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Fleksy’s keyboard grabs $800k+ via equity crowdfunding

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The dev team that’s now engineering the Fleksy keyboard app has raised more than $800,000 via an equity crowdfunding route.

As we reported a year ago, the development of Fleksy’s keyboard has been taken over by the Barcelona-based startup behind an earlier keyboard app called ThingThing.

The team says their new funding raise — described as a pre-Series A round — will be put towards continued product development of the Fleksy keyboard, including the core AI engine used for next word and content prediction, plus additional features being requested by users — such as swipe to type. 

Support for more languages is also planned. (Fleksy’s Android and iOS apps are currently available in 45+ languages.)

Their other big push will be for growth: Scaling the user-base via a licensing route to market in which the team pitches Android OEMs on the benefits of baking Fleksy in as the default keyboard — offering a high degree of customization, alongside a feature-set that boasts not just speedy typing but apps within apps and extensions. 

The Fleksy keyboard can offer direct access to web search within the keyboard, for example, as well as access to third party apps (in an apps within apps play) — to reduce the need for full app switching.

This was the original concept behind ThingThing’s eponymous keyboard app, though the team has refocused efforts on Fleksy. And bagged their first OEMs as licensing partners.

They’ve just revealed Palm as an early partner. The veteran brand unveiled a dinky palm-sized ‘ultra-mobile’ last week. The tiny extra detail is that the device runs a custom version of the Fleksy keyboard out of the box.

With just 3.3 inches of screen to play with, the keyboard on the Palm risks being a source of stressful friction. Ergo enter Fleksy, with gesture based tricks to speed up cramped typing, plus tried and tested next-word prediction.

ThingThing CEO Olivier Plante says Palm was looking for an “out of the box optimized input method” — and more than that “high customization”.

“We’re excited to team up with ThingThing to design a custom keyboard that delivers a full keyboard typing experience for Palm’s ultra mobile form factor,” adds Dennis Miloseski, co-founder of Palm, in a statement. “Fleksy enables gestures and voice-to-text which makes typing simple and convenient for our users on the go.”

Plante says Fleksy has more OEM partnerships up its sleeve too. “We’re pending to announce new partnerships very soon and grow our user base to more than 25 million users while bringing more revenue to the medium and small OEMs desperately looking to increase their profit margins — software is the cure,” he tells TechCrunch.

ThingThing is pitching itself as a neutral player in the keyboard space, offering OEMs a highly tweakable layer where the Qwerty sits as its strategy to compete with Android’s keyboard giants: Google’s Gboard and Microsoft-owned SwiftKey. 

“We changed a lot of things in Fleksy so it feels native,” says Plante, discussing the Palm integration. “We love when the keyboard feels like the brand and with Palm it’s completely a Palm keyboard to the end-user — and with stellar performance on a small screen.”

“We’ve beaten our competitor to the punch,” he adds. 

That said, the tiny Palm (pictured in the feature image at the top of this post) is unlikely to pack much of a punch in marketshare terms. While Palm is a veteran — and, to nerds, almost cult — brand it’s not even a mobile tiddler in smartphone marketshare terms.

Palm’s cute micro phone is also an experimental attempt to create a new mobile device category — a sort of netbook-esque concept of an extra mobile that’s extra portable — which looks unlikely to be anything other than extremely niche. (Added to its petite size, the Palm is a Verizon exclusive.)

Even so ThingThing is talking bullishly of targeting 550M devices using its keyboard by 2020.

At this stage its user-base from pure downloads is also niche: Just over 1M active users. But Plante says it has already closed “several phone brands partnerships” — saying three are signed, with three more in the works — claiming this will make Fleksy the default input method in more than 20-30 million active users in the coming months. 

He doesn’t name any names but describes these other partners as “other major phone brands”.

The plan to grow Fleksy’s user-base via licensing has attracted wider investor backing now, via the equity crowdfunding route. The team had initially been targeting ($300k). In all they’ve secured $815,119 from 446 investors.

Plante says they went down the equity crowdfunding route to spread their pitch more widely, and get more ambassadors on board — as well as to demonstrate “that we’re a user-centric/people/independent company aiming big”.

