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Instagram founders say losing autonomy at Facebook meant “winning” – TechCrunch

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Rather than be sore about losing independence within Facebook, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom told me it was an inevitable sign of his app’s triumph. Today at South By South West, Systrom and fellow co-founder Mike Krieger sat down for their first on-stage talk together since leaving Facebook in September. They discussed their super hero origin stories, authenticity on social media, looming regulation for big tech, and how they’re exploring what they’ll do next.

Krieger grew up hitting “view source” on websites while Systrom hacked on AOL booter programs that would kick people off instant messenger, teaching both how code could impact real people. As Instagram grew popular, Krieger described the “incredi-bad” feeling of fighting server fires and trying to keep the widely loved app online even if that meant programming in the middle of a sushi restaurant or camping retreat. He once even revived Instagram while drunk in the middle of the night, and woke up with no memory of the feat, confused about who’d fixed the problem. The former Instagram CTO implored founders not to fall into the “recruiting death spiral” where you’re too busy to recruit which makes you busier which makes you too busy to recruit…

But thankfully, the founders were also willing to dig into some tougher topics than their scrappy startup days.

Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger (from left) drive to Palo Alto to raise their Series A, circa January 2011

Independence vs Importance.

“In some ways, there being less autonomy is a function of Instagram winning. If Instagram had just been this niche photo app for photographers, we probably would be working on that app for 20 year. Instead what happened was it got better and better and better, and it improved, and it got to a size where it was meaningfully important to this company” Systrom explained. “If this thing gets to that scale that we want it to get to which is why we’re doing this deal, the autonomy will eventually not be there as much because it’s so important. So in some ways it’s just an unavoidable thing if you’re successful. So you can choose, do you want to be unsuccessful and small and have all the autonomy in the world, or no?”

AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 11: Mike Krieger speaks onstage at Interactive Keynote: Instagram Founders Kevin Systrom & Mike Krieger with Josh Constine during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin Convention Center on March 11, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW)

Krieger followed up that “I think if you study . . . all the current companies, the ones that succeed internally eventually have become so important to the acquiring company that it’s almost irresponsible to not be thinking about what are the right models for integration. The advice I generally give is, ‘are you okay with that if you succeed?’ And if you’re not then you shouldn’t do the deal.” If the loss of autonomy can’t be avoided, they suggest selling to a rocket ship that will invest in and care for your baby rather than shift priorities.

Asked if seeing his net worth ever feels surreal, Systrom said  money doesn’t make you happy and “I don’t really wake up in the morning and look at my bank account.” I noted that’s the convenient privilege of having a big one.

The pair threw cold water on the idea that being forced to earn more money drove them out of the company. “I remember having this series of conversations with Mark and other folks at Facebook and they’re like ‘You guys just joined, do not worry about monetization, we’ll figure this out down the road.’ And it actually came a lot more from us saying “1. It’s important for us to be contributing to the overall Fb Inc . . . and 2. Each person who joins before you have ads is a person you’re going to have to introduce ads to.” Systrom added that “to be clear, we were the ones pushing monetization, not the other way around, because we believed Instagram has to make money somehow. It costs a lot to run . . . We pushed hard on it so that we would be a successful unit within Facebook and I think we got to that point, which is really good.”

But from 2015 to 2016, Instagram’s remaining independence fueled a reinvention of its app with non-square photos, the shift to the algorithm, and the launch of Stories. On having to challenge the fundamental assumptions of a business, “You’ve got maybe a couple years of relevance when you build a product. If you don’t reinvent it every quarter or every year, then you fall out of relevance and you go away.”

That last launch was inspired by wanting to offer prismatic identity where people could share non-highlights that wouldn’t haunt them. But also, Systrom admits that “Honestly a big reason why was that for a long time, people’s profiles were filled with Snapchat links and it was clear that people were trying to bridge the two products. So by bringing the two products [Feed and Stories] into one place, we gave consumers what they wanted.” Though when I asked anyone in the crowd who was still mad about the algorithm to hiss, SXSW turned into a snake pit.

Regulating Big Tech

With Systrom and Krieger gone, Facebook is moving forward with plans to more tightly integrate Instagram with Facebook and WhatsApp. That includes unifying their messaging system, which some say is designed to make Facebook’s apps harder to break up with anti-trust regulation. What does Systrom think of the integration? “The more people that are available to talk with, the more useful the platform becomes. And I buy that thesis . . . Whether or not they will in fact want to talk to people on different platforms, I can’t tell the future, so I don’t know” Systrom said.

AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 11: Josh Constine, Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom speak onstage at Interactive Keynote: Instagram Founders Kevin Systrom & Mike Krieger with Josh Constine during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin Convention Center on March 11, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW)

Krieger recommended Facebook try to prove users want that cross-app messaging before embarking on a giant engineering challenge of merging their backends. When I asked if Systrom ever had a burning desire to Instagram Direct message a WhatsApp user, he admitted “Personally, no.” But in a show of respect and solid media training, he told his former employer “Bravo for making a big bet and going for it.”

