be using data from Twitter’s recently announced ad retargeting program to better suit the viewers, though it would seem like a logical option at some point. Currently, MoPub does not serve Twitter’s own native ads, though just purely from a duplication of labor standpoint it seems to reason that they might begin doing so. Twitter has been massaging its own ad products for some time now, recently broadening its keyword ad targeting to catch edge cases in language.
The ads, which you can see above, can come in a variety of shapes. The one on the left is a full update and the one on the right, also an ad, is in compact form. This emphasizes the fact that they’re making sure the selling points of the ads are that they’ll be unobtrusive.
This also fits in with the larger trend towards freemium apps and ad-supported efforts. Many social apps, or those that require large amounts of users to be either effective or enjoyable, need to lower the barrier for new user signup as low as possible in order to gain traction. Offering them a native ad option that isn’t a big ugly banner could prove a popular way to get positive cash flow.
MoPub founder Jim Payne notes in a blog post today that the ads can also be content that is promoted by the app — allowing them to run their own promotions and ads as well as those from outside advertisers.
MoPub is currently handling 3 billion ads a day, and Payne — now Twitter’s VP of Exchange — told The Wall Street Journal that native ads could add billions more to their inventory. Twitter acquired MoPub back in September, and closed the deal in October, for a reported $350M. MoPub’s net revenue for the first six months of 2013 was a reported $6.5M.
Well, it’s been ten years for LeWeb, one of the key events in the European tech startup calendar. And as usual they had a startup competition. Out of 16 selected semi-finalists in Paris, just three were selected to take the main stage of the conference and pitch to judges. To quality for the competition they had to have raised less than €1.5M (US$2M). The entrants had quite a European flavour this year, with a strong showing from Central and Eastern European countries.
The winner of the competition was IntelClinic. Hailing from Poland, IntelClinic helps you gain more time by “lowering the amount of sleep you need to be refreshed and regenerated.” Previously, IntelClinic created NeuroOn, a sleep mask which monitored your brain waves, allowing you to switch from monophasic to polyphasic sleep – in theory meaning you sleep less and more efficiently. This is the way that Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Edison and other noted inventors often slept.
The other finalists were:
Flinja, a US company, describes itself as “the Uber for Work“. Flinja (or “freelance ninja”) targets the college demographic which LinkedIn largely ignores. Flinja claims that over 50% of recent college grads are finding themselves under-employed or without work, and yet there are millions of jobs left unfilled. Flinja, which also offers a mobile app, is attempting to address this by providing a platform where students (its initial launch market) can gain skills and build relevant work experience completing paid projects while in school. Employers, in turn, have quick, easy access to local and national talent they can test out before hiring.
From the UK, SocialSafe is, well, a ‘social safe’ which locks up all your social accounts and keeps a record of what you do on social networks, independent of those networks. It downloads and keeps a complete record of everything, aggregating it together in one place. It then organises all your social media data, giving you access to libraries displaying your information, providing a full calendar and journal, enabling search across all data and other usage stats too. The data is stored privately in a users’ own local personal data stores, making it fully compliant with the major social networks’ Terms of Service regarding data storage by third-parties.
Loom, a simple but well-built photo-sharing app targeting the mainstream, has been focused on building something of an iCloud alternative which also helps users to free up disk space on their smartphones or iPads. Today, it’s taking another step closer to that larger goal with the introduction of video support in Loom. Before, the app was able to store, optimize and sync photos between devices, and now it can do the same for video by generating multiple versions of the video for quicker playback.
When you upload either a photo or video to Loom, the company saves different versions of the file alongside the original, which are smaller in size, thanks to reduced resolutions. Users browsing through the thumbnails within Loom’s app won’t be able to the tell the difference, of course, due to the device’s small screen.
With photos, that means Loom can store some 200 times more photos on a mobile devices than before, via the default gallery. And it allows users to wipe out their Camera Roll and free up valuable disk space, while also being assured that their photos are backed up, safe and accessible from any iOS device or the web.
Now with video support, Loom will also save smaller files. When you begin to playback the video, the stream will start at low resolution, so it begins to play immediately. Shortly after, it will switch to medium, then high-resolution when it has buffered enough. It’s a similar experience to what you have today with Netflix, for example. Or, as Loom CEO Jan Senderek describes it, it’s essentially “a secure, fast, and personal version of Netflix.”
In addition to the added video support, Loom has also redesigned its website with an improved layout, easier organization tools, larger images, and faster browsing and scrolling. Users can upload videos from their computers or external drives, too, through Loom’s Mac app.
