In the wake of TechCrunch’s investigation yesterday, Apple blocked Facebook’s Research VPN app before the social network could voluntarily shut it down. The Research app asked users for root network access to all data passing through their phone in exchange for $20 per month. Apple tells TechCrunch that yesterday evening it revoked the Enterprise Certificate that allows Facebook to distribute the Research app without going through the App Store. This not only breaks the Research app, but all of Facebook’s internal-use employee apps for collaboration and logistics too, from workplace chat to the lunch menu.
TechCrunch had reported that Facebook was breaking Apple’s policy that the Enterprise system is only for distributing internal corporate apps to employees, not paid external testers. That was actually before Facebook released a statement last night saying that it had shut down the iOS version of the Research program without mentioning that it was forced by Apple to do so.
TechCrunch’s investigation discovered that Facebook has been quietly operated the Research program on iOS and Android since 2016, recently under the name Project Atlas. It recruited 13 to 35 year olds, 5 percent of which were teenagers, with ads on Instagram and Snapchat and paid them a monthly fee plus referral bonuses to install Facebook’s Research app, the included VPN app that routes traffic to Facebook, and to ‘Trust’ the company with root network access to their phone. That lets Facebook pull in a user’s web browsing activity, what apps are on their phone and how they use them, and even decrypt their encrypted traffic. Facebook went so far as to ask users to screenshot and submit their Amazon order history. Facebook uses all this data to track competitors, assess trends, and plan its product roadmap.
Sources tell us that Apple revoking Facebook’s Enterprise Certificate has broken all of the company’s legitimate employee-only apps. Those include pre-launch internal-testing versions of Facebook and Instagram, as well as the employee apps for coordinating office collaboration, commutes, seeing the day’s lunch schedule, and more. That’s causing mayhem at Facebook, disrupting their daily work flow and ability to do product development. We predicted yesterday that Apple could take this drastic step to punish Facebook much harder than just removing its Research app. The disruption will translate into a huge loss of productivity for Facebook’s 33,000 employees.
[Update: Facebook later confirmed to TechCrunch that its internal apps were broken by Apple’s punishment Wednesday morning and that it’s in talks with Apple to try to resolve the issue and get their employee tools running again. Around 3pm pacific on Thursday, Apple restored Facebook’s Enterprise Certificate, thereby reactivating its internal employee apps. The nearly two work day-long disrupt to its workflow might make Facebook think twice about messing with Apple again.]
For reference, Facebook’s main iOS app still functions normally. Also, you can’t get paid for installing Onavo Protect on Android, only for the Facebook Research app. And Facebook isn’t the only one violating Apple’s Enterprise Certificate policy, as TechCrunch discovered Google’s Screenwise Meter surveillance app breaks the rules too.
This morning, Apple informed us it had banned Facebook’s Research app yesterday before the social network seemingly pulled it voluntarily. Apple provided us with this strongly worded statement condemning the social network’s behavior:
“We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization. Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple. Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case to protect our users and their data.”
That comes in direct contradiction to Facebook’s initial response to our investigation. Facebook claimed it was in alignment with Apple’s Enterprise Certificate policy and that the program was no different than a focus group.
Seven hours later, a Facebook spokesperson said it was pulling its Research program from iOS without mentioning that Apple forced it to do so, and issued this statement disputing the characterization of our story:
“Key facts about this market research program are being ignored. Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App. It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”
We refute those accusations by Facebook. As we wrote yesterday night, Facebook did not publicly promote the Research VPN itself and used intermediaries that often didn’t disclose Facebook’s involvement until users had begun the signup process. While users were given clear instructions and warnings, the program never stresses nor mentions the full extent of the data Facebook can collect through the VPN. A small fraction of the users paid may have been teens, but we stand by the newsworthiness of its choice not to exclude minors from this data collection initiative.
Senator Mark Warner has since called on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to support legislation requiring individual informed consent for market research initiatives like Facebook Research. Meanwhile, Senator Richard Blumenthal issued a fierce statement that “Wiretapping teens is not research, and it should never be permissible.”
The situation will surely worsen the relationship between Facebook and Apple after years of mounting animosity between the tech giants. Apple’s Tim Cook has repeatedly criticized Facebook’s data collection practices, and Zuckerberg has countered that it offers products for free for everyone rather than making products few can afford like Apple. Flared tensions could see Facebook receive less promotion in the App Store, fewer integrations into iOS, and more jabs from Cook. Meanwhile, the world sees Facebook as having been caught red-handed threatening user privacy and breaking Apple policy.
YouTube teases expansion of livestream shopping with new features arriving later this year – TechCrunch
In recent years, YouTube has been working to transform its platform into more of a shopping destination with product launches like shoppable ads or more recently, the ability to shop directly from livestreams hosted by creators. Now, it’s furthering that investment with new features for live shopping experiences. At yesterday’s YouTube Brandcast event, where the company pitched itself to advertisers as a better place for their TV ad dollars, YouTube teased upcoming features that it claimed would make it easier for viewers to discover and buy from brands.
