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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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Amazon “seized and destroyed” 2 million counterfeit products in 2020

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Enlarge / Amazon trailers backed into bays at a distribution center in Miami, Florida, in August 2019.

Amazon “seized and destroyed” over 2 million counterfeit products that sellers sent to Amazon warehouses in 2020 and “blocked more than 10 billion suspected bad listings before they were published in our store,” the company said in its first “Brand Protection Report.”

In 2020, “we seized and destroyed more than 2 million products sent to our fulfillment centers and that we detected as counterfeit before being sent to a customer,” Amazon’s report said. “In cases where counterfeit products are in our fulfillment centers, we separate the inventory and destroy those products so they are not resold elsewhere in the supply chain,” the report also said.

Third-party sellers can also ship products directly to consumers instead of using Amazon’s shipping system. The 2 million fakes found in Amazon fulfillment centers would only account for counterfeit products from sellers using the “Fulfilled by Amazon” service.

The counterfeit problem got worse over the past year. “Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen increased attempts by bad actors to commit fraud and offer counterfeit products,” Amazon VP Dharmesh Mehta wrote in a blog post yesterday.

Counterfeiting is a longstanding problem on Amazon. Other problems on Amazon that harm consumers include the sale of dangerous products, fake reviews, defective third-party goods, and the passing of bribes from unscrupulous sellers to unscrupulous Amazon employees and contractors. One US appeals court ruled in 2019 that Amazon can be held responsible for defective third-party goods, but Amazon has won other similar cases. Amazon is again arguing that it should not be held liable for a defective third-party product in a case before the Texas Supreme Court that involves a severely injured toddler.

Amazon tries to reassure legit sellers

Amazon’s new report was meant to reassure legitimate sellers that their products won’t be counterfeited. While counterfeits remain a problem for unsuspecting Amazon customers, the e-commerce giant said that “fewer than 0.01 percent of all products sold on Amazon received a counterfeit complaint from customers” in 2020. Of course, people may buy and use counterfeit products without ever realizing they are fake or without reporting it to Amazon, so that percentage may not capture the extent of the problem.

Amazon’s report on counterfeits describes extensive systems and processes to determine which sellers can do business on Amazon. While Amazon has argued in court that it is not liable for what third parties sell on its platform, the company is monitoring sellers in an effort to maintain credibility with buyers and legitimate sellers.

Amazon said it “invested over $700 million and employed more than 10,000 people to protect our store from fraud and abuse” in 2020, adding:

We leverage a combination of advanced machine learning capabilities and expert human investigators to protect our store proactively from bad actors and bad products. We are constantly innovating to stay ahead of bad actors and their attempts to circumvent our controls. In 2020, we prevented over 6 million attempts to create new selling accounts, stopping bad actors before they published a single product for sale, and blocked more than 10 billion suspected bad listings before they were published in our store.

“This is an escalating battle with criminals that attempt to sell counterfeits, and the only way to permanently stop counterfeiters is to hold them accountable through litigation in the court system and through criminal prosecution,” Amazon also said. “In 2020, we established a new Counterfeit Crimes Unit to build and refer cases to law enforcement, undertake independent investigations or joint investigations with brands, and pursue civil litigation against counterfeiters.”

Amazon said it now “report[s] all confirmed counterfeiters to law enforcement agencies in Canada, China, the European Union, UK, and US.” Amazon also urged governments to “increase prosecution of counterfeiters, increase resources for law enforcement fighting counterfeiters, and incarcerate these criminals globally.”

Stricter seller-verification system

Amazon said it had a “new live video and physical address verification” system in place in 2020 in which “Amazon connects one-on-one with prospective sellers through a video chat or in person at an Amazon office to verify sellers’ identities and government-issued documentation.” Amazon said it also “verifies new and existing sellers’ addresses by sending information including a unique code to the seller’s address.”

Most new attempts to register as a seller were apparently fraudulent, as Amazon said that “only 6 percent of attempted new seller account registrations passed our robust verification processes and listed products.” Overall, Amazon “stopped over 6 million attempts to create a selling account before they were able to publish a single listing for sale” in 2020, more than double “the 2.5 million attempts we stopped in 2019,” Amazon said.

The verification process isn’t enough on its own to stop all new fraudulent sellers, so Amazon said it performs “continuous monitoring” of sellers to identify new risks. “If we identify a bad actor, we immediately close their account, withhold funds disbursement, and determine if this new information brings other related accounts into suspicion. We also determine if the case warrants civil or criminal prosecution and report the bad actor to law enforcement,” Amazon said.

Amazon monitors product detail changes for fraud

One problem we wrote about a few months ago involves “bait-and-switch reviews” in which sellers trick Amazon into displaying reviews for unrelated products to get to the top of Amazon’s search results. In one case, a $23 drone with 6,400 reviews achieved a five-star average rating only because it had thousands of reviews for honey. At some point, the product listing had changed from a food item to a tech product, but the reviews for the food product remained. After a purging of the old reviews, that same product page now lists just 348 ratings at a 3.6-star average.

