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LG V40, Wear OS 2, Chromebooks, and privacy (MobileTechRoundup show #446)

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Don’t worry, there won’t be any drinking for new devices as you listen to MobileTechRoundup show #446 with Kevin and I. There was still plenty to talk about though with October shaping up to be a big month for mobile.


Image: ZDNet
  • Matt says goodbye to the Apple Watch Series 4
  • Will he keep the iPhone XS Max?
  • Kevin’s wife gets her first smartwatch: Here’s why.
  • LG V40 to be revealed this week, new watch may be too
  • Here come the phones with 10GB of RAM
  • Wear OS 2 arrives with improvements but some still say “meh”
  • Project Campfire icons and details: Alt-OS is now Dual-Boot on Chromebooks for Windows and Linux
  • Google Pixel Slate, aka ‘Nocturne’, may support dual-booting Windows 10
  • A new project from the creator of the WWW
  • e Foundation adds more phones to try out their privacy-centric OS

Running time: 68 minutes

Listen here (MP3, 77MB)

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Cryptocat author gets insanely fast backing to build P2P tech for social media – TechCrunch

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The idea for Capsule started with a tweet about reinventing social media.

A day later cryptography researcher, Nadim Kobeissi — best known for authoring the open source E2E encrypted desktop chat app Cryptocat (now discontinued) — had pulled in a pre-seed investment of $100,000 for his lightweight mesh-networked microservices concept, with support coming from angel investor and former Coinbase CTO Balaji Srinivasan, William J. Pulte and Wamda Capital.

The nascent startup has a post-money valuation on paper of $10M, according to Kobeissi, who is working on the prototype — hoping to launch an MVP of Capsule in March (as a web app), after which he intends to raise a seed round (targeting $1M-$1.5M) to build out a team and start developing mobile apps.

For now there’s nothing to see beyond Capsule’s landing page and a pitch deck (which he shared with TechCrunch for review). But Kobeissi says he was startled by the level of interest in the concept.

“I posted that tweet and the expectation that I had was that basically 60 people max would retweet it and then maybe I’ll set up a Kickstarter,” he tells us. Instead the tweet “just completely exploded” and he found himself raising $100k “in a single day” — with $50k paid in there and then.

“I’m not a startup guy. I’ve been running a business based on consulting and based on academic R&D services,” he continues. “But by the end of the day — last Sunday, eight days ago — I was running a Delaware corporation valued at $10M with $100k in pre-seed funding, which is insane. Completely insane.”

Capsule is just the latest contender for retooling Internet power structures by building infrastructure that radically decentralizes social platforms to make speech more resilient to corporate censorship and control.

The list of decentralized/p2p/federated protocols and standards already out there is very long — even while usage remains low. Extant examples include ActivityPub, Diaspora, Mastodon, p2p Matrix, Scuttlebutt, Solid and Urbit, to name a few.

Interest in the space has been rekindled in recent weeks after mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter took decisions to shut down US president Donald Trump’s access to their megaphones — a demonstration of private power that other political leaders have described as problematic. 

Kobeissi also takes that view, while adding the caveat that he’s not “personally” concerned about Trump’s deplatforming. But he says he is concerned about giant private corporations having unilateral power to shape Internet speech — whether takedown decisions are being made by Twitter’s trust & safety lead or Amazon Web Services (which recently yanked the plug on right-wing social network Parler for failing to moderate violent views).

He also points to a lawsuit that’s been filed in US court seeking damages and injunctive relief from Apple for allowing Telegram, a messaging platform with 500M+ users, to be made available through its iOS App Store — “despite Apple’s knowledge that Telegram is being used to intimidate, threaten, and coerce members of the public” — raising concerns about “the odds of these efforts catching on”.

“That is kind of terrifying,” he suggests.

Capsule would seek to route around the risk of mass deplatforming via “easy to deploy” p2p microservices — starting with a forthcoming web app.

“When you deploy Capsule right now — I have a prototype that does almost nothing running — it’s basically one binary. And you get that binary and you deploy it and you run it, and that’s it. It sets up a server, it contacts Let’s Encrypt, it gets you a certificate, it uses SQLite for the database, which is a server-less database, all of the assets for the web server are within the binary,” he says, walking through the “really nice technical idea” which snagged $100k in pre-seed backing insanely fast.

“There are no other files — and then once you have it running, in that folder when you set up your capsule server, it’s just the Capsule program and a Capsule database which is a file. And that’s it. And that is so self-contained that it’s embeddable everywhere, that’s migratable — and it’s really quite impossible to get this level of simplicity and elegance so quickly unless you go this route. Then, for the mesh federation thing, we’re just doing HTTPS calls and then having decentralized caching of the databases and so on.”