The company touted its forthcoming tools as offering advertisers a better way to engage viewers and make connections with their audience.
One new feature, explained YouTube, will allow two creators to go live at the same time to cohost a single live shopping stream. This could effectively double the draw for the event, as each creator would bring their own fanbase to the stream.
This feature arrives shortly after YouTube in March announced a pilot program called “Go Live Together,” a new mobile collaborative streaming feature that would enable creators to invite guests to their livestream with a link before going live together. This trial suggested YouTube had its eye on developing tools to better power joint livestreams — just as it’s now planning to introduce with its upcoming two-person live shopping streams. The addition could also make YouTube more competitive with Instagram which launched the ability for creators to go live with up to three people last year.
In addition to leveraging creators to build an audience for a live shopping event, YouTube’s shopping livestreams platform also offers other tools specifically designed to drive sales. The brand-integrated shopping experience actually allows viewers to shop the products shown in the video by tapping on a built-in “view products” button which then brings up a list of items featured by the creators.
The company says its new two-person live shopping feature will roll out sometime later this year.
Another upcoming option announced at Brandcast is something YouTube calls “live redirects.”
In this case, creators will be able to start a shopping livestream on their channel, then redirect their audience over to a brand’s channel for fans to keep watching. This allows brands to tap into the power of the creator’s platform and reach their fanbase, but then gives the brands themselves access to that audience — and the key metrics and analytics associated with their live event — directly on their own YouTube channel. This will also roll out sometime this year, says YouTube, but didn’t provide a timeframe.
YouTube’s announcements follow the broader growth of the live e-commerce market in the U.S. — a trend inspired by the livestream shopping activity surging in China, where streamers can pull in billions of dollars in a matter of hours. Today, a number of startups have also entered this space, including TalkShopLive, PopShop Live, NTWRK, Whatnot, ShopShops, Supergreat, and others. Klarna even added virtual shopping capabilities to connect its buy-now, pay-later customers with live product demos from retail partners.
Retailers, too, are getting in on the action. Nordstrom launched a live events platform, while Forever 21 and Macy’s are among those that added live shopping to their apps.
Meanwhile, big tech platforms are wooing brands by touting their wider reach.
Over the past year or so, we’ve seen Walmart pilot testing TikTok’s first livestreamed shopping experience; Facebook’s live shopping boosting sales for brands like Petco, Benefit, Samsung, Anne Klein, and others; and Instagram hosting live shopping events to cater to holiday crowds. Twitter even began to test livestream shopping, also with Walmart’s help on its pilot run — but it’s unclear where such initiatives will land if the Elon Musk buyout comes to pass.
While YouTube is certainly one of the largest creator platforms for video, there is some indication that it needs to catch up to its big tech rivals in livestream shopping, however. An eMarketer study from Jan. 2022 found that only 14.4% of survey respondents said YouTube’s platform drove them to purchase during a livestream event compared with 15.8% for TikTok, 45.8% for Instagram, and 57.8% for Facebook.
YouTube’s new livestream features — and particularly the one that pushes a creator’s fanbase to a brand’s channel — could make its solution more compelling.
“People come to YouTube every day to make decisions about what to buy, and 87% of viewers say that when they’re shopping or browsing on YouTube, they feel like they can make a faster decision about what to purchase because of all the information that we have in videos,” said YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, speaking to the audience at the Brandcast live event last night. “We have so much shopping activity that is already happening on YouTube, so we are making it even easier for viewers to discover and to buy,” she said.
IROKO co-founder Bastian Gotter raises $3.2M seed for new venture, Bamba – TechCrunch
In 2010, Bastian Gotter invested up to $200,000 into IROKOtv, an African video-on-demand company Jason Njoku, his friend and co-founder, launched in Lagos, Nigeria.
For the next couple of years, Gotter, as CFO, was instrumental in turning IROKO — after raising over $30 million from VCs, including Tiger Global — into a household name in Nigeria’s entertainment and tech scenes.
Gotter left the media company in 2017, an exit that afforded him the chance to take up angel investing full-time and pursue new projects. Gotter has cut checks in Paystack, Flutterwave and betPawa and co-runs Spark, an investment vehicle he launched with Njoku.
In 2018, he started a pre-school chain based in the U.K. and South Africa. Two years later, he became part of the founding team of Kenyan-based fintech PawaPay, whose API connects up to 25 telecom operators’ mobile money systems and allows merchants from 10 countries to receive and send payments between mobile money accounts.
Gotter is an investor and board member in PawaPay, roles that can be active and passive depending on who’s involved. For Gotter, it was more of the latter, and so this January, he began to explore other opportunities in the mobile money payments space, specifically relating to small businesses. This led him to start Bamba, a mobile-based enterprise software for African micro-merchants, that has raised $3.2 million.