Amazon is trying to prevent recurrences of this problem, saying in its new report that it scans “more than 5 billion attempted changes to product detail pages daily for signs of potential abuse.”

Amazon also provides self-service tools to companies to help them block counterfeits of their products. Amazon’s report said that 18,000 brands have enrolled in “Project Zero,” which “provides brands with unprecedented power by giving them the ability to directly remove listings from our store.” The program also has an optional product serialization feature that lets sellers put unique codes on their products or packaging.

The self-service tool only accounts for a tiny percentage of blocked listings. “For every 1 listing removed by a brand through our self-service counterfeit removal tool, our automated protections removed more than 600 listings through scaled technology and machine learning that proactively addresses potential counterfeits and stops those listings from appearing in our store,” Amazon said.

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Hackers who shut down pipeline: We don’t want to cause “problems for society”

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Enlarge / Problems with Colonial Pipeline’s distribution system tend to lead to gasoline runs and price increases across the US Southeast and Eastern seaboard. In this September 2016 photo, a man prepared to refuel his vehicle after a Colonial leak in Alabama.

On Friday, Colonial Pipeline took many of its systems offline in the wake of a ransomware attack. With systems offline to contain the threat, the company’s pipeline system is inoperative. The system delivers approximately 45 percent of the East Coast’s petroleum products, including gasoline, diesel fuel, and jet fuel.

Colonial Pipeline issued a statement Sunday saying that the US Department of Energy is leading the US federal government response to the attack. “[L]eading, third-party cybersecurity experts” engaged by Colonial Pipeline itself are also on the case. The company’s four main pipelines are still down, but it has begun restoring service to smaller lateral lines between terminals and delivery points as it determines how to safely restart its systems and restore full functionality.

Colonial Pipeline has not publicly said what was demanded of it or how the demand was made. Meanwhile, the hackers have issued a statement saying that they’re just in it for the money.

Regional emergency declaration

In response to the attacks on Colonial Pipeline, the Biden administration issued a Regional Emergency Declaration 2021-002 this Sunday. The declaration provides a temporary exemption to Parts 390 through 399 of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, allowing alternate transportation of petroleum products via tanker truck to relieve shortages related to the attack.

The emergency declaration became effective immediately upon issuance Sunday and remains in effect until June 8 or until the emergency ends, whichever is sooner. Although the move will ease shortages somewhat, oil market analyst Gaurav Sharma told the BBC the exemption wouldn’t be anywhere near enough to replace the pipeline’s missing capacity. “Unless they sort it out by Tuesday, they’re in big trouble,” said Sharma, adding that “the first areas to hit would be Atlanta and Tennessee, then the domino effect goes up to New York.”

Russian gang DarkSide believed responsible for attack

Unnamed US government and private security sources engaged by Colonial have told CNN, The Washington Post, and Bloomberg that the Russian criminal gang DarkSide is likely responsible for the attack. DarkSide typically chooses targets in non-Russian-speaking countries but describes itself as “apolitical” on its dark web site.

Infosec analyst Dmitry Smilyanets tweeted a screenshot of a statement the group made this morning, apparently concerning the Colonial Pipeline attack:

NBC News reports that Russian cybercriminals frequently freelance for the Kremlin—but indications point to a cash grab made by the criminals themselves this time rather than a state-sponsored attack.

Dmitri Alperovitch, a co-founder of infosec company CrowdStrike, claims that direct Russian state involvement hardly matters at this point. “Whether they work for the state or not is increasingly irrelevant, given Russia’s obvious policy of harboring and tolerating cybercrime,” he said.

DarkSide “operates like a business”

This sample threat was posted to DarkSide's dark web site in 2020, detailing attacks made on a threat management company.
Enlarge / This sample threat was posted to DarkSide’s dark web site in 2020, detailing attacks made on a threat management company.

London-based security firm Digital Shadows said in September that DarkSide operates like a business and described its business model as “RaaC”—meaning Ransomware-as-a-Corporation.

In terms of its actual attack methods, DarkSide doesn’t appear to be very different from smaller criminal operators. According to Digital Shadows, the group stands out due to its careful selection of targets, preparation of custom ransomware executables for each target, and quasi-corporate communication throughout the attacks.

DarkSide claims to avoid targets in medical, education, nonprofit, or governmental sectors—and claims that it only attacks “companies that can pay the requested amount” after “carefully analyz[ing] accountancy” and determining a ransom amount based on a company’s net income. Digital Shadows believes these claims largely translate to “we looked you up on ZoomInfo first.”