Among the Twitter back-and-forth about how (or whether) Kobeissi’s concept differs to various other decentralized protocols, someone posted a link to this XKCD cartoon — which lampoons the techie quest to resolve competing standards by proposing a tech that covers all use-cases (yet is of course doomed to increase complexity by +1). So given how many protocols already offer self-hosted/p2p social media services it seems fair to ask what’s different here — and, indeed, why build another open decentralized standard?

Kobeissi argues that existing options for decentralizing social media are either: A) not fully p2p (Mastodon is “self-hosted but not decentralized”, per a competitive analysis on Capsule’s pitch deck, ergo its servers are “vulnerable to Parler-style AWS takedowns”); or B) not focused enough on the specific use-case of social media (some other decentralized protocols like Matrix aim to support many more features/apps than social media and therefore can’t be as lightweight is the argument); or C) simply aren’t easy enough to use to be more than a niche geeky option.

He talks about Capsule having the same level of focus on social media as Signal does on private messaging, for example — albeit intending it to support both short-form ‘tweet’ style public posts and long-form Medium-style postings. But he’s vocal about not wanting any ‘bloat’.

He also invokes Apple’s ‘design for usability’ philosophy. Albeit, it’s a lot easier to say you want to design something that ‘just works’ vs actually pulling off effortless mainstream accessibility. But that’s the bar Kobeissi is setting himself here.

“I always imagine Glenn Greenwald when I think of my user,” he says on the usability point, referring to the outspoken journalist and Intercept co-founder who recently left to launch his own newsletter-based offering on Substack. “He’s the person I see setting this up. Basically the way that this would work is he’d be able to set this up or get someone to set it up really easily — I think Capsule is going to offer automated deployments as also a way to make revenue, by the way, i.e. for a bit extra we deploy the server for you and then you’re self-hosting but we also make a margin off of that — but it’s going to be open source, you can set it up yourself as well and that’s perfectly okay. It’s not going to be hindered at all in that sense.

“In the case of Capsule, each content creator has their own website — has their own address, like Capsule.Greenwald.com — and then people go there and their first discovers of the mesh is through people that they’re interested in hearing from.”

Individual Capsules would be decentralized from the risk of platform-level censorship since they’d be beyond the reach of takedowns by a single centralizing entity. Although they would still be being hosted on the web — and therefore could be subject to a takedown by their own web host. That means illegal speech on Capsule could still be removed. However there wouldn’t be a universal host that could be hit up with the risk of a whole platform being taken down at a sweep — as Parler just was by AWS.

“For every takedown it is entirely between that Capsule user and their hosting provider,” says Kobeissi. “Capsule users are going to have different hosting providers that they’re able to choose and then every time that there is a takedown it is going to be a decision that is made by a different entity. And with a different — perhaps — judgement, so there isn’t this centralized focus where only Amazon Web Services decides who gets to speak or only Twitter decides.”

And while the business of web hosting at platform giant level involves just a handful of cloud hosting giants able to offer the required scalability, he argues that that censorship-prone market concentration goes away once you’re dealing with scores of descentralized social media instances.   

“We have the big hosting providers — like AWS, Azure, Google Cloud — but aside from that we have a lot of tiny hosting providers or small businesses… Sure if you’re running a big business you do get to focus on these big providers because they allow you to have these insane servers that are very powerful and deployable very easily but if you’re running a Capsule instance, as a matter of fact, the server resource requirements of running a Capsule instance are generally speaking quite small. In most instances tiny.”

Content would also be harder to scrub from Capsule because the mesh infrastructure would mean posts get mirrored across the network by the poster’s own followers (assuming they have any). So, for example, reposts wouldn’t just vanish the moment the original poster’s account was taken down by their hosting provider.

Separate takedown requests would likely be needed to scrub each reposted instance, adding a lot more friction to the business of content moderation vs the unilateral takedowns that platform giants can rain down now. The aim is to “spare the rest of the community from the danger of being silenced”, as Kobeissi puts it.

Trump’s deplatforming does seem to have triggered a major penny dropping moment for some that allowing a handful of corporate giants to own and operate centalized mass communication machines isn’t exactly healthy for democratic societies as this unilateral control of infrastructure gives them the power to limit speech. (As, indeed, their content-sorting algorithms determine reach and set the agenda of much public debate.)

Current social media infrastructure also provides a few mainstream chokepoints for governments to lean on — amplifying the risk of state censorship.

With concerns growing over the implications of platform power on data flows — and judging by how quickly Kobeissi’s tweet turned heads — we could be on the cusp of an investor-funded scramble to retool Internet infrastructure to redefine where power (and data) lies.

It’s certainly interesting to note that Twitter recently reupped its own decentralized social media open standard push, Bluesky, for example. It obviously wouldn’t want to be left behind any such shift.