After spending some time in Kenya (where he was now used to paying via mobile money and rarely cash), he noticed that businesses relied heavily on manual bookkeeping and didn’t have software to record their cash and mobile money transactions.
“They also recorded stock components and had some form of customer relationship management on WhatsApp. It wasn’t a coherent picture and was just a big mess,” he said on a call to TechCrunch. “And that’s where we ultimately saw an opportunity to launch Bamba.”
Micro, small and medium-sized businesses make up 90% of all businesses in sub-Saharan Africa. And there are new upstarts that provide digital bookkeeping services for a minute number of them in West Africa, such as Sabi Cash, Bumpa, Kippa and OZÉ. Bamba is a matching solution for Kenya and surrounding East African markets, where these merchants accepted over $200 billion in mobile money payments last year.
The platform comprises an enterprise management software and an Android application that provides tools for micro-merchants to run their businesses. Its features include managing customers, recording stock levels and receiving and making payments.
“Merchants can record what cash and mobile money transactions they collect and their cash and mobile money payouts. And through that initial record keeping, we have an entry point into the business,” said Gotter, who also mentioned that Bamba wants to improve cash collection for merchants primarily done via USSD and M-Pesa pay bill numbers at point-of-sale.
“We have the inventory management components that tie in with how many and which goods are sold. Then the payments bit ultimately resulting in a point of sale type devices like Square or Yoco that lets you get a clearer picture of your business and your activities.”
Lack of credit is a thorn in merchants’ flesh globally; this holds more true in sub-Sahara Africa, where the credit gap for small businesses stands at over $300 billion. This is one prominent area bookkeeping digitization proves its utmost importance for merchants. And despite launching with various entry points into the market, startups in this space converge at that singular point. For Bamba, its solution, intersecting inventory, CRM and payments will allow it to provide merchants with cash advances against their future cash flow.
“These are businesses that have previously not been lent to as their credit score was insufficient to get the appropriate loans. But since we have a pretty accurate picture of our customers in terms of its cash and mobile money receivables, we can make accurate lending decisions to them in a way not done before,” the CEO stated.
Bamba is currently in stealth mode and is yet to launch. Gotter said the five-month-old startup is testing its platform with 30 merchants. Its revenue will come from two streams: a small payment fee paid by merchants and interests from its lending/cash advance product.
“We’re very deep in the research phase and quick iteration cycle to figure out the initial product we want to launch at a greater scale in 12 markets,” said the CEO who founded Bamba with Martin Schramm in January.
This seed funding is integral to speeding up this process of acquiring more users and scaling the engineering team behind the product. Berlin and San Francisco-based 468 Capital led the round, while Presight Ventures and Jigsaw VC participated alongside angel investors such as Laurin Hainy of FairMoney and Leonard Stiegeler of Pulse.
Ludwig Ensthaler, a partner at 468 Capital, in a statement, highlighted why his firm backed the Kenyan-based startup. He said the investment opportunities in enterprise software focused on African small businesses are largely untapped, and Bamba “is well placed with a great product and a solid founder to build a category-defining company.”
Apple reportedly testing E Ink outer display for upcoming foldable – TechCrunch
Ming-Chi Kuo is one of a handful of Apple analysts whose reports always warrant a second look, regardless of how strange they might seem at first blush. We’ve heard plenty of reports that the company is testing its own version of a foldable device, in its customary style of being fashionably late to the party, while also being the best dressed there.
It stands to reason that the company is experimenting with all sorts of takes on the form factor. While companies like Samsung and Huawei have made great strides since the first generation of foldable devices, one can certainly make the argument that no one has perfectly cracked the code just yet. The screen technology has improved a good bit in recent years — and so, too, has E Ink technology.
“Apple is testing E Ink’s Electronic Paper Display (EPD) for future foldable device’s cover screen & tablet-like applications,” Kuo reported on Twitter earlier today. “The color EPD has the potential to become a mainstream solution for foldable devices’ must-have cover/second screen thanks to its excellent power-saving.”
The last part is undeniable. One of E Ink’s biggest selling points is power saving. It’s a key part of the reason your Kindle’s battery life is rated in weeks, instead of hours. But the technology has traditionally had numerous drawbacks that have hampered mainstream adoption outside of a few select categories like e-readers.
Recent generations of E Ink’s electronic paper have added color and sped up the notoriously slow refresh rate and responsiveness. One imagines that there’s still a ways to go before Apple adopts such technology, even for a secondary, external display. Though, with the first of the company’s foldables rumored for a 2025 release (at earliest), perhaps that leaves enough time for the electronic paper technology to get up to speed.
As ever, one must take all of the above with a few grains of salt. It’s a long timeline, and even if the reports prove out, there’s a big gulf between testing and releasing. It’s also worth noting that these sorts of rumors have existed for nearly as long as the iPhone has. So, short term, maybe it’s best to focus on more attainable rumors like a USB-C iPhone.
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