The company offers a freemium service, with 5 GB of storage available for free. Paid storage starts at 50 GB for $3.99/month, then goes up to 250 GB for $9.99/month. That’s more competitive on pricing than Dropbox, which is also popular for photo storage, but pricier when compared with the massive free photo storage services provided by Flickr, Google, and Facebook. Also like Dropbox, Loom now has a referral program which allows users to earn up to 5 GB of space for inviting friends to join.
Senderek declines to provide user numbers for now, but would say that on a good day, Loom sees a million items uploaded. They’re also seeing a free to paid conversion rate above 4%, he adds.
The service is straightforward to use, and targets a mainstream user base who may be confused over how Apple’s iCloud works – which, let’s be honest, confuses even the savviest Apple followers, too.
The updated version of Loom is available for download here.
Today at a press event in New York, Instagram founder Kevin Systrom has announced that the photo-sharing service is introducing private photo-sharing and messaging. The feature is called Instagram Direct.
Instagram has always been a mostly public social network, with a broadcast structure instead of connections based on mutual friendship, like Facebook. The introduction of Instagram Direct marks a new phase for the company.
Now, users who follow each other will be able to send each other private chat-like messages, which can include photos or videos (of course). Previously, users have only been able to like or publicly comment on pictures.
Here’s how it works:
When you go in to post a picture (the same way that you’ve been posting pictures on Instagram), you’ll see two new tabs on the top of the post: Followers and Direct.
With Direct, you can choose a specific friend and type a special message, and that goes only to your friend. Once that friend opens up the photo, their profile picture within the message gets a check mark, noting that it’s been read. Users can also like direct photo messages, and chat can ensue from there.
You can send Direct messages up to 15 people, and Instagram Direct also offers up suggested recipients.
When you receive a photo, you’ll see a little inbox icon on the top right corner of the app, which will send you directly to your new messages. You can chat privately one-on-one or with a group of people.
People who mutually follow each other can easily send messages to each other. If you don’t follow someone, and they’ve sent you a direct message, it’ll show up as a pending request rather than a received message in your private inbox.
When you accept, that person can henceforth send you direct messages that will land in your inbox.
Instagammers can not send text-only messages to each other, but must send pictures to start the chat function.
Users have had some options for privacy on the network, with the option to block certain users or mark your profile as private, which means you must accept follow requests.
But the move toward a more private, precious Instagram makes sense.
Messaging adds a new layer of engagement to the app. Users can now start up a conversation, which shouldn’t be difficult considering they’re watching their friends lives unfold in pictures.
Here’s a video preview:
At a press event today in New York City, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom announced that the photo- and video-sharing app is used by half of its users use the app every day.
Back in September, the company told the Wall Street Journal it had more than 150 million monthly active users (a gain of 128 million from Instagram’s user base at the time of its acquisition by Facebook a year earlier). Assuming that number is still accurate, that means more than 75 million Instagrammers use the app every day.
(Update: This may have been obvious, but I confirmed with am Instagram spokesperson that when Systrom said 50 percent of users, he meant 50 percent of monthly active users — which is what I’d assumed when I suggested it was more than 75 million.)
That’s pretty impressive, but Facebook says it saw 727 million daily active users in September.
During his presentation, Systrom also talked about the growth of general photo-sharing. He said it’s driven by three main factors — the transition to digital, the fact that we carry our cameras (i.e., our smartphones) in our pockets, and the ability to share photos on social networks. He noted that those photos run the gamut from important political moments to photos of brunch — but even a brunch pic, he said, is not just brunch, because it serves as “a visual status message” and a location check in.
Of course, all this discussion was just the lead up to a product announcement — Instagram Direct, which offers private photo-sharing and messaging.
Major League Gaming, better known as MLG, saw its audience greatly expand in 2013 according to data it provided to TechCrunch. Its audience watched a total of 54 million hours of its content in the year, up 262% from 2012. In more stark contrast, compared to its 2011 tally, 2013′s total hours watched were up 1557%.
MLG is one of the oldest and largest companies dedicated to esports, or what is known to some as competitive gaming. In short, MLG hosts large tournaments in which professional gamers battle each other for five-figure checks. However, while MLG has long run several of those massive confabs – what it refers to as “tent pole events” – each year, it has recently re-expanded into show-based content that has boosted its viewership figures.
In late December of 2011, MLG cancelled several shows that it had operated, which existed apart from its traditional events. The programming, including “F— Slasher,” and “SC Report” were perhaps ahead of their time. In the last year, according to MLG CEO Sundance DiGiovanni, the company has completed its technology stack, allowing it complete control over its video delivery system.