It seems quite possible that the group didn’t realize how much heat it would bring onto itself with the Colonial Pipeline attack. Although not a government entity itself, Colonial’s operations are crucial enough to national security to have brought down immediate Department of Energy response—which the group certainly noticed and appears to have responded to via this morning’s statement that it would “check each company that our partners want to encrypt” to avoid “social consequences” in the future.

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Apple brass discussed disclosing 128-million iPhone hack, then decided not to

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In September 2015, Apple managers had a dilemma on their hands: should, or should they not, notify 128 million iPhone users of what remains the worst mass iOS compromise on record? Ultimately, all evidence shows, they chose to keep quiet.

The mass hack first came to light when researchers uncovered 40 malicious App Store apps, a number that mushroomed to 4,000 as more researchers poked around. The apps contained code that made iPhones and iPads part of a botnet that stole potentially sensitive user information.

128 million infected.

An email entered into court this week in Epic Games’ lawsuit against Apple shows that, on the afternoon of September 21, 2015, Apple managers had uncovered 2,500 malicious apps that had been downloaded a total of 203 million times by 128 million users, 18 million of whom were in the US.

“Joz, Tom and Christine—due to the large number of customers potentially affected, do we want to send an email to all of them?” App Store VP Matthew Fischer wrote, referring to Apple Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Greg Joswiak and Apple PR people Tom Neumayr and Christine Monaghan. The email continued:

If yes, Dale Bagwell from our Customer Experience team will be on point to manage this on our side. Note that this will pose some challenges in terms of language localizations of the email, since the downloads of these apps took place in a wide variety of App Store storefronts around the world (e.g. we wouldn’t want to send an English-language email to a customer who downloaded one or more of these apps from the Brazil App Store, where Brazilian Portuguese would be the more appropriate language).

The dog ate our disclosure

About 10 hours later, Bagwell discusses the logistics of notifying all 128 million affected users, localizing notifications to each users’ language, and “accurately includ[ing] the names of the apps for each customer.”

Alas, all appearances are that Apple never followed through on its plans. An Apple representative could point to no evidence that such an email was ever sent. Statements the representative sent on background—meaning I’m not permitted to quote them—noted that Apple instead published only this now-deleted post.

The post provides very general information about the malicious app campaign and eventually lists only the top 25 most downloaded apps. “If users have one of these apps, they should update the affected app which will fix the issue on the user’s device,” the post stated. “If the app is available on [the] App Store, it has been updated, if it isn’t available it should be updated very soon.”

Ghost of Xcode

The infections were the result of legitimate developers writing apps using a counterfeit copy of Xcode, Apple’s iOS and OS X app development tool. The repackaged tool dubbed XcodeGhost surreptitiously inserted malicious code alongside normal app functions.

From there, apps caused iPhones to report to a command and control server and provide a variety of device information, including the name of the infected app, the app-bundle identifier, network information, the device’s “identifierForVendor” details, and the device name, type, and unique identifier.

XcodeGhost billed itself as faster to download in China, compared with Xcode available from Apple. For developers to have run the counterfeit version, they would have had to click through a warning delivered by Gatekeeper, the macOS security feature that requires apps to be digitally signed by a known developer.

The lack of follow-through is disappointing. Apple has long prioritized the security of the devices it sells. It has also made privacy a centerpiece of its products. Directly notifying those affected by this lapse would have been the right thing to do. We already knew that Google routinely doesn’t notify users when they download malicious Android apps or Chrome extensions. Now we know that Apple has done the same thing.

Stopping Dr. Jekyll

The email wasn’t the only one that showed Apple brass hashing out security problems. A separate one sent to Apple Fellow Phil Schiller and others in 2013 forwarded a copy of the Ars article headlined “Seemingly benign ‘Jekyll’ app passes Apple review, then becomes ‘evil’.”

The article discussed research from computer scientists who found a way to sneak malicious programs into the App Store without being detected by the mandatory review process that’s supposed to automatically flag such apps. Schiller and the other people receiving the email wanted to figure out how to shore up its protections in light of their discovery that the static analyzer Apple used wasn’t effective against the newly discovered method.

“This static analyzer looks at API names rather than true APIs being called, so there’s often the issue of false positives,” Apple senior VP of Internet software and services Eddy Cue wrote. “The Static Analyzer enables us to catch direct accessing of Private APIs, but it completely misses apps using indirect methods of accessing these Private APIs. This is what the authors used in their Jekyll apps.”

The email went on to discuss limitations of two other Apple defenses, one known as Privacy Proxy and the other Backdoor Switch.

“We need some help in convincing other teams to implement this functionality for us,” Cue wrote. “Until then, it is more brute force, and somewhat ineffective.”

Lawsuits involving large companies often provide never-before-seen portals into the inner-workings of the way they and their executives work. Often, as the case is here, those views are at odds with the companies’ talking points. The trial resumes next week.

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