Then it was time for the hardest hitting question: their thoughts on Presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to regulate big tech and roll back Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram. “Do we get our job back?” Systrom joked, trying to diffuse the tension. Krieger urged more consideration of downstream externalities, and specificity on what problem a break up fixes. He wants differentiation between regulating Facebook’s acquisitions, Amazon white-labeling and selling products, and Apple’s right to run the only iOS App Store.

Acquisition vs Competition

“We live in a time where I think the anger against big tech has increased ten-fold — whether that’s because the property prices in your neighborhood have gone up, whether it’s because you don’t like Russian meddling in elections — there are a long list of reasons people are angry at tech right now and some of them I think are well-founded” Systrom confirmed. “That doesn’t mean that the answer is to break all the companies up. Breaking companies up is a very specific prescription for a very specific problem. If you want to fix economic issues there are ways of doing that. If you want to fix Russian meddling there are ways of doing that. Breaking up a company doesn’t fix those problems. That doesn’t mean that companies shouldn’t be broken up if they get too big and they’re monopolies and they cause problems, but being big in and of itself is not a crime.”

attends Interactive Keynote: Instagram Founders Kevin Systrom & Mike Krieger with Josh Constine during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin Convention Center on March 11, 2019 in Austin, Texas

Systrom then took a jab at Warren’s tech literacy, saying “part of what’s surprised me is that generally the policy is all tech should be broken up, and that feels to me again not nuanced enough and it shows me that the understanding of the problem isn’t there. I think it’s going to take a more nuanced proposal, but my fear is that something like a proposal to break up all tech is playing on everyone’s current feeling of anti-tech rather than doing what I think politicians should do which is address real problems and give real solutions.”

The two founders then gave some pretty spurious logic for why Instagram’s acquisition helped consumers. “As someone who ran the company for how many years inside of Facebook? Six? There was a lot of competition internally even and I think better ideas came out because of it. We grew both companies not just one company. It’s really hard question. What consumer was damaged because it grew to the size that it did? I think that’s a strong argument that in fact the acquisition worked out for consumers.” That ignores the fact that if Instagram and Facebook were rivals, they’d have to compete on privacy and treating their users well. Even if they inspired each other to build more engaging products, that doesn’t address where harm to consumers has been done.

Krieger suggested that the acquisition actually spurred competition by making Instagram a role modeI. “There was a gold rush of companies being like ‘I’m going to be the Instagram of X . . . the Instagram of Audio, the Instagram of video, the Instagram of dog photos.’ You saw people start new companies and try to build them out in order to try to achieve what we’ve gotten to.” Yet no startup besides Snapchat, which had already launched, has actually grown to rival Instagram. And seeing Instagram hold its own against the Facebook empire would have likely inspired many more startups — some of which can’t find funding since investors doubt their odds against a combined Facebook and Instagram

As for what’s next for the college buddies, “we’re giving ourselves the time to get curious about things again” Krieger says. They’re still exploring so there was no big reveal about their follow-up venture. But Systrom says they built Instagram by finding the mega-trend of cameras on phones and asking what they’d want to use, “and the question is, what’s the next wave?”

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HBO Max attempts to fix its notoriously buggy app with oft-requested features – TechCrunch

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For years, HBO Max has been under fire for its buggy app. Today, the streaming service’s re-platformed app completed its global rollout on desktop, iOS, Android, and Amazon Fire tablets. New features include a shuffle button on mobile, SharePlay support for iPhone and iPad users in the U.S., a dedicated home for downloaded content, and more.

With the shuffle button now on mobile devices in addition to desktop and connected TV apps, users can randomize which episode to play for select series on the streaming service. U.S. subscribers with an ad-free subscription can use SharePlay on their iPhone or iPad to watch HBO Max content in sync with friends or family while on FaceTime.

Other updates include:

  • A dedicated home for downloaded content
  • Tablet support for both landscape and portrait orientations
  • Chromecast stability improvements
  • An updated screen reader experience with better navigation elements and functionality
  • The ability to split screens with other apps on devices that allow that

The company also said that it upgraded the navigation and is giving users a “refined design and visual styling to let content shine.”

“The changes give our users more of the features they care most about, along with improved navigation and a more immersive canvas for storytelling, helping them click play on their favorite content faster and with less friction,” Kamyar Keshmiri, SVP, Product Design, Warner Bros. Discovery Streaming, said in an official statement.

The revamped mobile and desktop apps mean that the company has finished updating apps across all platforms.

The changes began last fall when the company replaced connected TV apps with a new, “more performant tech stack.” In April, HBO Max launched an updated app for Apple TV users that aimed to bring stability and improved performance to the app. Roku, PlayStation, Android, Samsung, LG, Vizio, and more smart TV apps also use the new tech stack.

With a loss of 300,000 domestic subscribers in Q2, the company has a lot of work to do. Especially since its new streaming service is coming next year, merging Discovery+ and HBO Max content. So, while the new HBO Max app will be gone in 2023, this could help the company create a better successor app and improved experience for its combined subscribers.

Also, the new app comes just in time for the “Game of Thrones” prequel “The House of the Dragon,” premiering on August 21.