“It seems to really have blown up,” Kobeissi adds, returning to his week-old Capsule concept. “I thought when I tweeted that I was maybe the only person who cared. I guess I live in France so I’m not really in tune with what’s going on in the US a lot — but a lot of people care.”

“I am not like a cypherpunk-style person these days, I’m not for full anonymity or full unaccountability online by any stretch,” he adds. “And if this is abused then sincerely it might even be the case that we would encourage — have a guidelines page — for hosting providers like on how to deal with instances of someone hosting an abusive Capsule instance. We do want that accountability to exist. We are not like a full on, crazy town ‘free speech’ wild west thing. We just think that that accountability has to be organic and decentralized — just as originally intended with the Internet.”

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Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg explains his plans for taking the company public – TechCrunch

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Bustle Digital Group — owner of Bustle, Inverse, Input, Mic and other titles — could eventually join the ranks of startups going public via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC).

During an interview about the state of BDG and the digital media industry at the end of 2020, founder and CEO Bryan Goldberg laid out ambitious goals for the next few years.

“Where do I want to see the company in three years? I want to see three things: I want to be public, I want to see us driving a lot of profits and I want it to be a lot bigger, because we’ve consolidated a lot of other publications,” he said.

He added that those goals connect, because by going public, BDG can raise “hundreds of millions dollars,” which Goldberg wants to use to “buy a lot of media companies.”

That might seem like bluster after a year in which many digital media companies (including BDG) had to make serious cuts. But Goldberg said that the company would be profitable in 2020, with revenue that’s “a little bit under $100 million.” And it won’t be the first digital media company to take a similar route — Group Nine created a SPAC that went public last week.

“I want to prove that we can be highly profitable,” he said. “A lot of startups don’t have that goal. A lot of VCs tell their startups: Don’t worry about profits, don’t worry about losing money. I don’t believe in that.”

In addition to his plans to go public, Goldberg also discussed how acquisitions have helped Bustle’s business, his joint venture to purchase W Magazine and digital media’s “overcapitalization” problem. You can read our full conversation, edited for length and clarity, below.

TechCrunch: The last time I caught up with someone at BDG, it was with [the company’s president Jason Wagenheim] and that was when you guys were dealing with the initial fallout [from the pandemic]. Now we’re a lot further into whatever this new world is, so what is your sense of where BDG is now, versus where it was in the early days of the pandemic?

Bryan Goldberg: It might be the craziest, most eventful six months for many of us in our lives. And certainly, for those of us in this industry, the difference between April and October, it’s really hard to fathom, it’s complete night and day. April was a very frightening time for everyone, personally and professionally across the country, across the world.

From an advertising standpoint, it was a really scary time, because we have clients across every industry, and every industry was impacted differently. We have clients who were greatly impacted — theme parks, car makers, hotel companies, airlines — and then we had clients who were not as badly affected, such as a lot of CPG clients, who everybody depended upon so much during the pandemic.

There was a huge pause in our business in in March, April and May. For a lot of clients, tossing advertising was a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the sudden shock of COVID, and so we saw a huge negative impact in our second quarter. What we started to see in the third quarter, and especially now in the fourth quarter, is now that the shock of COVID is behind us, the macro trends that were catalyzed by COVID are now moving into the forefront.

The story of media is no longer about the shock of COVID. The story of media is now about all of the changes to our world, and changes to our industry that were brought about as a consequence of COVID.

The good news for our company, and the good news for other digital media companies, is it looks like the future is being accelerated. It looks like people are watching less television, and so advertisers are moving their budgets into digital faster than they would have had it not been for COVID. Even things like live sports, [their] TV ratings are way down. And a lot of advertisers are saying, “Is there efficacy anymore in cable television or broadcast television?” And the magazine industry was heavily impaired, simply because magazines are a physical medium, and people didn’t want to pass around magazines or read magazines at the dentist’s office, so we probably saw some print budget move into digital as well.

Industry analysts now are going to take up their estimates of what digital revenue is going to look like in 2021, 2022 and beyond. I also think we’ve seen a world in which a lot of brand advertisers are starting to think about what happens when they start to spend beyond Facebook and Google. For most of the last three years, there’s been so much talk about the duopoly, the idea that Facebook and Google are going to eat almost every last dollar of advertising. What we’ve seen in the last three months is advertisers saying that this needs to be the moment in which they learn how to deploy advertising spend digitally beyond Facebook or Google.

No, it doesn’t mean they’re all pulling out of Facebook — Facebook and Google are doing just fine. But there are still tens of billions of dollars that need to be deployed outside of Facebook and Google. And you’re seeing winners such as Snapchat, Pinterest. Both had incredibly strong earnings. They’re benefiting from the same thing that benefits Bustle Digital Group and a lot of other digital media players who aren’t Facebook and Google, which is you’re seeing big ad spenders finally deciding that now’s the time to find other ways to deploy advertising spend.