Now, having bolstered its internal toolset, MLG is moving back into the constant-content game, with results that it describes as predictable, and profitable. Those are two words that are worth more than gold to MLG and its investors, which have invested a collective $69 million into the company through its life.
To grow its audience, expand its programming base, derive more stable revenue from that content, and, as far as I can deduce, lower its dependence on events, Sundance noted that those are now profit and not “cost” sources. MLG has executed twice: it created MLG.tv, and put together its own advertising team.
MLG.tv, as TechCrunch reported recently, is the company’s own online broadcasting network. Previously, MLG had worked with partners as diverse as ESPN and Twitch to ship video to its fans. Now, it has a private channel that it can control completely. MLG.tv will show the firm’s events, of course, but also a blend of original programming – F— Slasher, sadly, remains kaput, but the new eSports Report is worth watching – and content from partners.
MLG, along with its MLG.tv effort, intends to run two of its largest events in 2014, six to eight smaller events, and lend its technology and production vertical to up to ten partner events during the year.
All of that is fine, but sans an ability to sell advertising against the resulting content would moot the company, let alone its short-term financials. So, to plug that hole in its corporate structure, MLG has built out its own internal advertising team in the past half year, including Don Reilley who worked on Xbox and Kindle projects in the past (not for MLG, obviously).
According to Sundance, the summation of the above is simple: a growing audience, and one that is less episodic, fused with control of its own platform and a better ability to monetize those improvements have helped MLG pre-sell content into 2014.
MLG once broadcasted Halo tournaments in the earliest days of livestreaming, selling partnerships to gamer-friendly brands to finance its events. The company is now more diverse, more popular, and the stablest I’ve seen it. Change remains a constant: Dota 2 has replaced League of Legends which all but replaced Starcraft 2 in its roster of titles, but through those game rotations it appears that MLG has built a business that can keep its numbers pointed north, and grind marginally profitable content towards a final cessation of its overall burn rate.
Proud of a few of its performance metrics, MLG also told TechCrunch that it saw a 600% growth in its audience in the past three years, and now has an advertising completion rate of more than 90%. This is what maturity feels like, in a way.
MLG as a company has always been too early. It was too early to competitive gaming, something that has truly grown into its own in the West only in the last three years. It was too early to competitive gaming being popular enough to support an enterprise of its scale. But through what I can only call tenacity, MLG has survived, and by the figures TechCrunch has been privy to, found business incomes on top of content generation that should sustain its balance sheet.
Now MLG has to prove that the momentum that it has seen in 2013 is no fluke, and that content varietals that in the past were unprofitable for it can now drive positive cash flow for the firm not just for half a year, but for quarters and quarters to come. Also, it feels like MLG isn’t sure what role its events should play in its future, precisely, other than that they have a role, period.
But with more content and a stronger ability to derive dollars from it, MLG appears on a good trajectory for the coming year. Execution is now its challenge.
Anyway, MLG and Blizzard, can we get Starcraft 2 back into the circuit? There will be another Haypro eventually, and I want to watch.
Top Image Credit: MLG
As expected, the game runs best in Firefox, which recently gained full support for asm.js, but it will also happily run in Chrome and Opera. The game, it’s worth noting, is officially in alpha, but it’s now available for anybody who wants to give it a try – including some multi-player elements.
Bringing Monster Madness to the browser, Mozilla says, only took about a week (though they got some technical support from Epic and Mozilla).
Mozilla is clearly homing in on games as the first set of applications to bring these technologies to the mainstream. The organization, however, also says that it believes other types of content can also benefit from the performance gains that asm.js offers.
A minor, but interesting, update to the Google Maps iOS application out today introduces a little bit of Google Now-like functionality to the otherwise utilitarian Google Maps application. Users who choose to sign in will be able to see their flight, hotel and restaurant reservations in Maps, which appear following a user-initiated search.
After authenticating with Google (Gmail), you can search for your departing airport, hotel, or dining reservation to see your plans plotted on the map. The update had first arrived on the desktop this past October. Google has also offered these sort of “private” results within Google Search previously, again for signed-in users. In the case of Google Search, users can also track packages, see Calendar appointments, google their own photos from Google Search, and query up information about the contacts they have saved on their Google Contacts lists.
The company has been slowly iterating on making Google’s apps feel less like standalone destinations, and more like tools that allow you to access the vast data that Google has about the world, and about you personally. It’s been blurring the lines between its services, as well as between what’s public and private.
The added functionality, like that arriving in Maps today on iOS, makes Google into a more personalized, smart assistant, even for those who don’t have an Android phone running Google Now.