 

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Less than 1% of Netflix’s subscribers want to play its mobile games – TechCrunch

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As Netflix struggles to keep consumers subscribed to its streaming service, its mobile games venture is looking like a flop. CNBC reported that according to Apptopia, Netflix games have been downloaded 23.3 million times in total, and on average, there are 1.7 million daily users. This means that less than 1% of the streaming giant’s subscriber base—around 221 million subscribers—are interested in Netflix’s games.

Netflix told TechCrunch it doesn’t disclose the number of players. However, the app analytics company Apptopia’s report can shed light on just how unpopular its gaming offering is.

In comparison, leading mobile games like Subway Surfers, Roblox, and Among Us each have over 100 million downloads, per Apptopia. Netflix has a long way to go before it can reach this level of popularity.

Netflix recently lost nearly one million subscribers, so it’s not hard to see why the company wants to invest in more games. Netflix Games launched in 2021, and currently offers over 25 games through the Netflix mobile app. The company intends to double its catalog by the end of 2022 and release over 50 games.

While Netflix hasn’t disclosed how much it’s spending to develop its mobile game division, the company has acquired three game studios, Boss Fight Entertainment, Night School Studio, and Next Games. As TechCrunch has previously reported, the Next Games acquisition cost the streamer approximately $72 million.

In July, Netflix announced three new games, including award-winning titles Into the Breach and Before Your Eyes. Its catalog also includes a variety of games connected to popular Netflix shows, like “Stranger Things,” “Queens Gambit,” “Shadow and Bone,” and “Too Hot to Handle.” If Netflix continues exploring leveraging its own IP for new games, that approach could draw in more subscribers.

However, shows that have been out for a while and don’t have a solid fan base probably won’t do as well as games based on “hot” series like “Stranger Things” for example. When season four of “Stranger Things” premiered, the two Netflix games based on the show– Stranger Things: 1984 and Stranger Things 3: The Game–saw a bump in downloads, Apptopia told TechCrunch.

To play a Netflix mobile game, subscribers can find them free in the streaming app in the dedicated games row. Players are redirected to download a separate app for each game. Once downloaded, only Netflix subscribers can play the games, which are available on Android and iOS devices.

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A new app called Banish blocks those annoying ‘open in app’ banners – TechCrunch

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A new app for iPhone users can help you browse the web without being constantly bothered by pop-up panels that beg you to use the company’s app instead. The app, called Banish, is a Safari extension that helps remove the “open in app” banners from various websites and other popups that block content across a number of sites, like Reddit, TikTok, LinkedIn, Twitter, Quora, Medium, Yelp and some Google sites, to name a few.

While there are a number of similar Safari extensions for blocking cookie banners and ads, the scourge of the “Open in App” banners is often not addressed by existing solutions. It’s unfortunate that using the mobile web today requires so many interventions, but that’s the state of things. It’s also possibly a contributing factor as to why people are now spending four to five hours per day in their apps.

Developer Alex Zamoshchin says he was frustrated by the problem, too, as he felt people shouldn’t have to use a company’s app if they don’t want to. Taking inspiration from a similar cookie blocking extension, Hush, he created Banish.

The app was recently featured on Product Hunt and highlighted by the popular Apple blog Daring Fireball.

To use Banish, you’ll first install the app to your iPhone, then configure it in the Settings. This involves a few key steps for Banish to function properly. There are two places where Banish needs to be enabled, under Safari Extensions — you need to toggle on the switch next to Banish under “Allow These Content Blockers” and “Allow These Extensions.” Then you need to set the “Allow” permission to “All Websites” below.

Image Credits: Banish

Once enabled, Banish can help you avoid pop-ups in many cases. But the app can’t eliminate all the “open in app” distractions.

For instance, we found clicking Reddit links would sometimes open in Safari and other times open the native app when we tested it. The developer explained the Reddit app doesn’t consistently use deep links (links that open directly in apps) for all its pages. So while some pages would correctly deep link, others — like Reddit’s Topic pages — would not. We also had to set links to open in Safari by default. The solution was to long-press on the Reddit.com link you want to view, then tap on the option from the menu that appears to open the link in Safari. This will change the default action for Reddit links going forward, Zamoshchin says.

Another issue Banish can’t solve is with those “Open” links that are baked into Safari, like the ones that appear at the top of the page when you visit Instagram.com, for example. That’s a different type of banner than the ones this app was built to address. (If you don’t want to see these, you can uninstall the app from your iPhone.)

There were a few other quirks, as well. LinkedIn, for example, still showed a login box in Safari rather than immediately taking you to the person’s LinkedIn profile, if you were logged out when you visited the site. But that’s just how LinkedIn works. And while Twitter browsing is much easier, its website still includes Login/Signup buttons at the top of the screen and the same sort of baked in “Open” app button that Instagram.com offers at the top of the page. But, again, these are issues that are beyond Banish’s scope.

Still, in other ways, the app proved incredibly useful. For instance, when on Quora, clicking a link to another Quora page would normally pop up a blocker that requires you to log in to continue navigating the website. With Banish, this pop-up was gone and you could use the site normally.

The app is available for download on the App Store for a $1.99 one-time fee. It’s currently the No. 2 app on the Top Paid apps chart in the Utilities section of the App Store.

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