“We are keen to work and fully customize the keyboard to the OEM tastes. We know this is key for them so they can better compete against the others on more than simply the hardware,” he says, making the ‘Fleksy for OEMs’ pitch. “Today, the market is saturated with yet another box, better camera and better screen…. the missing piece in Android ecosystem is software differences.”

Given how tight margins remain for Android makers it remains to be seen how many will bite. Though there’s a revenue share arrangement that sweetens the deal.

It is also certainly true that differentiation in the Android space is a big problem. That’s why Palm is trying its hand at a smaller form factor — in a leftfield attempt to stand out by going small.

The European Union’s recent antitrust ruling against Google’s Android OS has also opened up an opportunity for additional software customization, via unbundled Google apps. So there’s at least a chance for some new thinking and ideas to emerge in the regional Android smartphone space. And that could be good for Spain-based ThingThing.

Aside from the licensing fee, the team’s business model relies on generating revenue via affiliate links and its fleksyapps platform. ThingThing then shares revenue with OEM partners, so that’s another carrot for them — offering a services topper on their hardware margin.

Though that piece will need scale to really spin up. Hence ThingThing’s user target for Fleksy being so big and bold.

“We’re working with brands in order to bring them into any apps where you type, which unlocks brand new use cases and enables the user to share conveniently and the brand to drive mobile traffic to their service,” says Plante. “On this note, we monetize via affiliate/deep linking and operating a fleksyapps Store.”

ThingThing has also made privacy by design a major focus — which is a key way it’s hoping to make the keyboard app stand out against data-mining big tech rivals.

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Microsoft announces AI-powered Bing search and Edge browser

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Enlarge / A screenshot of Microsoft’s new Bing search with AI integrations from OpenAI.

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Fresh off news of an extended partnership last month, Microsoft has announced a new version of its Bing search engine and Edge browser that will integrate ChatGPT-style AI language model technology from OpenAI. These new integrations will allow people to see search results with AI annotations side by side and also chat with an AI model similar to ChatGPT. Microsoft says a limited preview of the new Bing will be available online today.

Microsoft announced the new products during a press event held on Tuesday in Redmond. “It’s a new day in search,” The Verge quotes Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella as saying at the event, taking a clear shot at Google, which has dominated web search for decades. “The race starts today, and we’re going to move and move fast. Most importantly, we want to have a lot of fun innovating again in search, because it’s high time.”

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During the event, Microsoft demonstrated a new version of Bing that displays traditional search results on the left side of the window while providing AI-powered context and annotations on the right side. Microsoft envisions this side-by-side layout as a way to fact check the AI results, allowing the two sources of information to complement each other. ChatGPT is well known for its ability to hallucinate convincing answers out of thin air, and Microsoft appears to be hedging against that tendency.

Another mode allows users to interact with the Bing chatbot through a regular chat interface, such as ChatGPT, by asking it questions. In Edge, Microsoft will provide two new features: one called “compose,” which acts as a writing assistant; and “chat,” which can summarize a website or provide an interactive Q&A about the website’s contents.

The “new Bing” isn’t the first service to experiment with AI-assisted search engines. Both Perplexity Ask and YouChat currently provide similar conversational AI offerings. And on Monday, Google lifted the veil on Bard, an AI-powered conversational bot that it says will power the future of its search experience, although it’s not available in demo form yet. We expect to hear more about Bard and potentially other Google AI projects during an event scheduled for Wednesday.

For now, Microsoft has made the new Bing available on a limited preview basis with some prefilled search results at bing.com/new, where there’s also a sign-up link for a waitlist. This is a breaking news story, and we’ll update it as we learn new information.

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Google and Mozilla are working on iOS browsers that break current App Store rules

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Enlarge / Mozilla’s current logo for Firefox.

Companies like Google, Mozilla, and Microsoft have versions of their web browsers on Apple’s iOS and iPadOS App Stores, but these versions come with a big caveat: The App Store rules require them to use Safari’s WebKit rendering engine rather than the engines those browsers use in other operating systems.

But that could be changing. According to The Register, Google and Mozilla have recently been spotted working on versions of Chromium and Firefox that use their normal Blink and Gecko rendering engines, respectively.