I think those are the two big trends: Dollars moving to digital out of TV faster than we thought, and major advertisers using now as a time to find other channels beyond Facebook and Google.

So when you look at how that is impacting Bustle’s business, has it returned to pre-COVID levels?

For us, when we reflect upon the year 2020, we see that we had a great first quarter, we see that we’re having an incredible fourth quarter, and we have a big, epic crater in the second and third quarters. So when we look at the year, we basically have to say to ourselves, if it were not for that crater in the second and third quarters, what would this year have looked like? We would have had revenue well in excess of $100 million. Now, we’re gonna have revenue a little bit under $100 million.

But when we think about how we prepare for 2021 and set goals for 2021, we have to set goals for 2021 as though COVID had never happened, we have to set goals for 2021 without using Q2 and Q3 as a sort of excuse for lowering expectations. Because the fourth quarter, the quarter we’re currently in, has exceeded our wildest expectations.

People sort of sat up and took notice of the company because you had a pretty aggressive acquisition strategy. I imagine that strategy had to change a little bit in 2020. To what extent do you feel that ambition is something that you can pick up again?

So to be clear, not only do we feel great about our strategy, our strategy was critical in helping our company survive and ultimately thrive in the wake of the virus. You know, we made two acquisitions [in 2019] — in the science and technology category, we bought Inverse, which is a science and technology publication, and then Josh Topolsky launched a tech-and-gadget publication for us called Input Magazine that’s growing very quickly.

It’s critical that we had that strategy, because no single advertiser category has performed better for us in 2020 than tech — we more than tripled our revenue from technology clients this year, because technology has thrived through COVID. Had we not had an acquisition strategy, had we not diversified into tech media publishing, we certainly would not have had the outcome we had in 2020. That’s just the reality.

Categories like beauty, fashion, retail were very hard hit. Those have traditionally been our bread and butter, and they’re going to be great again, in 2021. But this spring, beauty companies weren’t doing so well, because people weren’t leaving the house. So the strategy worked, in part, because we diversified the categories in which we created content, which allowed us to diversify the advertiser base. And we’re gonna continue full speed ahead in 2021.

Now, you know, we did six acquisitions in 2019. I don’t know if we’ll do six acquisitions in 2021. But I want to do a lot more than one acquisition in 2021.

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Tencent-backed Hike, once India’s answer to WhatsApp, has given up on messaging – TechCrunch

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India’s answer to WhatsApp has completely moved on from messaging.

Hike Messenger, backed by Tencent, Tiger Global and SoftBank and valued at $1.4 billion in 2016, earlier this month announced that it was shutting down StickerChat, its messaging app. (StickerChat users saw notifications about it late last week.)

The startup, founded by Kavin Bharti Mittal, this month pivoted to two virtual social apps called Vibe and Rush, said Mittal, who is the son of telecom giant Airtel’s chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal.

In a series of tweets earlier this month, Kavin said that India will never have a homegrown messenger that makes inroads in the world’s second largest market unless it chooses to ban Western companies from operating in the nation. “Global network effects are too strong,” he said. WhatsApp has amassed over 450 million users in India, its biggest market by users.

Mittal described opportunities in building virtual worlds as a “much better approach for today’s world that is unconstrained by cheap, fast data and powerful smartphones.”

The end of Hike’s messenger service comes at a time when Signal and Telegram have added tens of millions of users in recent weeks. A planned update to WhatsApp’s data-sharing policy has prompted many of its loyal fans to explore alternatives this month. “Both [Telegram and Signal] are very good. As entities they have the right incentives (more aligned with consumers) unlike Facebook products, tweeted Mittal earlier this month.

In recent years, Hike made bets on stickers and emojis to cater to the younger population in India. In a meeting with TechCrunch in late 2019, Mittal said that the startup was overwhelmed with the engagement stickers on its platform and was working to automate development of personalized stickers.

In a different meeting last year, Mittal showcased emojis that replicated human expressions and a virtual hangout place called HikeLand. Vibe is the rebranded version of HikeLand and the emojis Hike developed will continue to be available to users on both the newer apps, Mittal said earlier this month.

Hike, which has raised more than $260 million to date, had enough runway last year, Mittal said, who hinted that the startup may raise more capital a year later.

Hike also attempted to build its own operating system through acquisition of a startup called Creo. In 2018, Hike launched Total OS that aimed to cater to users with low-cost Android smartphones and slow internet data.

The startup later shut down the project. Mittal told TechCrunch that the arrival of Reliance Jio, which prompted Airtel and Vodafone to lower mobile data tariff on their networks, solved the data issues in the country and Total OS was no longer needed in the market.

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