Apple hasn’t announced any rule changes. The correlated activity from Google and Mozilla could suggest that they’re expecting Apple to drop its restrictions on third-party browser engines in the near future, or the companies could simply be hedging their bets. Regulatory pressure from multiple governments is pushing Apple in the direction of loosening many of its App Store restrictions, including (begrudgingly) accepting third-party payment services and sideloading of apps and third-party app stores.

The iOS versions of Chrome, Firefox, Edge, and others can currently sync with their desktop counterparts and present whatever user interface they want, but the WebKit requirement means their capabilities and shortcomings are mostly the same as Safari’s. No such restriction exists on macOS, where third-party browsers can use whatever rendering engine they please.

Apple could still conceivably impose limitations on the way these browsers work—the amount of storage they’re allowed to use for caching content, how much memory and CPU capacity they’re permitted to use while running in the background, how aggressively tabs must be unloaded from RAM to make room for other apps, what extensions they’re allowed to use, and plenty of other possibilities. But for the iPad in particular, opening the platform up to third-party browser engines will hopefully mean more third-party browsers that look and act more like their macOS and Windows counterparts.

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Hackers are mass infecting servers worldwide by exploiting a patched hole

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An explosion of cyberattacks is infecting servers around the world with crippling ransomware by exploiting a vulnerability that was patched two years ago, it was widely reported on Monday.

The hacks exploit a flaw in ESXi, a hypervisor VMware sells to cloud hosts and other large-scale enterprises to consolidate their hardware resources. ESXi is what’s known as a bare-metal, or Type 1, hypervisor, meaning it’s essentially its own operating system that runs directly on server hardware. By contrast, servers running the more familiar Type 2 class of hypervisors, such as VMware’s VirtualBox, run as apps on top of a host operating system. The Type 2 hypervisors then run virtual machines that host their own guest OSes such as Windows, Linux or, less commonly, macOS.

Enter ESXiArgs

Advisories published recently by computer emergency response teams (CERT) in France, Italy, and Austria report a “massive” campaign that began no later than Friday and has gained momentum since then. Citing results of a search on Census, CERT officials in Austria, said that as of Sunday, there were more than 3,200 infected servers, including eight in that country.

“Since ESXi servers provide a large number of systems as virtual machines (VM), a multiple of this number of affected individual systems can be expected,” the officials wrote.

The vulnerability being exploited to infect the servers is CVE-2021-21974, which stems from a heap-based buffer overflow in OpenSLP, an open network-discovery standard that’s incorporated into ESXi. When VMware patched the vulnerability in February 2021, the company warned it could be exploited by a malicious actor with access to the same network segment over port 427. The vulnerability had a severity rating of 8.8 out of a possible 10. Proof-of-concept exploit code and instructions for using it became available a few months later.

Over the weekend, French cloud host OVH said that it doesn’t have the ability to patch the vulnerable servers set up by its customers.

“ESXi OS can only be installed on bare metal servers,” wrote Julien Levrard, OVH’s chief information security officer. “We launched several initiatives to identify vulnerable servers, based on our automation logs to detect ESXI installation by our customers. We have limited means of action since we have no logical access to our customer servers.”

In the meantime, the company has blocked access to port 427 and is also notifying all customers it identifies as running vulnerable servers.

Levrard said the ransomware installed in the attacks encrypts virtual machine files, including those ending in .vmdk, .vmx, .vmxf, .vmsd, .vmsn, .vswp, .vmss, .nvram, and .vmem. The malware then tries to unlock the files by terminating a process known as VMX. The function isn’t working as its developers intended, resulting in the files remaining locked.

Researchers have dubbed the campaign and the ransomware behind it ESXiArgs because the malware creates an additional file with the extension “.args” after encrypting a document. The .args file stores data used to decrypt encrypted data.

Researchers from the YoreGroup Tech Team, Enes Sonmez and Ahmet Aykac, reported that the encryption process for ESXiArgs can make mistakes that allow victims to restore encrypted data. OVH’s Levrard said his team tested the restoration process the researchers described and found it successful in about two-thirds of the attempts.

Anyone who relies on ESXi should stop whatever they’re doing and check to ensure patches for CVE-2021-21974 have been installed. The above-linked advisories also provide more guidance for locking down servers that use this hypervisor.

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